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Equal but not the same

I read this article by Jay Mathews in the Washington Post about education and sorting, and I have various problems with it. There’s been a huge to do about it on one of the homeschooling lists I read, because, frankly, homeschoolers are the ultimate expression of what he’s angry about.
He writes about schools “sorting” kids into different classes based on their academic skills. It’s what was called “tracking” at my high school.
“Sorting, they say, is a new form of the old racism but subtler and in some ways harder to resist,” he writes. Any teacher who teaches at a school with a largely unmixed racial population can tell him that’s just not true. For example, two high schools in our district serve a majority Hispanic population. Is it racism when Hispanic kids who are eager for more challenging coursework are offered it? The kids who don’t take the accelerated courses at these schools are also Hispanic.
In my high school, almost all the kids were white. The racial minority kids were most likely to be tracked into accelerated courses – they were largely Asian and from well-educated families. The reason they were largely tracked into harder courses was social (because of the boost they got from their upbringing), not racial.
He continues: “Most American high schools (except in the Washington area, thank goodness) admit only A or strong B students to Advanced Placement classes, when many less-advanced or later-maturing students would benefit from exercising their intellectual muscles in a challenging course.”
It’s clear that all students would benefit from exercising their intellectual muscles. Whether they want to do so, and also whether they have the muscles to keep up with the other fast runners in the class, is the issue. If they are “later-maturing,” then let them take those classes at the usual time – in college. Why would a student who is struggling in a lower-level course want more of a challenge? Unless the higher level courses are taught by better teachers or contained more interesting coursework, it seems odd that he’d think such a “challenge” would be a good fit for them. And if the courses that are aimed at their achievement level are less interesting or taught by lesser teachers, that’s a problem in itself that should be taken care of separately.
Finally, he writes, “Gifted programs, magnet programs, even student clubs sometimes screen applicants more than is healthy for the mission of giving everyone the educations they deserve.”
Here we go with the “any club I can’t belong to is too exclusive” argument. The only reason I can think of to make that argument is perhaps his low self-esteem? “Gifted” programs are badly named, I agree. See yesterday’s posting for details. But as the mother of two academically accelerated kids, I can assure you that they benefit from some of their education being tailored to their needs. In general, yes, I want them to do things with other kids. There’s a lot kids can learn from kids who are different from them. But just like school football teams have try-outs, some classes work better with kids who all share a certain level of ability. As one teacher commented about his article, teaching an AP class that has non-AP-level students in it means that the teacher needs to bring the class down to the lowest level. Then what’s the point of an AP class?
Homeschooling is the ultimate expression of differentiated teaching for kids. Homeschoolers are often motivated by the knowledge that in the school environment, a teacher is going to have to teach to the average child. Many children have special learning needs, and parents committed to fulfilling them. And when it comes down to it, ALL students have special learning needs. Tracking/sorting doesn’t make sense in a variety of situations, but it really does make sense when there are actual needs that can be fulfilled for a more homogeneous group.
When I was teaching Freshman English at Cal State Hayward, a student came to me one day and confessed that he didn’t feel like he’d really learned to read for comprehension in his high school. I felt for him — the class I was teaching was about writing, but he’d discovered that in fact, he had to be able to read in order to get anything from my class. His high school didn’t do him any favors by passing him through with other kids when he hadn’t attained basic skills. I think it’s time for MORE differentiation in our educational system. We were all created equal, but we are certainly not all the same.

Posted in Parenting.

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