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K-12 Schools: To track or not to track? #2
Subj:     K-12 Schools: To track or not to track #2 of 2
Date:     12/19/2001 4:32:58 PM Central Standard Time
From:     Gypsycurse7
To:     mpls@mnforum.org
CC:     EubanksCrew@aol.com

In a message dated 12/17/2001 7:43:27 PM Central Standard Time, Michael Atherton writes:

>  The question is, "Do you feel that the public school system has the right to require that stronger students sacrifice for the benefit of the weak?"  I don't believe they do.  Beyond that, I believe that cooperative learning inhibits strong students from being all they can be, and in turn hurts the society by limiting the contributions they might ultimately make. [snip]

The social efficacy argument is a well worn argument of ability-grouping advocates.  If 20% of all persons employed in Minnesota need a college degree, and another 10% need both a high school diploma and at least 6 months of education at the community-Technical college level, what's the point of having 95% of all students on a college-preparatory curriculum track?  Business advocacy groups like the chamber of commerce have supported tracking at the high school level as a matter of social efficacy for more than 100 years.

The dedication of extra educational resources for students in the gifted and talented programs has also been justified as a matter of social efficacy. If fact, during the cold war era it was the patriotic duty of school administrators to see that gifted / talented programs had the most effective teachers, small class sizes, and the last word in enrichment strategies and educational technology.  Otherwise the Russians, the Japanese, the French, and so forth might close the educational quality gap.

In the 1983 "A Nation at Risk" report, the social efficacy argument was also advanced against educational policies that had supposedly gone too far in attempting to close the academic achievement gap.  On page one of that report it is asserted that,

"Our nation is at risk.  Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world....The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people....If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed it to happen to ourselves....We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral, educational disarmament. [Berliner, David C. & Biddle, Bruce J., 1995, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Frauds, and the Attack on America's Public Schools, pages 139-140]

However, the Sandia report, a review of data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics (US Department of Education) flatly contradicted the premise of the 1983 "A Nation at Risk" report.  The Sandia report indicated that the performance of students at the highest achievement levels had steadily improved during the 70s and 80s, and that the rate of improvement for the high performers was comparable to what was registered in the good ole' days. The test score gap was getting smaller because of a much greater improvement for the low performing students. The Sandia report was commissioned by the Bush, Sr. administration (1989-1992).  It was also suppressed by the Bush administration (ibid, p. 26).  

>  My solution is to not place the burden of teaching on students, but on teachers.  So, I support the alternative of placing a student in a class that matches their abilities (in a way this supports the theory of multiple intelligences).  This is not quite the same as "tracking" where students are placed on a slow or fast track and are unable to switch later on. Some students will be strong in some areas and weak in others [snip]

By at least one definition, ability-grouping is not the same as "tracking" if the students at each ability-level are reassessed at reasonably frequent intervals.  A move from one ability-level to another is possible, but usually quite improbable.  That's because in reading, math, science and other subject areas, a lot of the material has to be introduced and mastered in a certain order.  The stronger / faster students, if grouped together, ordinarily cover more ground and do it faster than a group of weaker / slower students.

In addition, I believe it is not a good idea to divide the time of K-4 students between different classes, especially in core curriculum subjects. One teacher can get to know each and every student in one group better than several groups.  And it is important to integrate the curriculum across subject areas in grades K-4 because the progress a child makes in one area is closely linked to progress in others, especially when it comes to reading proficiency.  

Even if one has separate art, music, and physical education classes, which can be justified as a way to give the primary classroom teacher some extra prep time, it would be best for all of those teachers to try to work as a multidisciplinary team. For example, the physical education teacher might have students play a game that reinforces their numerical computation skills.  Or words in a less common word group encountered in a song might be incorporated into the students' phonics exercises the week before it's first sung in the music class.

>  Well, some students are slower than others in some areas.  That's reality. The idea is to enable them to achieve success at a level that is obtainable for them.... So, Mr. Mann what do you do with kids who just don't get it before it's time to move on to the next grade? [snip]
My answer: What's unobtainable for some students who are tracked becomes obtainable in an untracked school.  If the public schools in Minneapolis are carefully untracked, fewer kids are going to be left behind in the first place, and the odds that children left behind will eventually catch up would improve considerably.

-Doug Mann, Kingfield

Doug Mann for School Board
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