The Taboo Trade-Offs of Tracking
By Bryan Caplan
Most Americans are okay with educational “tracking” – measuring potential, then tailoring each student’s education to his measured potential. But if you advocate extending or expanding the role of tracking, most Americans resist. Suppose you propose, for example, that the bottom third of high school students get vocational education instead of college prep. Americans suddenly rally behind feel-good egalitarian slogans like, “We have to make sure that every student has the opportunity to live up to his full potential.”
Taken literally, such slogans damn not only the extra tracking we could have, but the tracking we’ve already got. All tracking is a trade-off between two evils. Classicists call them Scylla and Charybdis, statisticians call them Type 1 and Type 2 error. But let’s just call them Overlooked Potential and Wasted Resources.
The evil of Overlooked Potential: The tougher your tracking, the more qualified students you fail to teach. The evil of Wasted Resources: The laxer your tracking, the more unqualified students you teach to fail. Accept no one, and you won’t waste a penny, but you’ll also miss every opportunity to do good. Accept everyone, and you’ll miss no one – but you’ll burn a fortune of time and money on Hail Mary passes.
Every system – the status quo included – strikes a balance between Overlooked Potential and Wasted Resources. But almost no one explicitly argues that what we currently do strikes the optimal balance. Why not? Probably because accepting Overlooked Potential for the greater good is, in Philip Tetlock’s phrase, a taboo trade-off. Saying, “Sure, I don’t like overlooking potential; but I’m even more opposed to wasting resources” sounds terrible – no matter how trivial the Overlooked Potential and how massive the Wasted Resources.
How do Americans cope with their silly scruples? They salve their consciences by pretending that the problem of Overlooked Potential only emerges if tracking extends or expands. This preserves a modicum of common sense; at least we won’t abandon tracking altogether. But if tracking is currently underused, Americans’ taboo trade-off blockades any further progress. Is it possible that more robust tracking might deprive someone somewhere of a valuable opportunity? Uh… yes; it is a big world. Then robust tracking gets vetoed, regardless of its upside.
Is there any evidence that tracking is currently underused? Sure. Partly under the influence of the No Child Left Behind Act, high schools today teach as if every student is a future college graduate. But most aren’t; indeed, over 20% of high school freshmen don’t even earn a normal high school diploma. Furthermore, many college grads don’t get college-type jobs. I submit that these disparities between aspiration and results are, in themselves, strong signs that tracking is underused. Stricter tracking wouldn’t magically turn more students into successful college graduates. But it would prepare the majority of students who won’t get college-type jobs for the careers they’re actually going to have.
Perhaps I’m wrong about this; maybe the status quo is wise beyond my ken. But I’m not wrong to think that the trade-off between Overlooked Potential and Wasted Resources is socially taboo. And as long as this trade-off is socially taboo, we should assume that the case for stricter tracking is intellectually stronger than it looks.