Thoughts on Tracking: Upside Down Basic Education

It was during the summer months of 1980. I found myself in a brand new setting. I was selected to participate in the Ateneo Junior Summer Seminar program. It was an opportunity for a rising senior in high school to spend the summer in the Loyola campus. It was a taste of Ateneo education. Ateneo was a very beautiful campus. At one vantage point, I could see the Marikina valley below.
The Last Time I visited Ateneo was in 2008 
I was among the very few lucky students coming from a public high school. Most of my classmates came from the elite schools in the country. It was an eye-opener. Senator Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III was among the students in the program. And the current president of Ateneo, Fr. Jett Villarin was one of the instructors. Being among the top students in your high school class, excelling in the entrance exam, and doing well in an interview were the steps necessary to be invited to the program. In this program, I met the top students from the Ateneo campuses, Xavier, Philippine Science High School, and others. We were supposed to be among the top seventy of the rising senior high school students in the country. Being part of the program, my college education in one of the Philippines' top schools was set.

I was coming from Manila Science High School. Getting into that high school was likewise an opportunity not available to everyone. There was an entrance exam and only top students from their respective elementary schools take the entrance exam. There were a handful of students coming from the small parochial school of Quiapo - I was luckily one of those few who were given the chance and I scored well in the entrance exam.

From an individual perspective, nothing seems awry. On a broader sense, this is how it looks. Some students progress faster than others. There are fast learners and there are slow ones. There are good test takers and there are not so good ones. Test scores are not the sole indicators of learning. But in early tracking of students such as the ones illustrated above, scores and grades count a lot. When students who do well in exams are separated from the rest in this early tracking and segregation of students, one must ask what society is really doing. There maybe sound pedagogical reasons. Good students need to be challenged is one popular excuse. The documentary film "Waiting for Superman" says otherwise. Johanna Sorrentino, in a review of this film said:
“Tracking”, or separating kids by academic ability, is common practice in the U.S. But Waiting for Superman puts forth the idea that tracking means kids in the middle and bottom of the spectrum may not be given a fair shake. Tracking began in 1950s America, when 20 percent of graduates went to college, 30 percent went into skilled professions (accountants, managers, and other jobs that didn’t require college degrees), and 50 percent were laborers.  In the 21st century, most decent paying jobs require a college degree, and the practice of tracking, Guggenheim contends, is simply not in keeping with this fact. 
Why should you care: Not only is tracking outdated, but the film claims that students are “tracked” based not only on test scores, but also on arbitrary factors such as neatness, obedience, and politeness.  Once students are placed on a  track, they have virtually no chance of moving up, and tracking can begin as early as middle school, before many kids hit their academic stride.
The effects of tracking students on students not selected for these programs are exacerbated if the strongly motivated and well prepared teachers are even assigned to teach in these special programs. Poor students not only lose the opportunity of having peers they could learn from. They also end up in larger class sizes, less resources, and schools with multiple shifts.

Lorelei Regilme-Vinluan recently shared with me on an email highlights of a presentation she made at the 7th
International Conference on Teacher Education held at U.P. Diliman on July 26-28, 2012 entitled "Spatiotemporal patterns of access to high-quality secondary education: Implications for teacher education". It was about the Philippine Science High School National Competitive Exam (PSHS-NCE). More than 20000 students apparently are scheduled to take this exam a couple of weeks from now, all competing for the 240 available slots. Regilme-Vinluan looked at the results of the exam during the past three years and found that accepted students generally came from elite private schools. Specifically, she wrote:
There are 18 schools that had a total of eight or more PSHS-NCE passers from 2010 to 2012. Ateneo de Manila University had the highest number--100 passers. It was followed by: Colegio San Agustin (28), Ateneo de Davao University (22), Miriam College (21), St. Paul College - Pasig (20), La Salle Greenhills (17), Morning Star Montessori School System (17), and Claret School (16). There are only two public schools in the list: U.P. Integrated School (12) and West Visayas State University (9). Note that most of the top-performing schools are Catholic, exclusive, and offer Grade 7.

The society relies on basic education for its future. When inequalities are highlighted in the early years, its effects on social equity are dramatic. Schools simply become tools to get ahead in life. And society simply takes exactly the same shape drawn by its schools' early tracking, an upside down basic education, not an Education for All.