Racial Gaps Drive School Policy, Part CMXXVII
Print Friendly and PDF

In the wake of the Sputnik wake-up call in 1957, two of America's most distinguished technical managers, Admiral Hyman Rickover of the nuclear submarine navy and chemist James Conant, President of Harvard, debated how to improve schooling. Rickover advocated that America imitate the European system of separate schools for academic and vocational students based on ability testing. Conant countered by suggesting that rather than have separate schools, we should have large comprehensive schools with intensive tracking by ability within them. Conant won the debate (although one must wonder how much the advantage of large schools at winning football games played in the outcome). See historian Raymond Wolters' book Race and Education, 1954-2007 for details.

By the late 1960s, however, Conant's solution of tracking was coming under attack as concern shifted away from maximizing the individual potential of students and toward equalizing outcomes of racial groups.

The New York Times reports on one of the last vestiges of old-fashioned honest tracking:

Connecticut School District that Clung to Tracking Is Letting Go S
TAMFORD, Conn. – Sixth graders at Cloonan Middle School here are assigned numbers based on their previous year’s standardized test scores – zeros indicate the highest performers, ones the middle, twos the lowest – that determine their academic classes for the next three years.

But this longstanding system for tracking children by academic ability for more effective teaching evolved into an uncomfortable caste system in which students were largely segregated by race and socioeconomic background, both inside and outside classrooms. Black and Hispanic students, for example, make up 46 percent of this year’s sixth grade, but are 78 percent of the twos and 7 percent of the zeros.

So in an unusual experiment, Cloonan mixed up its sixth-grade science and social studies classes last month, combining zeros and ones with twos. These mixed-ability classes have reported fewer behavior problems and better grades for struggling students, but have also drawn complaints of boredom from some high-performing students who say they are not learning as much.

Yeah, but who cares about helping high-performing students live up to their potential? What have smart, well-educated people ever done for the human race?

The results illustrate the challenge facing this 15,000-student district just outside New York City, which is among the last bastions of rigid educational tracking more than a decade after most school districts abandoned the practice. In the 1960s and early 1970s, Stamford sorted students into as many as 15 different levels; the current system of three to five levels at each of four middle schools will be replaced this fall by a two-tiered model, in which the top quarter of sixth graders will be enrolled in honors classes, the rest in college-prep classes. (A fifth middle school is a magnet school and has no tracking.)

More than 300 Stamford parents have signed a petition opposing the shift, and some say they are now considering moving or switching their children to private schools. ”I think this is a terrible system for our community,” said Nicole Zussman, a mother of two.

Ms. Zussman and others contend that Stamford’s diversity, with poor urban neighborhoods and wealthy suburban enclaves, demands multiple academic tracks, and suggest that the district could make the system fairer and more flexible by testing students more frequently for movement among the levels.

But Joshua P. Starr, the Stamford superintendent, said the tracking system has failed to prepare children in the lower levels for high school and college. ”There are certainly people who want to maintain the status quo because some people have benefited from the status quo,” he said. ”I know that we cannot afford that anymore. It’s not fair to too many kids.”

Educators have debated for decades how to best divide students into classes. Some school districts focus on providing extra instruction to low achievers or developing so-called gifted programs for the brightest students, but few maintain tracking like Stamford’s middle schools (tracking is less comprehensive and rigid at the town’s elementary and high schools).

Deborah Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, said research is showing that all students benefit from mixed-ability classes. ”We see improvements in student behavior, academic performance and teaching, and all that positively affects school culture,” she said.

Daria Hall, a director with Education Trust, an advocacy group, said that tracking has worsened the situation by funneling poor and minority students into ”low-level and watered-down courses.” ”If all we expect of students is for them to watch movies and fill out worksheets, then that’s what they will give us,” she said.

In Stamford, black and Hispanic student performance on state tests has lagged significantly behind that of Asians and whites. In 2008, 98 percent of Asian students and 92 percent of white students in grades three to eight passed math, and 93 percent and 88 percent reading, respectively. Among black students, 63 percent passed math, and 56 percent reading; among Hispanic students, 74 percent passed math and 60 percent reading.

This is obviously an utterly unique situation in Stamford. I've never ever heard of any other school district in the country where Asians do best, whites second, Hispanics third, and blacks fourth. I'm baffled by the rank order of these results. Maybe there's something in the water in Connecticut because the only similar test I've ever heard of producing results like this was the New Haven firefighter's test that Sonia Sotomayor so rightly threw out for producing unheard of numbers. Obviously, Stamford needs to spend a fortune on a customized test that will produce less bizarre outcomes.

The district plans to keep a top honors level, but put the majority of students in mixed-ability classes, expanding the new system from sixth grade to seventh and eighth over three years. While the old system tracked students for all subjects based on math and English scores, the new one will allow students to be designated for honors in one subject but not necessarily another, making more students overall eligible for the upper track.

The staff of Cloonan Middle School decided to experiment with mixed-ability classes for the last eight weeks of this school year.

David Rudolph, Cloonan’s principal, said that parents have long complained that the tracking numbers assigned to students dictate not only their classes but also their friends and cafeteria cliques. Every summer, at least a dozen parents lobby Mr. Rudolph to move their children to the top track. ”The zero group is all about status,” he said.

Jamiya Richardson, who is 11 and in the twos’ group, said that students all know their own numbers as well as those of their classmates. ”I don’t like being classified because it makes you feel like you’re not smart,” she said. ...

Cloonan teachers say they had not changed the curriculum or slowed the pace for the mixed-ability classrooms, but tried to do more collaborative projects and discussions in hopes that students would learn from one another. But Joel Castle, who is 12 and a zero, said that he did not work as hard now. ”My grades are going up, and that’s not really surprising because the standards have been lowered,” he said.

A couple of things to notice: First, the policy change is driven by racial gaps. Tracking makes the racial gaps visible, so it must be done away with.

Second, note that they aren't getting rid of tracking completely, they're just going from three tracks to two tracks. They're going to have an Honors Track for the top 25% of the kids. As you might imagine, the parents of the top 25% in Stamford tend to be high-powered people who work in Manhattan or at hedge funds in Greenwich or at marketing consulting firms in Darien or the like, and they will not put up with having their kids tossed in with underclass kids.

But middle class kids, well, too bad for them. They should have chosen their parents more wisely.

What we see across the country is that tracking constantly reappears in the public schools under various guises, as long as it's not called tracking — Advanced Placement classes, magnet schools, science academies with schools, and so forth. Eventually, the enemies of tracking, who aren't the sharpest knives in the drawer, figure out what's going on and stomp it out, only to have it reappear under a new name.

But it would be a lot more effective if we could track on a less ad hoc, less covert fashion. But we can't do that anymore because of racial gaps, which remain the single most dominant force in determining school policy.

Print Friendly and PDF