1972.11.01: Keeping Track Part 2: The Actual Process (Red Tide)

Keeping Track Actual Process -- Red Tide

Red Tide, Vol. II, No. 3 [Issue #7], November-December 1972

Keeping Track Part 2: The Actual Process
[By Michael Letwin and Karen Pomer]

This is the second part of our articles dealing with tracking. Tracking is the system by which the schools are manipulated to direct and force students into different jobs by the type of education they get according to their race, sex or social economic class. This is all done under the guise of “educational ability.”

This part of the article deals with some of the actual ways that tracking is enforced. How does tracking work?


From elementary school to college, tracking is mainly a question of differences in quality between entire schools. Predominantly white middle class schools such as University, Palisades, Santa Monica, Grant, Emerson, Webster and others are generally better equipped in the college bound subjects, with better “reputations” among universities and employers, than are the inner-city black, Chicano, and Asian working class schools such as Jordon, Roosevelt, Morningside, etc.

American education is set up so that schools are attended for the most part by people in the surrounding community. And since communities are set up in this society according to race and economic standing, different areas of the city are dominated by the different tracks. There are of course exceptions, for example Palisades High has about 120 blacks, mostly on transfer from other schools.

Since most inner-city students are tracked into industrial jobs, their schools are equipped quite well with shop equipment, whole buildings are devoted to printing or metal, while middle class schools such as University, have jewelry. An example of this type of tracking is that many Chicano students in East L.A. revolted several years ago, one of their demands being that the non-accredited schools (college accredited) become accredited.

In many cities, teacher seniority transfer policies allow teachers to choose their assignments after an initial period of “internship” in a “difficult” school. In some cities, principals can choose their own teachers directly. With either method, the result is that the experienced teachers are found in white middle class schools in a metropolitan area, and that inexperienced temporary teachers are found in urban minority and working class schools.

Most tracking is done under the guise of  “ability,” usually beginning in the very early grades. At that time, classes begin to be named “Advanced Placement,” “remedial” etc. This is supposedly for the purpose of identification only. In reality, these classes are set up with the purpose of tracking people into their future roles. This kind of tracking takes place within the schools, after the interschool tracking is already in effect.

Reading is the key to intra school tracking. It is by reading scores that students are measured (IQ tests are essentially tests of reading achievement). It is by reading proficiency that teachers in early primary grade their students and that students learn to judge themselves. It is an interesting sidelight to the controversy about tracking that black children do better generally in math than they do in reading.

Because reading is the key to tracking, and minority and working class children generally do poor in that, teachers expect less of low tracks, and especially blacks and Chicanos. These are taught less, learn less and learn to expect less of themselves. Thus, being placed in a low track becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The lower tracks do increasingly worse as they move through school. First grade black children, for example, have a median verbal test score of 45.4 (where the national average is 50). By the 12th grade, the score is down to 40.9 (not to speak of all the blacks that do not make it to the 12th grade).

Blacks generally do poor in reading because what they are shown in school does not relate to their lives. How can a black kid relate to a white “Dick or Jane” (it’s hard enough for whites), who have no problems, are all middle class, speak practically a different language, have a different culture, and who have nothing in common with their lives? This is not to mention the racism of many teachers, who regard minority kids as inferior to begin with.

This tracking is not always accomplished by open force. After a certain amount of conditioning, years of school which beats in this message about who you are, who you are supposed to be, what your place is and what you are to become, students often believe it. Minorities and working class students know that they are for the most part destined for industrial jobs and services, or for unemployment.

Women in all economic classes have been told by radio, T.V., magazines, etc., that they are no more than sex-objects, housekeepers, chauffeurs, babysitters, etc., according to a man’s whim. Women trying to take shop classes will be discouraged if not prohibited from taking part by counselors and others.

The counselor might say that you just want to be the only girl in the class, don’t you think that you should really take sewing, or they think to themselves that you’re a castrating female. Even if the counselors will let you in, the teachers and even students often make it rough or unbearable for women, by ridicule, harassment and discrimination, as a result of their own conditioning about sex roles.

Another example of this type of conditioning can be found in the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Malcolm X remembers telling his 7th grade teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer:

“Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair, and clasped his hands behind his head. He kind of half-smiled and said ‘Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic. D0n’t misunderstand me, now we all like you here, you know that. But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger. A lawyer — that’s no realistic goal for a nigger. You need to think about something you can be.  You’re good with your hands — making things. Everybody admires your carpentry work. Why don’t you plan on carpentry? People like you as a person — ­­­you’d get all kinds of work.’ “

It is this kind of “realism” that has kept people, blacks in this case, in their “place” for centuries. This attitude isn’t realistic; it’s an enforcement of the tracking system that serves certain powerful interests.

Think about it, check it out, especially if you are black, Chicano, Asian, working class, or a woman, haven’t you ever been told that your goals are “unrealistic,” “above your head,” “uppity,” etc.? Check out where the good shop classes are located, and where the college bound teachers, resources, and computers are.

These are just some of the mechanisms that are employed in enforcing tracking.

Our next article on this topic will deal with some of the unsuccessful reforms of tracking, such as free schools, innovative programs, and ability tracking.

Sources and Suggested Reading

1. New University Papers #3, copyright 1971 (article on grading and tracking by Kay Trimberger)

2. Down the Up Staircase, Tracking the Schools, by Richard Rothstein for the Teachers Organizing Project of New University Conference, copyright 1971 by N.U.C.

3. Degrading Education, by Robert Klawitter, Indiana U. N.U.C.

4. Classes and Schools, A Radical Definition for Teachers, 1971 by N.U.C.

New University Conference
662 West Diversity Parkway Rm. 403
Chicago Ill. 60614

[Historical Note: The Red Tide was a revolutionary high school underground newspaper and youth organization that existed from 1971-1981. See: http://theredtide.wordpress.com/%5D


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