The Track System in the US and Germany. Its Potential and Limits

Term Paper 2017 18 Pages

Pedagogy - School System, Educational and School Politics


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Background
2.1 What is tracking?
2.2 Underlying Theories

3 What does tracking look like in the US and in Germany?
3.1 Tracking in the US - Grayton junior and senior high school
3.1.1 Ho w do students get separated into different tracks?
3.2 Tracking in Germany
3.2.1 How do students get separated into different tracks
3.3 Similarities and Differences

4 Which consequences does tracking have?

5 Critical Reflection

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

“Almost any school system in the world features some form of assigning students to educational tracks by ability - be it tracking between school types or within schools” (Lüdemann & Schwerdt 2010, 3). This essay will look at the different tracking systems in the United States of America and in Germany and compare these systems and approaches. Which principles underlie the tracking approach and which functions does it aim to fulfill?

Schools, as a mirror of our society, are one of the major institutions in everyone’s life to implement structures and mechanisms to support the already existing social conditions. Our society can be described as a meritocratic model in which positions are distributed according to talent, effort and achievement. Within our schools, these distribution processes can best take place following a well-structured curriculum and guidance through teachers and educational counselors.

“A school is run by and for the society, and, hence, it may implement any kind of selection the society considers desirable. Because the school’s curriculum represents the skills, knowledge, and values considered essential to the society’s welfare, a student’s ability to master this curriculum represents an ideal test of his capacity to take responsibility in society” (Rosenbaum 1976, 53).

Accordingly, schools are not only places of opportunity but should also fulfill selection requirements of the society. Not everyone can become a doctor or judge, therefore, schools encourage students to choose their educational courses according to their potential and aims. “Most people know that selection processes operate in different stages of their lives, but they don’t know how selection restricts their opportunities in far-reaching ways” (Rosenbaum 1976, 1). Within this essay, the processes which are used to sort students into different tracks will be shown and critically examined.

Also, this essay will show consequences and effects of recent tracking developments which will be the foundation of further critical reflections on the implementation of tracking and its aims.

To ensure the same knowledge on what tracking is and what principles it is based on, the first chapter will clarify the term tracking and its underlying theories. In a next step, tracking will be further explained in a comparison of the American and German tracking system and will further clarify when and how tracking takes place. After establishing a thorough theoretical basis in combination with some practical insight into tracking procedures, the last chapters will be concerned with the consequences tracking brings along in any system and conclude with a critical view on these conditions.

2 Theoretical Background

First, this essay will focus on the establishment of a theoretical basis concerning tracking and its underlying principles. The focus is on the most common understanding of what tracking is.

2.1 What is tracking?

Tracking, as already briefly described in the introduction, is mainly known as a process of ability grouping which takes place in schools. This approach selects students based on their potential and further differentiates curriculums in an attempt “to suit the work to each student’s unique intellectual abilities” (Tomas and Thomas 1965, 97 in Rosenbaum 1976, 6).

In theory, this grouping process considers the students educational and occupational plans, their desires, interests and ambitions to develop a curriculum which, on the one hand, encourages students to step from high school right into a job and, on the other hand, offers opportunity for those aiming to attend college (Conant 1976, 40 in Rosenbaum 1976, 6).

Tracking is based on two different approaches, namely ability grouping which “is supposed to select students for instruction but not allocate them to college or jobs” (Rosenbaum 1976, 6) for one, and secondly, curriculum grouping which is designed to assign students to college and jobs without being selective. Both theories have the same two principles in common. They both group students with similar peers and separate them from others who are somehow different. Additionally, the grouping process is at least partly based on a certain ranked criterion, in fact ability or post­school plans. This results in groups which are somehow unequal in status. Both tracking approaches therefore establish hierarchical social structures. No matter which idea underlies a school’s tracking approach, it can be defined as a selection system which aims to form homogeneous classrooms by emphasizing the students’ social similarities (Rosenbaum 1976, 6). Hence, “(...) tracking selects and groups students on the basis of certain criteria and, having offered appropriate preparation, allocates them to the positions in society for which they are most suited” (Rosenbaum 1976, 81 ). This procedure underlies the thought “that homogeneous classrooms permit a focused curriculum and appropriately paced instruction” which ultimately leads to the most beneficent environment for students to reach their maximum learning potential (Hanushek & Woessmann 2005, 1). The focus on efficiency is obvious. But the track system is not only an approach to enhancing students’ growth or to build a more efficient school system. “Rather, it is a societal institution whose ultimate justification lies in its effectiveness” by allocating students into societal positions as needed in the meritocratic system (Rosenbaum 1976, 82). Tracking, therefore, allows students to receive “different cognitive preparation as well as distinctly different socialization” (Lucas 1999, 3).

In another step, this essay will provide further insight into which principles and theories underlie the tracking system.

2.2 Underlying Theories

As already mentioned, tracking follows certain ideas which develop naturally in a meritocratic society. Probably the most traditional explanations which account for the introduction of tracking in schools, are the human capital theories. These suggest, that schools are a place for investing in oneself. It offers multiple opportunities to specialize in certain fields. “With such investments, students increase their human capital - their education and training - which will determine how much they can attain (income, status, etc.) as adults” (Guitón et. al. 1992, 5). This theory is based on the meritocratic system, as a system in which for example decisions are based on ability, achievement and effort instead of race, social status, or other privileges. This said, following this theory, anyone should be able to attain a high-status education since usually students and their parents should be free to choose among alternative curricula. Further, tracking should enable an open contest based on merit (Guitón et. al. 1992, 5).

Other theorists, namely functionalist theorists, rather suggest the opposite to an open contest structure. For them, “curriculum decisions are quite directly influenced by society’s expectations that schools play a central role in social and economic stratification” (Guitón et. al. 1992, 5). Often, one can find evidence, that counselors in schools do not solely base their recommendations on ability and effort. It appears to be influenced by other social categories and factors like race and class (Guitón et. al. 1992, 5).

As one can see, the primary idea of an ideal system for everyone to reach their goals according to their abilities and aims seems what underlid the track system when it was initiated. But one cannot overlook the objections functionalist theorists raise. By looking at what tracking looks like in America and Germany, this essay will try to shed light on its mechanisms.

3 What does tracking look like in the US and in Germany?

To give an insight into the actual processes in educational systems which support the tracking approach, this chapter will describe briefly what happens in the American Grayton junior and senior high school for one, and give insight into the German tracking system in another step. Hereby, a comparison of different tracking approaches will be possible.

3.1 Tracking in the US - Grayton junior and senior high school

Overall, tracking in the US is applied within a school by giving students the choice between different courses. The Grayton schools are used as an example to show how tracking works in US schools.

Grayton junior and senior high school were selected in a study by Rosenbaum (1976) as a perfect environment where criteria like race and social status were not a factor when considering track recommendations and choices. Therefore, all findings can be directly linked to the way tracking works.

In this school, tracking already starts in 7th grade when junior high school students are encouraged to choose between a language and a non-language track. School administrators described the tracking system as a single course elective but this dichotomy is not just made up of only two tracks to choose from. After close observation, Rosenbaum found that there were nine tracks the students could choose from in each of their junior high years. “The choice of a foreign language leads to placement in one of the first five tracks (labels A to E); any other elective leads to placement in the last four tracks (F to I)” (Rosenbaum 1976, 33). Teachers’ assessments and students’ IQ scores decide about the placement within these tracks. The student handbook policy suggests that this choice is only a choice of a foreign language. Yet in fact, this choice not only decides about that but also about the group of students that a student will be placed with as well as the difficulty of all his or her classes. “Each class is paced by the ability level of the section. Thus, the top language group has the most difficult history class, English class, and mathematics class. The second highest language group has a slightly easier class in each of the subjects, and so on. Moreover, language tracks have more difficult classes than nonlanguage tracks” (Rosenbaum 1976, 34).

Therefore, tracking not only puts students into different tracks according to their aims and potential, one cannot overlook the influence it has on the socialization of students. Categories are already set up in junior high school, when students get ranked into different ability classes within the different levels.

The next time tracking takes place at Grayton is with the entry into high school. Here, students can choose from three different curricula or tracks, namely college, business, and general. This choice is made “for the duration of their high school career, although the student handbook suggests that track changes are possible at any time.” (Rosenbaum 1976, 32). In a further division, one can see that there are actually five tracks at Grayton high school, lower general, upper general, business, lower college, and upper college. The choice of a certain track usually results in the placement in this track in all of the three major academic subjects. “The actual track placements in the senior high school may allow for individual exceptions (...) but these exceptions are just that” (Rosenbaum 1976, 36).

Rosenbaum describes the track mobility as a kind of tournament selection. Movement between tracks can usually only be found from a higher track towards a lower one. The tracking system here “creates a process of continual selection; each year selection shifts some students out of the college tracks. (...) it works in only one direction: students are eliminated from college tracks, but they never enter them” (Rosenbaum 1976, 41 ). There can always be found a few cases of upward movement but in general the downward movement is a typical condition within tracking.

3.1.1 How do s tudents get separated into different tracks?

In a next step this chapter is designed to give further insight into how tracking takes place. To be more specific, this chapter will show the procedures a student goes through and the decisions that are made along the tracking process.



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University of Göttingen
Tracking School School System Germany USA Track System



Title: The Track System in the US and Germany. Its Potential and Limits