Education writer Peter Sacks is the author of Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education. Like me, he also blogs occasionally for the Huffington Post. Recently, he wrote a piece on how ability grouping has gone "underground" that left me shaking my head. You can read the piece, "Can Public Schools Fix the Achievement Gap? Yes, But They Won't" here.
Basically, it takes a certain sort of person to find evil in just about everything good that's going on in American education. He takes on AP classes, math and science magnet schools that are partially funded by corporations, and even a shocking move by some Berkeley High teachers to "quietly" offer what was called the Academic Choice program within the school (basically, a rigorous college prep curriculum). According to Sacks, all these are bastions of class and privilege. And as long as they exist, and every student is not enrolled in them, nothing will change.
So what is to be done? "With appropriate re-engineering and refocusing, American schools do have the capacity to diminish the achievement gaps that politicians like to talk about," he writes. "Schools need to pay a lot more attention to supplementing the cultural and social capital that disadvantaged students -- for a variety of reasons -- do not get from home because they, unluckily, were born to parents who lack education, information, and resources."
But I am trying to figure out how this would work in a schooling situation in which all separation of children has been deemed illegitimate. Let's say schools select out children from troubled backgrounds who are having academic difficulties for special attention. Perhaps they could be put in intensive math classes that would bring them up to speed. But would the children already performing at grade level need to be in the same intensive catch-up classes? Their presence would take attention away from those who need special help. But if these at-grade-level children are in separate classes from those who need extra help, we're back to some version of tracking, which will be viewed with much suspicion. Indeed, gifted education, when done right, is simply finding kids who need supplementation and giving it to them. Somehow this is OK if the kids have cultural and social capital needs. But not, in Sacks' view, if they have academic ones.
Of course, I would never claim that all is wonderful in the world of tracking and ability grouping. I know that in some schools, very bright poor or minority children are made to feel uncomfortable in college prep or AP classes. And too often, the "regular" tracks get bad teachers who don't challenge the kids. Sometimes honors classes don't challenge kids either, as we discussed in the last post. But the soft bigotry of low expectations is alive and well.
Still, say we took a high school and chose one of two options. Everyone takes whatever math class the most advanced 10 students are capable of, or everyone studies the level of math the ten students who are struggling most in the subject are able to handle. The first might be interesting. I would love to see an experiment with it. My guess is that some proportion of the next tier of students would rise to the occasion through diligent work. But among the rest, you'd have as much frustration and failure as if you told all students in a school to run a 20 minute 5k.
Unfortunately, when schools do away with ability grouping, they tend to choose some version of the latter option (not aimed at the very bottom, usually, but the lower middle). Good teachers can still figure out a way to make it work some of the time. With bad ones, though, it's a disaster. Every time some education writer or researcher goes on about the joys of heterogeneous grouping, I remember my 7th grade English class, in which the teacher spent day after day having us do pre-writing exercises called "clusters," since some kids simply couldn't handle an essay. Eventually, it got so boring that a number of the boys started jumping out the first floor window and running around the school. But who knows. Maybe this is what Sacks means by "tearing down the gates."