Book Review

The Tracking Wars: State Reform Meets School Policy

Reviewed by William G. Keane,
Associate Professor, Oakland University, Rochester, Mich.


Tracking--the practice of grouping students into classes by ability and organizing curriculum by its level of difficulty--has been a subject of debate since at least the mid-1980s. Perhaps the precipitating event of the modern controversy was the appearance of Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality by Jeannie Oakes, a professor at UCLA, a publication that fingered tracking as a cause of the disparity in achievement between majority and minority students.

Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution and former associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has taken a fresh look at the issue of tracking. His book, The Tracking Wars: State Reform Meets School Policy, neither confirms nor refutes the criticisms of tracking.

Instead, Loveless shares the results of a multiyear study of state education department recommendations to eliminate tracking in California and Massachusetts. He looks specifically at the influences middle school administrators, teachers and parents had in supporting, modifying or stopping this state-initiated change in class organization.

He finds inconclusive evidence as to whether a movement away from tracking has had a positive learning effect on all children, especially minority students, or whether tracking is a more sensible, efficient method to teach students at their appropriate instructional level.

Loveless does cite evidence that large schools track while small schools do not. Middle schools with a grade 6-8 organization are the most likely to detrack; schools with a 9th grade are the least likely to reduce tracking. The more parents are involved in schools, the less likely that tracking will be completely abolished, he contends.

He worries that schools serving predominately poor and low-achieving students have embraced the tracking reform most closely, even without empirical support. "Some of society's most disadvantaged children are now part of an educational experiment with the outcome completely unknown," Loveless says.

(The Tracking Wars: State Reform Meets School Policy, by Tom Loveless, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C. 1999, 225 pages including index, $39.95 hardcover; $16.95 softcover)