What is tracking?

We all want to believe that schools are doing all they can to ensure our children thrive academically as students. But what if I told you that, sadly, most schools use a practice called tracking, which creates different opportunities to receive an ambitious education. And what if I made matters worse by telling you that this practice impacts students of color the most.

Schools that use tracking practices either place students in ability groups within classrooms or enroll students in courses based on their perceived academic ability. However, this occurs, the impacts are severe because these classes help develop critical thinking skills, foster intellectual curiosity, and prepare students to navigate the world as young adults. The exclusion of students of color from these classroom spaces robs them of the opportunity to cultivate their genius, as Dr. Gholdy Muhammad describes it.

Four ways you can advocate for your child

Until educational policymakers and school leaders do right by our babies by providing them with an ambitious curriculum, here are four ways you can advocate for your child:

1. Start early and check often
Our children are tracked based on their perceived ability as early as kindergarten and, at the latest, third grade.

One of the troubling issues with tracking is that it is often fixed. Meaning, once your child is placed on a particular track, they will likely stay there until they graduate high school. Therefore, it is vital to be proactive and look closely at your child’s courses, how they perform on standardized tests, and how the teacher describes their academic behaviors.

Also, talk with your child about their learning experiences. Listen out for things, such as whether they or other students are being pulled out during the class or if they are generally not enjoying school.

2. Know what courses and enrichment programs are offered

For middle and high school-aged children, talk with their assigned counselor to get a thorough understanding of the different courses or pathways that are offered. Ask whether students can take courses across pathways (or tracks).

For instance, if your child is on the career and technical pathway, it is important to know whether and how to enroll
in courses in the college pathway.

For elementary-aged children, be sure to ask the teacher about their process for creating learning groups within the class. It is also essential to know whether there are enrichment opportunities such as gifted and talented programs and how students qualify for those programs.

It may be the case that your child’s school does not offer many ambitious courses; therefore, you may need to supplement your child’s learning outside of the school. However, continue to advocate for the improved quality of education at the school.

3. Build relationships with the teacher and counselor

Teachers and counselors are often responsible for placing students in particular classes for the upcoming school year; therefore, it is essential that the lines of communication are open, healthy, and humanizing with them. Have discussions about the process they used to place your child into classes.

If you believe this process may prevent your child from accessing a more ambitious curriculum, express your concern. Connect what you’ve observed and know about your child to why an ambitious curriculum is crucial.

4. Find and connect with advocacy organizations

Teamwork really does make the freedom dream work. You do not need to know everything or start from scratch to advocate. Connecting with local education advocacy organizations in your area can support getting your voice heard within the school or at the district level.

You can also seek the support of national advocacy organizations such as Stand for Children or the Abolitionist Teaching Network’s Virtual Freedom School.

We are (re)minded through the beautiful voice of mother Nina Simone that “there are a billion boys and girls who are young, gifted and black and that’s a fact!” Unfortunately, this fact is often ignored within our current educational system. Still, we as mothers and othermothers already have the blueprint on how to move forward to ensure our babies receive access to ambitious learning environments. It is simple. Mother Shirley Chisholm told us “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Therefore, if schools don’t give our babies a seat in
classrooms where they rightfully belong, it is our responsibility to speak up and (re)claim the
seat for them.
Bio: Shanyce L. Campbell, PhD is Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh Center for
Urban Education. Her research explores the ways that policies and institutional factors affect
educational opportunities marginalized students including Black students.