Monthly Archives: March 2014

Keeping Track

Throughout our deliberation unit, the term ‘tracking’ came up frequently and it occurred to me that the definition remained rather vague. So for this week’s civic issue blog, I decided to take a look at what tracking really is.

When someone brings up the idea of tracking, people often immediately jump to think about foreign school systems. Countries such as Germany and Singapore begin separating students around sixth grade (or earlier, depending on the region). This kind of tracking is on a large scale where students take a test that places them into a high, middle, or low track. This placement determines the level of difficulty as well as the expectations for post-graduation work. This is the most common view of tracking. (**Although the focus of this blog post is not on whether these other nations’ wholesale tracking system is better or worse than our own, there is much debate over the effect it has on achievement. Click here to read about several Asian countries’ systems.)

However, tracking encompasses much more than sorting students into different schools. School districts where children progress through grade levels without taking a placement test often still track their students. To start, I would like to pose a question: how many of you took AP classes in high school? How many of you took almost exclusively AP classes? Were your electives separated by level of difficulty or did everyone mesh together regardless of ability? In elementary school, did your teacher separate you into different reading groups depending on ability? All of these are forms of tracking.


To shed some light on how the United States arrived at these various forms of tracking, let’s take a look at our educational history. Before the nineteenth century, schools were usually one-room schoolhouses where students learned from the books they had at home that they brought in or had no books and learned basic skills like reading and writing in a lecture-style class overflowing with students of all different ages. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, the school system was transforming into a more hierarchical organization with certain subjects designated for certain grade levels and a narrower range of ages for students. Still, students progressed through levels of schooling based upon their mastery of the material rather than how old they were.


By the turn of the century, high school-aged students were pouring in and the schools leaned more towards separating grade levels by age and promising a single, uniform diploma for all graduates. America’s focus switched from what grade level one could attain to what level one attained within that grade level (accelerated, standard, low level classes). By the 1960’s, schools became more standardized nationally on what subjects should be taught in what order. Programs like gifted and special education came into existence as a distinct form of tracking for students with abnormal abilities. The mid-twentieth century witnessed the shift towards mass intelligence testing and schools started to adopt IQ testing as the method of separating students. **Read more about the evolution of tracking and what social and political events helped shape our system here.

So that brings us to today. (Here I will focus on schools that do not employ wholesale tracking because the norm in the United States is not to sort students into different schools based on a single test, although this does still happen.) Whereas the tracks into which schools funneled students for much of the twentieth century were rigid and limiting, today’s tracking system offers much more flexibility. IQ testing as a means to sort students no longer exists (except for placement into special and gifted education, and even then IQ is not necessarily the deciding factor). Tracking is typically done within each subject and it is academic performance and teacher recommendations that determine which track students should enter. And these decisions are almost always negotiable.


Perhaps the most important development in tracking has been the preparation these classes offer for the future. For most of American educational history, the lower tracks severely limited career paths. Although differences in the curricula still exist, all levels of classes have a focus on preparation for college. I believe this coincides with the notion that higher education is now a reality (even an expectation) for every student, not just the cream of the crop. This is an important development because it allows for every student to earn a university degree if they work hard enough, which seems essential in today’s work market.

The current controversy on tracking rests mainly on whether tracking is inequitable and unfair. Does tracking still limit learning? Should there be more guidance and rigor at every level?

This: Bukowski

San Francisco is a beautiful, pulsing city, full of culture and diversity. When I visited a few summers ago, one of my favorite areas was North Beach. Although the outdoor murals and sculptures splattered all over the buildings and sidewalks definitely played a part in that, the main reason I loved North Beach so much is a bookstore called City Lights.

city lights3

City Lights was the oasis of the Beatnik generation. Poets and authors would gather there throughout the 1950’s and 60’s to discuss controversial prose and banned literature. In the present day, City Lights remains a safe haven for the alternative and presents a labyrinth of books to venture through. I spent several hours wandering through the stacks and trying out various genres. Eventually, I came upon a sign leading me towards the poetry section. Here, I discovered one of my all-time favorite poets/authors: Charles Bukowski. I picked up a collection of his poems called “The Last Night of the Earth Poems” and fell in love.

city lights

Throughout Charles Bukowski’s fifty years of writing, he composed six novels, several books of short stories, and dozens of collections of poetry. The overwhelming majority of his writing overflows with disillusionment, anger, and (copious amounts of) alcohol. Though Bukowski is one of the most cynical authors I can think of, his work continues to charm me. I think this is due to the unapologetic realism Bukowski injects into his writing. (His weariness towards society is characteristic of the Beatnik generation, though Bukowski was not a Beatnik himself.) **For more information on Bukowski or to browse some of his work, click here.


The poem “This” illustrates Bukowksi’s style well.



self-congratulatory nonsense as the

famous gather to applaud their seeming




wonder where

the real ones are



giant cave

hides them



the deathly talentless

bow to




the fools are





wonder where

the real ones are


if there are

real ones.



self-congratulatory nonsense

has lasted



with some exceptions





is so dreary

is so absolutely pitiless



churns the gut to


shackles hope



makes little things


pulling up a shade


putting on your shoes


walking out on the street


more difficult





the famous gather to

applaud their





the fools are





you sick



Bukowski separates the “the little things” physically by moving to the next line after each one: “pulling up a shade/ or/ putting on your shoes/ or/ walking out on the street.” This is effective because it interrupts the flow of these words, making them harder to progress through. This syntactical challenge matches Bukowski’s implication that simple, mundane tasks become difficult when one has to deal with “self-congratulatory nonsense” all the time. I also like how Bukowski starts the second and third to last stanzas with “as.” The repetition of “as” allows the reader to connect the two stanzas and compare them. “The famous” become “the fools.”


Dancers Among Us

Have you ever noticed how little children can abandon all their cares and become completely absorbed in a fantasy world? Kids are completely present in whatever they are doing. They experience emotions similar to adults, but display their feelings honestly. If a child is upset, he or she will cry and whine until it is better. Although some people may find this honesty annoying, I think it is part of the beauty of childhood. Several years ago, an artist named Jordan Matter realized the same thing. He realized that adults often seem cynical, bored, or indifferent to the everyday wonders that capture children’s imagination. He wanted to find a way to portray the active presence children take in their world through art. His solutions: dancers. (To read more about how this idea came to Jordan, read here.)

jordan matter

Jordan Matter created the now-sensational book of “Dancers Among Us.” It features dozens of pictures of dancers around the world at various stages of life and various emotions. The common factor for all of the pictures is their life. Matter captured dancers truly living in whatever they were doing. For the rest of this blog post, I will show examples of these pictures and analyze their individual messages.

dance among us boardwalk

This photograph features a man and a woman under a boardwalk as the tide is rushing out and frothing around them. The woman, standing on the man’s thighs as he hinges forward, bends backward over herself to kiss him on the lips. I think this picture beautifully captures the leap of faith people take in falling in love. The water is choppy and strong; it rises around them. The water represents all the instability and risks in life that will rise around all of us. The dancers, however, are steadfast despite the tide. They are precariously posed, yet strong. This represents how loving someone requires trust that your partner will be there to hold you up, and that you will be there for him or her, too. The precariousness of their position represents that this stability comes from instability: to find support and balance from love, one must take the risk first.

dance among us scaffold


This photo features a man holding onto a scaffolding and dangling over the city street; however, he strongly holds an arabesque with a paintbrush in his hand. The quote that accompanies this photo is: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” For most rational human beings, climbing up onto a scaffolding several stories above the ground would instill fear. We are uncomfortable at such a height. The dancer, however, exudes confidence and strength. His power in this unsettling position sends the message that in order to reach such a heightened sense of accomplishment and confidence, one must take risks and “live at the end of his or her comfort zone.”

If you are interested in seeing additional pictures from the collection, click here.

Are We Getting Smarter?

In 1984, a psychologist named James Flynn published a chronological study of IQ scores. His research, based upon statistics of American citizens, indicated that our IQ scores have increased immensely over the last 100 years. From the beginning of the 20th century to today, Americans’ IQ scores have increased by three points per decade on both the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales and the Wechsler Intelligence Scales. On Raven’s Progressive Matrices intelligence test, Americans’ scores have increased by five points per decade. This trend has since taken the label of “The Flynn Effect.”

flynn effect

Psychometricians (those who study and develop intelligence tests) have updated the intelligence testing throughout the years, which means that what the tests are focusing on is different now than in the early 1900’s. To make comparison possible, what happens if we put our scores on the same scale as back in the day? If we scored our ancestors according to today’s norms, they would have had an average IQ of 50-70. If we compared ourselves to earlier intelligence test norms, the average person today would have had an IQ of 130 to 150 then.

So what is the implication of the Flynn Effect? Were our ancestors really dumb or are we all modern super-geniuses? James Flynn would argue that neither is really the case. Flynn argues that the shift in IQ is caused by new, modern cognitive demands. To understand what these cognitive demands are and where they come from, we must take a look at the historical context of intelligence tests.

1920 school


A century ago, America was undergoing industrialization and attempting to improve the economy through manufacturing and producing. People tended to be more focused on the concrete. The average citizen had a sixth-grade education when they left school to work (often in a factory), so abstract intelligence and critical thinking were irrelevant to most people. Intelligence tests thus tested crystallized intelligence (knowledge of facts such as capitals of states or names of presidents) and practical intelligence (such as what task one uses a broom for or what time of the year it would be appropriate to wear sandals).

Today, our society has progressed out of our focus on industrialization. Now, as we try to compete globally with our test scores, we tend to place value on math and science, which draw on abstract and critical thinking. This kind of thinking is “deeper” than the kind that underlies crystallized intelligence. In addition, the average citizen now completes at least a high school education, and most middle and upper class people also attend a four-year college. So the type of emphasized intelligence combined with a longer overall education contribute to our increase in test scores over time.

socratic seminar

What I take from this research is that our ancestors were not unintelligent, but their mental abilities were not as developed as most people’s are today. We have higher norms of intelligence now than we did a century ago, and our higher IQ scores reflect that change. (James Flynn published an article in 2012 that expands on his original analyses and gives examples of the types of questions seen on an intelligence test in the past versus in modern times. You can read it here.)

There are critics of Flynn’s theory, though. One critic argues that intelligence tests are supposed to test “g,” or general intelligence (the mental energy that underlies all problem-solving). SAT testing is supposedly highly-correlated with “g” and yet our scores do not reflect the same increase as they have with the other forms of intelligence testing that Flynn analyzed. He argues that the increase in scores on intelligence tests is a result of education today coaching students to perform well on paper-and-pencil tests.

Although it may be true that our schools today spend a great deal of time coaching students on how to take tests whereas they did not do that 100 years ago, I disagree that this is the sole reason for our shift in IQ scores. According to the critic, SAT scores are outside of the influence of schools’ focus on paper-and-pencil tests; however, I know I have experienced training in school on how to specifically take the SAT’s and think abstractly in a time crunch.


I believe that since our society has placed value on critical and abstract thinking, it has developed our mind to think in ways we did not think before. This new way is deeper than simply memorizing facts, and so our cognition is more developed, on average, than it was in the beginning of the 20th century.