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Thompson: Burris Documents Damage Done By Tracking & School Reform

BurrisWe know Carol Burris for her insightful critiques of the contemporary school reform movement, but at first glance her On the Same Track seems to be a history of the bad old days. She presents an authoritative account of the severe damage done by “tracking” students, or assigning them to classes based on their so-called abilities. 
But, isn’t the fight to “de-track” classes and to offer the same opportunity for challenging instruction a distant memory from an ugly era? 
Burris begins with a photo of three English students. The color of their ties denotes their place in the school hierarchy. The one with the purple tie is “gifted and talented.” But, it is not a picture of Victorian times. It was taken in 2012. 
The beauty of On the Same Track is two-fold. Her history of the perpetuation of segregation through tracking of students in the second half of the 20th century, and of promising efforts to fight it, presents an overwhelming case against grouping students according to their achievement levels. It includes the research that market-driven, test-driven reformers should have considered before imposing their theories of school improvement on 21st century schools. 
Even better, Burris lets the evidence lead the reader to a startling realization. Reformers, who sought to help poor children of color, have recreated segregation patterns that rival those that grew out of the overt racism of previous generations. We now avoid the word tracking, and we don’t like to think of America as returning to the class-bound structure of England, but much of that evil is being revived in the name of school improvement.
School reform has revitalized a multitude of discredited educational malpractices and rebranded them as virtuous. Charters have brought back extreme segregation that some (though not Burris) have dubbed “neo-Plessyism.” High-stakes testing has prompted a focus on worksheet-driven remediation and the widespread dumping of more challenging students into lower level classes. Reform has even brought back the vituperation which accompanied the backlash by those with power, privilege and prestige against full implementation of court-ordered desegregation. 
Corbett’s astute interweaving of social science and the history of trying to resist the de facto segregation of tracking deserves serious attention in its own right. But, I will stress two aspects of her narrative that should inform today’s policy debate. Corbett describes the win-win strategy of shutting down remedial track classes and opening up A.P. and I.B. classes for all. She explains the need for careful planning and respectful discussions when doing so. A system of supports for lower-skilled students is equally essential. 
I have always been perplexed why supporters of Common Core, instead of attempting the shortcut of imposing a top-down mandate, did not work within the system and open the doors for poor children of color to A.P and I.B. Funding for the prerequisite supports, and facilitating the challenging process of detracking, could have been the game changer that they desired. 
Secondly, a light went on as I read Corbett’s devastating critique of value-added teachers’ evaluations. She recalls the evidence about the effects of sorting and peer pressure that corporate reformers ignore, and explains how they make vams unreliable for holding individuals accountable. Her knockout contribution to this discussion is using value-added to estimate the harm done by tracking. For instance, if a middle school teacher is shifted from low track to high track classes, the difference in her value-added caused by the transfer would indicate the amount of damage done of tracking.
According to one study, by Doug Harris and Andrew Anderson, if such a teacher had a 50 percentile value-added in low track classes and transferred to the high track, her value-added would jump to 90 percentile! 
Let’s all contemplate Burris’s point. Let’s consider the destructive power of such a policy. Would not the assault on tracking and the development of systems for treating all students as equals have been a much more worthy challenge? Would not the ending of such segregation created far more good for far more students than anything that test-driven reform could have conceivably produced?
If On the Same Track could have been written generation ago, and had reformers read it, would they have seriously contemplated a test-driven, choice-driven approach to school improvement? I sure hope not. -JT (@drjohnthompson) Image via.



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