“The Research on [Insert Preferred Policy Choice Here] Is As Clear As Anything in the Field of Education.”



By 12/16/2009

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Here’s a general rule: when you see sentences like the one above, know to be very, very skeptical.

This particular one comes from Kevin Welner, a longtime foe of tracking, in a recent National Journal article about a new Tom Loveless report. Here’s the full quote:

“The research on tracking is as clear as anything in the field of education,” Welner said. “It is a destructive practice that has the undeniable effect of lowering expectations and opportunities for students who have already fallen behind.”

In Welner’s estimation, the body of research documenting the harmful effects of tracking speaks for itself, the debate is over and it’s time to move forward.

Good grief. Now, part of the problem is that we’re talking about two different issues.  Welner doesn’t want some kids (especially low-income and minority kids) shunted into watered down, low-level courses.  (See his new policy brief about that very topic.)  And on that score, I think there is broad agreement in both the policy and research worlds; there’s little doubt that low expectations lead to low student achievement. Nobody wants kids stuck in a “track to nowhere.” There’s also a lot of interest in encouraging more kids (especially low-income and minority kids) to take more challenging courses, like Advanced Placement.

But here’s where the debate—and the evidence—is still totally up for grabs: is pushing more kids into these higher classes truly a cost-free reform? Are we sure that it doesn’t harm higher-achieving students, who might be slowed down by having peers that are coming into their class less prepared?

As I mentioned the other day, rigorous “peer effects” research by economists like Caroline Hoxby indicates that high achieving students benefit from being around other high achieving students. The trick is that, to a point, low-achieving students benefit from being around higher-achieving students too.

So now we’re back to a moral debate. If creating heterogeneous classrooms helps low-achieving kids a lot, and hurts high-achieving kids a little, is it worth it? That’s not an easy question, nor is it one that researchers alone will ever be able to resolve. In fact, it’s not unlike the voucher or charter school debate. If vouchers or charters help the kids they serve a lot, but hurt the kids “left behind” a little, is it still worth it?

So Mr. Welner, I’m sorry to tell you that the debate isn’t over. Which, in a democracy, is never a bad thing.




Comment on this article
  • Benjamin Hansen says:

    Michael,

    Great points. I guess one issue that comes up is that high achieving parents want their kids around achieving students and pay for this either with private school tuition, or with high rent or home prices by moving to districts with other high achieving students.

    We can debate what is socially optimal. The next question is how do we get individuals to follow what is socially optimal, if their private incentives are to defect and find a better school?

  • Charles R. Williams says:

    Benjamin,

    Parents are the primary educators of their children and they should ignore what is socially optimal in making decisions about their children’s schooling. Bright children are not resources at the state’s disposal to be used in a socially optimal way. If heterogeneous grouping is socially optimal, the only just way to implement it is by compensating the families of bright students enough to make it worth their while to enroll their children in otherwise undesirable educational programs.

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