To be more effective, our schools need to get off the track

March 10, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

Tracking. Ability grouping. Homogeneous grouping. If you're a parent with kids in public school, you know what those words mean: Put the children of like ability into the same classes so they can learn at the same pace.

But if you are a white, middle-class parent in the public school system, you know what those words really mean. Keep the poor learners and the behavior problems away from our kids.

Educators now know what tracking and ability grouping mean, too. Their surveys show kids in lower tracks get the poorest teachers, the most banal curriculum and the fewest extras. Their surveys show that these kids -- often poor, often black -- are relegated to worse than second-class citizenship in the public schools, and they are doomed to failure. It is 1954 all over again. There are schools inside schools. They are separate, and they are not equal.

It used to be that children were only tracked in high school -- you remember the college prep track and the vo-tech track. Soon, kids were tracked in junior high -- to get them ready for the college prep track. Now they are placing kids in first-grade reading groups based on their performances in kindergarten.

Kids get stuck in these tracks, and few ever move up. By high school, you have honors courses dominated by middle-class white kids while hallways and bathrooms are dominated by kids -- often poor, often black -- who have gotten the message that they can't succeed in the classroom.

"I don't know how this country lives with itself. We had a Supreme Court ruling on this," says Sheryl Denbo, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center in Chevy Chase, which helps schools desegregate.

"Tracking communicates your expectations very loudly," says Dr. Denbo. "These kids are smart, they know what group they are in from the first grade. To survive, to find a way to be positive about themselves, they decide not to value education.

"We separate them out, we dumb down their classes, tell them we don't have high expectations for them. And then we are surprised in middle school when they are violent, when education becomes a white thing, when racial trouble developes between adolescents."

Tracking is not just. And it undoubtedly isn't legal. The Office of Civil Rights is looking at these two-tiered school systems with a hard eye. And tracking doesn't work. The evidence is overwhelming that the repetitive, remedial tasks the lower-track kids were anesthetized with daily were not improving their skills.

Just the opposite is true. Put the lower-ability children in with the top kids and a skilled teacher, and more, though not all, will get it. They learn for the same reason the top kids learn -- the curriculum is enriched and the teachers are good. The poorer students are challenged, they are engaged and they perform. These kids are occasionally frustrated, but they are not hopeless. And principals from untracked schools will tell you that the anti-social behavior drops dramatically.

One problem. The system already works for middle-class white children. They have their accelerated groups and their good teachers and their challenging curriculum. What benefit does detracking offer our children?

"We who are middle class have to understand that doing this is in our self-interest," says Dr. Denbo. "Our children are going to grow up and live with children who have been deprived on many levels. That will not be a nice life."

Detracking is the right thing to do. It is a sin to consign any child at any age to a group that is not expected to succeed. But the hardest thing to do for those of us with a mothballed social conscience left over from the '60s is to sacrifice our children to those ideals. How can we send our kids off with a backpack and a bagged lunch into a social experiment?

The truth is, it is not such a risk for us. Untracking offers opportunities for the kind of cooperative-learning, problem-solving interaction among children that appears to be the future for education. And the biggest challenge to an administration trying to untrack its children is to continue to challenge its top kids. That school system will face skeptical parents who will hold its feet to the fire.

We can make detracking work for our children the same way we made the old system work for our children. With our presence, our vigilance, our involvement, our demands for accountability.

In short, we will be using our power the way we always have. This time, we will be using it for all the kids.

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