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Tracking and Detracking

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This project examined how high school tracking creates inequalities.

In 1985, Jeannie Oakes’ book, Keeping Track, explained how the common practices of tracking and ability grouping in middle schools and high schools create inequalities for low-income students and students of color, most of whom are identified as “low” ability or as “not college bound.” Over the past 20 years, battles have raged over tracking, even as the evidence of its harmful effects has mounted. Many reformers have sought to “detrack” their schools and have confronted enormous resistance to disrupting the structural inequalities that tracking creates.

Some of these “detracking” reforms have made impressive strides toward high quality and equitable schooling, but the deep structure of tracking remains. IDEA researchers continue to study how tracking stratifies access to knowledge and learning opportunities, the role it plays in the persistence of schooling inequality, and the enormous resistance to tracking reform.  Our studies ask: Why does tracking persist (often embedded in “new” education reforms) in the face of the evidence against it? What happens when local policymakers and educators seek to reduce or eliminate tracking in diverse schools? What lessons might we derive from their experiences? IDEA researchers also study alternative approaches to secondary education that could move schools beyond tracking. Included here are studies of small schools and the potential for integrating college preparation and career-technical education.

Also, Oakes, along with Marisa Saunders, have co-authored the forthcoming book Beyond Tracking: Can Multiple High School Pathways Prepare All Students for College, Career, and Civic Participation?

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