Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Maybe Tracking is Good? Some Education Reform Ideas

In my recent post A Conversation With My Kids About School the issue of school and tracking came off negative. On the other hand, I support tracking. How can I feel that way?

The answer is: this is a complex issue!

Note: The above blog post was republished on the Off Beat Mama website retitled by the editor as: The Importance of Discussing WHY You're Homeschooling Your Kids With Them on 10/25/11. The article is getting a lot of comments there. Perhaps you want to join the conversation?

After I wrote that post I was thinking about tracking and drafted this piece, which I'm finally publishing today.


I am going to tell you the bottom line before I even get into the tracking discussion. I think the core issue is that no one wants to have a kid at the bottom. Some people also don't even want an average kid. Everyone wants their kids to succeed. Most parents want their kids to have opportunities to grow and learn to the best of their ability. Parents think that if their child is allowed to be all that they can be they will be something fantastic and something not-average and definately not something sub-par.

The reality is, if we believe in the bell curve, that most people are average and a low number are at the bottom and a low number are at the top.

The challenge of designing a school system for the masses is that the population pool ranges along the entire spectrum. Not all students can flourish in the most rigorous classes. However no one wants to think their child may have the potential but is being prevented from accessing the education that would allow them to develop fully. Who wants to accept knowing that their child could have thrived taking a high level math class but was locked out of it (for any reason, one reason that has no relation to the student's intellect or school performance being school budget constraints)?

Another frustration point could be when the student works hard at school and does all they are supposed to but does poorly on testing. After taking a year of AP science how could they score a 3 or a 2 or a 1? They worked so hard! Why didn't they "learn"? The school provided that class! The school spent money for that instruction! The student had opportunity. They worked hard and their score is too low to show to college admissions officers, in fact, it looks perhaps worse to have studied college level material in high school and failed than if they had not even taken the class in the first place!


So about tracking which I talked about in a negative way recently, is not even done at every public school anymore, which is a switch from when I was in public school in the 1970s and 1980s.

Not all parents I know with kids in school know if tracking occurs. Do you know if your school system does tracking?

Even if tracking per se is not done, not all classes are open to all students. In high school there seem to be more and more AP classes now compared to when I was in school in the 1980s, but the question is who gets to take those classes? Some criteria must be used to determine who can take those. Also, access to certain science classes depends on past math coursework. There are sometimes gates to pass through that only some may enter based on past coursework completed, if the student is looking to take upper math or upper science or more rigorous classes in English or history. So, gatekeeping is alive and well, and I don't see a way around some of it.

Earlier this year, I had a discussion with a smart guy who has two bachelor's degrees in science who wanted to help kids learn about science, so he got a master's in education . While working as a student teacher he gave me some insight as to what goes on in classes where the school does not track. The school has a policy to not allow tracking.

The student teacher was assisting a high school science class and he said it was an absolute disaster. It is said that America needs more strong science students to go on to study science in college and to work in the career field as adults. However, he said it was very hard to teach the class in order to get the students to just meet the goals that the state laid out for what the course should encompass. He feared the kids were not being prepared to be able to do college level science. He worried that the kids who truly were interested in science and who wanted to study it were not being prepared (for why, read on).

He said that the students with learning disabilities and others who struggled held the whole class back. (Before I go further I need to give a disclaimer that I have a son who has learning disabilies so in no way am I putting those kids down.) An example was kids who need something explained two or three times or needed things so watered down that higher level discussions could not take place. Meanwhile other kids would drift off and lose their attention span while they were trying to help bring the struggling kid's level of understanding up to some medium level.

There were also gross lapses in writing and math ability. They were unable to write up the labs properly as they had forgotten the metric system. One (non-LD) student had a hard time explaing why his measurement total could not be correct. He reported 8 ml total when one liquid was 3 and the second liquid was 3. It took several minutes to explain that 3+3 equals 6 not 8. The student insisted and kept repeating that when they poured the two liquids into one container he read it as 8 ml so he indeed was correct to say there was 8 ml! The student teacher said the lapses in general logical thinking skills were enormous and frightening.

In other cases he said it was clear that kids didn't even want to be in the class and they did things to disrupt the class that held back the kids who actually were interested in learning. They seemed to have no interest in taking the discussion to a higher level. So the science geeks were not getting the best education in that class either.

I was told that all this meant that about only half or a third of the content could be taught in one class, so it would be impossible to actually cover the entire scope and sequence and to get through all that should be taught in that year. Do the math! They just could not cover it all.

He said it was hard to watch some of the science-savvy kids who were perfect for careers in science or engineering going out of their minds and being completely under-stimulated and under-challenged. He felt that they should have been in an honors class but the school did not offer honors science since tracking was eliminated in trying to provide all students with an equal education.

(This was in a wealthy Connecticut town in a 90+% Caucasian community where the majority of parents held one or more college degrees. This was a supposed "good school".)

What is to be done? I don't have the answer.

I think that the problem truly stems with grouping students by age into grades. This is not really equal either due to red-shirting (holding a student back in Kindergarten so they have a developmental edge over the other kids OR so they can achieve success if the parent felt they were too immature to start formal school).

There are also issues of when the birthday is. A January birthday kid is older than the June or August or November birthday kid. (The state where I lived had a cutoff of December 31 so some entering Kindergarten were 5 years and 11 months while others were 4 years and nine months. That is a huge developmental disparity at that age!)

The school system of having everyone in the class work at the same pace clustered with certain numbers of students to a teacher is a problem because some skills and subjects should be more matched to skill level, so the grade or age is irrelevant. However this insistance on keeping kids in grades based on age prevents that.

Changes would require a major paradigm shift for public schools.


Some options available today for students in America:

1. Magnet schools, get out of the traditional public school and enroll into a magnet school that focuses on your child's area of strength. Whether it is the arts or math or science, let them specialize.

However magnet schools or charter schools usually are in high demand and rely on lotteries to enter, and not enough exist for reasonable (under 30 or 45 minute each way) commutes, for all students.

(Why are magnet schools not expanding?)

2. Private school: use one that focuses on your alternative education views or traditional schools with rigorous academics if that is what you are looking for. Parochial schools may suffice to meet your needs and can be less expensive than non-religious private schools.

Money is an issue however those in certain income brackets may qualify for scholarships.

In any event not everyone wants to pay a dime toward an education above what they pay for property taxes. They want a free education, so they don't consider this option. They dismiss it as they want to dismiss it.

3. Homeschool your child and do what you want within the limits of your state's education law.


Two education reform ideas that I don't think American schools would let happen:

1. Change the school system to be more like a university model. Students sign up for classes based on skill level. Perhaps the classes are not year long, they have maybe three sessions a year so if a student still struggles with a skill like writing essays they would not progress up to the next thing but would do more work to hone that skill. Those who did the work well and are ready for the next thing would move on to the next thing.

In order to make the teacher to student ratios do-able, they may have to mix with kids of other ages since students have different ability levels.

For at least middle school and high school this would help the students who are at both the top and the bottom of the bell curve.

2. Seriously address learning disabilities. All teachers would have some minimum level of training about them with an eye toward early identification and intervention. Majorly change the way education is delivered to help each child with a learning disability excel.

The method of removing kids from a class to get special help on target areas only to have them fall behind in the areas they missed out on learning is not sufficient. The entire model of delivery should change.

Another example of a failure is when it is known that kids can be greatly helped with dyslexia with targeted instruction for 8 hours a day at the top notch private school for dyslexics which uses special instruction methods, but what is being done in public school is nothing like that and is "a drop in the bucket". If we know what it takes to best educate a child in order to help their areas of weakness but schools refuse to do it, it seems criminal to me.

3. Build upon children's strengths. Instead of considering the artistic dyslexic kid to be a failure at reading dense education how about making use of their heightened talent in creativity and art?

4. Consider vocational trade skills training expanding down to kids younger than 18. A mechanically minded kid who wants to do repair work perhaps should start learning about that earlier and not wait until passing through a general liberal arts education through age 18.

Not all people have the goal of attending a liberal arts college at age 18. What do they want to do? Can this start at an earlier age?

(I was hoping this would come more from the student than the system forcing it upon kids.)


For further reading I recommend:

Essay online, free: The Six Lesson Schoolteacher by John Taylor Gatto. Gatto was New York State's 1991 Teacher of the Year.

This book has stories written by parents of what really went on in the schools their kids attended and how they tried to fix them.

From Crayons to Condoms: The Ugly Truth About America's Schools edited by Baldwin

Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

A Different Kind of Teacher by John Taylor Gatto

How Children Fail by John Holt (and anything else by Holt)

Real Education Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray

1 comment:

Xa Lynn said...

I also have a love/hate relationship with tracking due to my own experience with it. I loved my AP classes. I was rarely bored there, the other students did not distract or misbehave, and much was accomplished. Due to scheduling issues (if you take two foreign languages simultaneously, you will not get AP English or AP History some years) I was stuck in general level American History one year, and general level Jr Comp, and Brit Lit one year. Oh, was that an eye opener!
The Am Hist teacher spent all his energies on his AP and remedial classes, and had nothing left for us - he simply read aloud in a monotone from our extremely boring textbook for 45 minutes a day.
The Jr Comp teacher spent his energies on his Drama class, and simply read the newspaper at his desk in our class, where we were assigned 20 spelling words to write 5x each, use in a sentence, and copy the dictionary definitions, and take the spelling test on Friday, and also given a topic and directions to write a 5 paragraph theme on it to be turned in Friday... and God help you (and your grade) if your paper had four paragraphs, or six. Or if any of your paragraphs had more or less than 5 sentences each. I swear he never read anything, but simply counted the sentences and paragraphs and assigned a grade based on that.
Brit Lit was the only worthwhile general level required class I took - because the teacher was fabulous. Any teacher that can tell a class of jocks that in Shakespeare's time, all the actors were men and therefore all the boys in the class were going to read aloud all the parts of Romeo and Juliet for the rest of us - and get away with it - well - he was my favorite teacher ever.
All the foreign language classes were general level offerings, and despite my love for the languages, I was often bored, because the teachers HAD to teach to the level of the majority of the students in the class. There was an awful lot of busywork. I could have learned much more, much faster, and emerged more fluent from an AP class.

This is why I see the use for tracking - I hate wasting my time waiting for the slower kids in the class to get it so we can move on. It breeds laziness on my part, because I don't have to work in a regular class - why study when I know the teacher is going to repeat the same darn thing so many times I'll be sick to death of it before the next week?
Here's the downside to tracking - once you get tracked into a lower level than you should be, it's REALLY hard to get out. I got tracked into general math in seventh grade, because my sixth grade teacher looked at my math grades (all As in his class, 1 A, 2Bs and 1C the previous year - the C was for failing to turn in my homework - I DID it, I just didn't turn it in because I was utterly disorganized. I knew the material.) But that D kept me out of AP math. My ninth grade teacher tried to move me into AP math a month into his general class. I told him no, because I didn't have the pre-reqs, I was convinced I was stupid at math because I hadn't been in the AP math program from the start, and that D still rankled. I'd never gotten a D at anything... Anyway, I was bored out of my gourd in math for the rest of high school, and paid for it when I tried to take Finite Mathematical Models in college. Had I not been tracked into general math, I would've had the background knowledge necessary.

Just another reason I homeschool - because I can design the curriculum in every subject to cater to my individual children's learning style, speed, and talents. And as those change, so does the curicculum.

Xa Lynn