Should Tracking Be Back on Track?

In a recent interview, the CEO of Snap-On, Nicholas Pinchuk, talked about how robots are less of a threat to employment in manufacturing than are views held by many Americans about how blue-collar jobs are beneath them. (Eric Rosenbaum@erprose, July 17, 2019.)  Without ever mentioning the word “tracking,” he spoke approvingly of the idea as a possible remedy, as in: “They really guide people in other countries. We don’t do that.” (My emphasis.)

Perhaps the key reason tracking doesn’t show up anywhere in the article is that it’s been one of the dirtiest words in K-12 education for decades. But should it any longer?

Some might find it surprising, but several people I interviewed for a new book, Education Roads Less Traveled: Solving America’s Fixation on Four-Year Degrees, had good things to say about tracking—if properly understood and pursued.  Rassoul Dastmozd, the recently retired president of award-winning St. Paul College, was one of them:

“Let’s be intentional. Let’s get away from this labeling, ‘Oh, we’re tracking students.’ There is nothing wrong with providing pathways for students past fifth grade, as long as there is an opportunity for them to get a four-year applied degree. Pathways like this exist. They exist in Germany.” Which, incidentally or not, is one of several places Dastmozd, an engineer, went to school.

One interviewee, Dave Kornecki, was quick to point out we already embrace tracking. “It’s called college,” he said. And another, Chester E. Finn Jr., spoke similarly about “shunting” kids off to college.

If I were to guess, Finn, who I worked for at the U.S. Department of Education during the Reagan administration, isn’t fond of words like “track” and “tracking,” but he pointed out—rightly so—how advocates and writers are using “pathways” as an effectively cleansed alternative. For example, there’s a superb Harvard report, Pathways to Prosperity; a title much more felicitous than Tracks to Prosperity.

As for the concept of tracking, not just the word, Finn argued that vocational education withered partly because it did, in fact, smack of segregation and illiberal practices, as poor kids and black and brown kids were sent to shop classes while white and Asian kids would do college prep, and that it did, indeed, constitute an “evil thing.” And as with Dastmozd, he emphasized the pivotal importance of students being able to change paths if they chose.

When it comes to “Career and Technical Education,” a significantly improved iteration of “vocational education,” Finn said, “You should always be able to change paths if you want to.” Of a piece with all this, Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce was asked in 2013 how to prevent CTE “from becoming a ghettoized path.”

To which he assured, Career and Technical Education “isn’t a path away from college,” as it’s “simply another way to get there.”

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2018, the Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass complementarily argued that while the refusal to track is an egalitarian impulse, the “insistence on treating everyone equally in high school harms students for whom the college track is not appropriate. It deprives them of schooling that could be more valuable and abandons them after graduation ill-prepared for work.”

Back to Pinchuk, who believes the half-million, currently open manufacturing jobs in U.S. manufacturing only will grow larger if society doesn’t learn how to destigmatize such work; as long as only 30 percent of Americans want to work in manufacturing; and as long as manufacturing jobs are “something that other people’s kids do.”

“What we need to do is convince people that when they enlist in a factory or garage . . . it is not dark, dumb and dirty. . . . We tell people they are making some difference, we are the people of work . . . the makers and fixers who create society.  We hold that dear.

“It is kind of dramatic, but our people believe it.  We have people who put wrenches in the hands of newborn babies because they believe it will influence their lives forever.”