Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Jeannie Oakes Publishes Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality

In 1985, Jeannie Oakes published Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, probably the most important book of this century on the detrimental effects of streaming high school students into ability groups.

Tracking is the process whereby students are divided into categories so they can be assigned to various kinds of classes based on intellectual ability; usually "advanced," "average," or "slow." Oakes has written about predictable outcomes of tracking as well as some common assumptions. One of the main contributions of this book was its analysis of the internal dynamics of school in the reproduction of educational inequality. In the past, most researchers tended to explain student failures on family factors, and very few examined the 'black box' of school organization. Oakes writes, our search for the solution to the problems of educational inequality, our focus was almost exclusively on the characteristics of the children themselves. We looked for sources of educational failure in their homes, their neighborhoods, their language, their cultures, even in their genes. In all our searching we almost entirely overlooked the possibility that what happens within schools might contribute to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes. (p. xiv)

In her study, Oakes examined 300 tracked high school English and mathematics classes, and analyzed an extensive body of literature on tracking studies. Like Jean Anyon in her study on elementary schools, Oakes found that the curriculum content, instruction quality, and classroom climate varied substantially between different tracks. Students in the higher tracks learned skills related to critical thinking, problem solving and creative writing, and mastered the vocabulary that would raise their scores to college entrance exams. Students in the lower tracks focused on rote learning and memorization: they were taught mostly through workbooks and kits, completed worksheets on language usage, and practiced filling out applications for jobs. Moreover, teachers in high streams devoted more class time to learning, were more enthusiastic and had higher expectations of students than teachers in the lower tracks. The data was conclusive: students in higher tracks had better classroom opportunities.

In Keeping Track, Oakes outlines the most common assumptions and justifications for tracking, and challenged them. One of these assumptions is that students learn better when they are grouped with other students who have similar academic skills or prior levels of achievement. The argument is that those who know about the same things learn at the same rate, therefore bright students' learning will be held back if they are placed in mixed ability groups, and the needs of remedial students will be more easily addressed if placed in a classroom together. Another justification for tracking is that slower students will suffer emotionally and academically if put in daily competition with brighter students. The assumption is that the less-capable students will lower their self-esteem and will develop negative attitudes towards learning and school. A third assumption is that students can be placed in tracks and groups with a high degree of fairness and accuracy. A final assumption is that tracking makes teaching easier, and some even claim that it is the only way to manage the wide variety of students' differences.

Oakes responds that research overwhelmingly shows that no group of students has been found to benefit consistently from learning in a homogenous group. Although some very bright students do learn better in homogenous groups with enhanced curricula, most do not. Furthermore, bright students are not generally held back when they are in mixed-ability groupings. At the same time, the learning of average and slow students is negatively affected by homogeneous placements. Moreover, deficiencies of slower students are not more easily remedied when grouped together. In short, Oakes argues that there is no evidence to support the belief that students learn best when they are grouped together with others like themselves.

In relation to the second assumption, Oakes responds that students placed in average and low track classes do not develop positive attitudes, and that the grouping--coupled with teachers' and peers' attitudes--reinforces their self-perceptions as "average" or "low. " In addition, lower track students tend to have lower aspirations and feel frustrated about plans for the future.

Regarding fairness, Oakes contends that the link between track placements and students' socio-economic status and ethnicity has been well documented by a massive body of research. Poor and minority students are largely over-represented in low-ability tracks, and under-represented in programs for the gifted and talented. Interestingly, the correlation between placement, social class, and ethnicity is present regardless if the basis for placement is test scores, counselor and teacher recommendations, or student and parent choices.

In relation to the fourth justification, Oakes points out that the argument would be valid only if the tracks were really made up of homogeneous groups, but the fact is that, within each track, there is a great variance in students' learning abilities, cognitive styles, interest, effort, and aptitude. In any case, even if tracking may make teaching easier for some teachers, this does not mean that it is the best for students. Oakes also notes that although many teachers may believe that teaching a homogenous group is easier, they are probably unaware of effective heterogeneous teaching techniques and, even if it is easier, it is not worth the educational and social price.

Oakes acknowledges that students bring differences with them to school, but she argues that schools, through tracking structures, widen rather than narrow those differences. She expresses her concern that the sorting of students within a school publicly identifies individuals as to their intellectual capabilities and accomplishments. Students are separated into a hierarchical system of groups of instruction that are openly labeled. The characterization of the labels is carried over into the minds of the students' peers and teachers as being a certain type: high ability, low achieving, slow, average, etc. The groups are not equally valued in school and the students in the groups come to be defined by others, namely peers and teachers, in terms of these group types. For example, a student in a high achieving group is perceived as a high-achieving person: bright, smart and often good. Those in low-achieving groups are labeled slow, below average, problems, and sometimes "dummies." Based on how they have been sorted, teenagers are treated differently and have different school experiences.

In sum, Keeping Track provides a vast amount of evidence to show that tracking does not alleviate attitude and behavior problems among students, but rather aggravates them, and forcefully demonstrates the ways in which track placements are often inaccurate, inappropriate, biased, and unfair.


Oakes, Jeannie (1985). Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Birmingham, N.Y.: Vail-Ballou Press.


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