The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro


"Ability is of little account without opportunity."...  ...Napoleon Bonaparte.

Commentary of the Day - February 20, 2008: On the Wrong Track.  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

According to experts and politicians, public schools are expected to raise our lowest ability students up to some acceptable level of proficiency, challenge our brightest students with advanced coursework that will ready them for bona fide university study, and provide the throng in the middle with an education that prepares them for further specialized training or for the workforce, as well as for the duty of self-government.

Actually, some critics demand that all kids be ready for college.  Any politician who imagines that all people are capable of advanced academic work needs to spend more time at home in his Congressional district.  Likeminded education policymakers could try a few years of classroom teaching for their dose of reality.

It's tough to ignore these pipe dreamers because their voices are loud and persistent.  But reason and experience tell us that students, like adults, come in all intellectual shapes and sizes, that they're bound for different vocations, and that they require, and deserve, schooling appropriate for their abilities and objectives in life.

If we handed the problem of how to educate this scholastically diverse student body to thoughtful people equipped with common sense, it probably wouldn't take them long to devise a school system that placed students in classes according to those varying abilities and objectives.  That way college-bound kids could receive an education paced and tailored to their needs, while in another classroom less academically able students could be taught material appropriate for them.  Fewer kids would be floundering in classes that were over their heads, and fewer would be bored to distraction in classes that were going too slowly.

This system of tracking, or ability grouping, is the way schools worked when I was a kid.  No, I'm not pretending that schools functioned perfectly back then, or that we need to do everything the way my teachers did them.  I'm simply saying that schools used to group students according to ability, and that beginning in the 1970s, at the insistence of education reformers, they stopped.  Not coincidentally, student achievement began to decline around the same time.

Brandishing allegations like "elitist," critics complained that higher tracks were often taught by better teachers.  They also charged that schools commonly banished kids with behavior problems to lower tracks just to get them out of the way.  Both complaints had validity, but ability grouping itself wasn't at fault.  Teachers should be assigned to classes based on their skills.  Disruptive students shouldn't be assigned to any class.  It's just as wrong to steal a remedial student's education as it is to sabotage a college-prep classroom.

Ability grouping didn't fall from fashion because it wasn't working academically.  Schools were directed to purge it on sociological grounds.  The problem was that in many city districts, upper level groups were mostly white, while lower tracks were primarily black.  Since upper academic tracks were viewed as the road to college and the middle class, policymakers decided that more minority students should be in upper tracks.  Since too few could be instantly equipped for college-prep study, officials decided to eliminate upper tracks altogether and deliberately group students without regard for their academic abilities.

Remember that the next time somebody -- frequently one of those same policymakers -- asks why schools are inefficient.

Naturally, they didn't announce that they'd eliminated college prep classes.  They pretended that everybody was now receiving an upper level education.  Many experts are still pretending.

Over the years they've promoted a menu of patented methods guaranteed to accomplish this mission impossible.  Some have favored "individualized instruction" where every student has his own individualized education plan.  Others, recognizing that public education isn't the same as private tutoring, and that a classroom teacher can't be in twenty individualized places simultaneously, touted cooperative learning, where students work in groups and essentially teach themselves while their teacher floats and facilitates.  Typically, a few group members do the work, while the rest share credit for it.  Unfortunately, being in a group with someone who learns something doesn't mean that you've learned it, too.

Other methods, from mastery learning to differentiated instruction, all operate on the same sleight of hand pretense that a teacher can most effectively instruct students ranging from gifted to learning impaired when they're all taught simultaneously in the same classroom.  Response to Intervention, the newest flash in the education pan, relies on frequent assessment of each student's progress, followed by appropriate "interventions" and individualized "adjustments" in instruction.  It's once again a false cure for a problem we've exacerbated by refusing to group students in classes according to their abilities in the first place.

Enabling students to advance, regardless of race or economic class, is in our national interest.  But each student comes to school with powers and abilities, as well as disadvantages and disabilities.  Schools can only start with each kid where they find him or her.  It makes no sense to skip the readiness skills he doesn't have, nor is it right to start everyone else at his lower level.  You can't teach individuals by pretending they’re all the same, even if in the short term that offends our sense of equality.

What schools can do is work with the ability and diligence each student has, and when his ability and diligence make it possible, help him make genuine progress into higher academic levels.  No one should be stuck in a lower group just because he started there.  But overcoming disadvantages requires both talent and extra effort.  That’s why we call it "overcoming."

There is no shortcut.  Placing kids who can't do math in a class you call algebra doesn't help them.  Shunting more kids into watered-down advanced placement courses doesn't make anybody advanced.  Taking remedial reading on a college campus doesn't make you a college student.

American students face enough obstacles already.  We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to provide that "best education possible" that everybody's always talking about.  It would be swell if we could give each kid his or her own tutor and individual program.  But we can't.  What we can do is group him in a class with other students at his level so we can most effectively target his abilities and needs.

To be less effective on purpose is inexcusable.

2008, Peter Berger.
Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, VT.  He would be pleased to answer messages sent to him in care of the Editor.

The Irascible Professor responds: Most of the time the IP agrees in large part with Poor Elijah's point of view.  In this case he has substantial concerns about his call for a return to "ability grouping" or "tracking" in K-12 classes.  Historically, many minority children were shunted into the less challenging tracks in school because they were perceived by their teachers to have less academic ability.  Once in one of these less challenging tracks, it was almost impossible for a child to move up to a more challenging track.  Unfortunately, the processes by which these students were labeled "slow learners" often were deeply flawed.  Some ended up being labeled "slow learners" because of poor performance on IQ tests that were culturally biased.  Others were labeled "slow learners" because their skills with standard English were poor.  And, in some parts of the country students were thrown into the "slower" tracks based purely on the prejudices of their teachers.  Not surprisingly many non-white Americans came to view "tracking" as just another way to keep minorities "in their place."  Compounding the problem was the fact that the most experienced teachers often wanted to teach the "faster" track children; and, since assignments often were based on teacher seniority the kids in the "slow" tracks often got the least experienced and most poorly prepared teachers.  Thus, being in a "slow" track ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Clearly, it is a fact of life that we all have our strengths and our weaknesses.  Some students are more intelligent than others, some are more able to cope with academic subjects than others, some are strong in certain academic areas but weak in others.  Students regardless of "ability" have different interests as well.  The IP thinks that it would be better to provide enough choices in our K-12 systems so that students themselves can gravitate to the options they, and their parents, are most comfortable with instead of forcing them into rigid tracks.


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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