A U.S. Department of Education press release last month had a disorienting, retro ring to it: “Black students to be afforded equal access to advanced, higher-level learning opportunities,” the announcement proclaimed—six decades after the country’s Supreme Court determined that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in the landmark ruling known as Brown vs. Board of Education.
The press release contained news about a New Jersey school district's decision over the controversial practice known as “tracking”—designating students for separate educational paths based on their academic performance as teens or younger.
The education department and advocates have said tracking perpetuates a modern system of segregation that favors white students and keeps students of color, many of them black, from long-term equal achievement. Now the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is trying to change the system, one school district at a time.
Proponents of tracking and of ability-grouping (a milder version that separates students within the same classroom based on ability) say that the practices allow students to learn at their own levels and prevent a difficult situation for teachers: large classes where children with a wide range of different needs and skill levels are mixed together. In many districts, the higher-level instruction in “gifted and talented” or advanced placement classes is what keeps wealthier families from entirely abandoning the public school system.