When I was a kid growing up, I could pretty much count on having the same students in my class year after year. I was in the ‘middle’ track of learners. We were labeled and sorted into groups, and locked there throughout our school career. By the time we all arrived in eighth grade together, we were wary. I remember having a few students in class whose sole purpose was to make our teacher cry. For these students, it wasn’t hard, nor was it a challenge; it was something to do because the school work we were doing was so boring. We did work that was menial. We didn’t get to do cool projects like the class next door. We didn’t get pushed to extend our thinking. We got workbooks and worksheets, rows and columns of desks, strict rules about not talking during classwork, and daily tears from our teacher because collectively, we couldn’t handle the prison-like feel of her class. Many students in our group felt we could never quite measure up. We internalized the differences between our class and the ‘high’ group of learners, and we saw firsthand that learning opportunities were limited for all but the elite students. We wanted to learn about things that mattered. We wanted to do work worth doing, but instead we got busy work that was aimed to teach us obedience and compliance.
I think about how our world has dramatically changed over the years since the days that I was in middle school, yet our school systems tend to be structured in very similar ways today. Despite the fact that most young people learn things from the internet when they are at home, too many teachers remain uncomfortable embedding 21st Century methods of instruction into their lessons at school, and in fact use methods similar to those used 40 years ago when I was an early adolescent. When I walk through classrooms and see menial assignments, coupled with expressionless looks in the eyes of students, I can’t help but to empathize. I remember that feeling oh so well.
The Culture of School is Often Incompatible with the Culture of Learning
It’s no wonder there are so many students who don’t like school. The culture of school has become incompatible with the culture of learning to which most youth are accustomed. For the most part, when students are in school, they are not free to learn the things in which they are interested. Students enjoy freedom, and in school they are not free. And the more our system continues to push this notion of compliance and obedience, the more certain students push back because they desire to be unrestricted.
As leaders, we have to insist on better practice in classrooms. We are doing our students a disservice and conversely, we are promoting inequity and injustice when we allow antiquated practices to continue. That glassy look in students’ eyes? They happen to appear disproportionately in the eyes of students of color, students learning English, and students needing special learning support. That look also happens to appear more frequently in schools located in low income neighborhoods. In many cases, these students have been ‘tracked’ together in low level classes throughout the day, just like I was.
Tracking Systems Exacerbate Inequities
In some schools there are rigid systems of tracking; structures that formally assign students to ‘high’, ‘middle’ or ‘low’ level curricular paths in an effort to provide them with instruction that is appropriate to their needs. Many argue that tracking is detrimental to students, especially in the ‘low’ and ‘middle’ tracks largely comprised of students of color and students whose families are designated as low-income. School tends to be more engaging and challenging in ‘high’ tracks; while ‘low’ tracks stress compliance and menial skills. Further, students in ‘low’ tracks are often assigned the least qualified teachers and students in ‘high’ tracks get the best – exacerbating achievement disparities and perpetuating a cycle of failure for students who struggle. Tracking unfairly isolates particular groups of students in what amounts to segregation. I’ve seen it time and time again in schools across our country.
While many of these tracking systems have been dismantled over the years, there are still way too many schools using this practice. Just this year I was visiting a school that has been highly recognized for success and achievement. The principal proudly told us about their accomplishments and explained the many systems put in place to ensure they continue to ‘make the grade’. One of the things she told us made me cringe. She said, “I know we’re not supposed to, but we ability group our students in the intermediate grades”. She went on to explain that she and the teachers believe they can better meet the academic needs of the students by having a ‘high’, ‘middle’, and ‘low’ tracking system. The students are grouped according to their ability in math, but stay together all day, regardless of their ability in other subject areas. She believes her results prove the system works, so the school isn’t about to change.
There are many middle and high schools throughout the country that also track. They do so by offering signature programs or academies such as STEM, International/Global, Career/Technical, Advanced Placement, Dual Enrollment, etc., that assign students to tracks offering more rigorous coursework with peers who are typically highly motivated and high achieving. To get in to these programs, students often have to complete an application, their parents are required to attend an information session about the program, and all have to agree to the rigorous demands and prerequisites that allow only ‘elite’ learners to participate. But what about all the other students who need to be challenged? What does their education look like? And what if their parents aren’t as involved or knowledgeable about navigating our school systems? What if they don’t know about the offerings? What if these students and their parents don’t understand the long-term benefits of participation in such programming? Why can’t we offer rigorous and enriching programs for all students?
Disrupting the Status Quo
As educational leaders with hearts and minds on equity, we should all cringe when we see students assigned to various tracking structures in our schools. Our aim should be to make systems changes that promote equitable access and opportunity. If we care about creating the conditions for all students to be able to achieve at high levels, we have a responsibility to call out our systems of tracking for the harm they cause. We also have the responsibility to develop new structures and systems that can support rigor and enrichment for all learners. This begins in kindergarten. It begins with looking at data, examining practice, and developing shared beliefs about students and learning. Leadership for Equitable access and opportunity should emphasize:
- Cultivating effort and nurturing the natural curiosities of students;
- Using strengths-based approaches that build upon students’ aspirations and dreams;
- Treating students as unique individuals with important contributions to the learning community; and
- Freeing up notions of intelligence and building upon ideas reinforcing all students have funds of knowledge that we can tap into.
This leadership also requires attention to the conditions of teaching and learning. There’s no question that it is more challenging to teach and reach every student when the range in literacy and other skills is wider. As leaders, we have to push for legislation that offers adequate funding because we know class sizes matter. We also know teacher quality matters, and teachers need to make a living wage in order to continue in their profession. Sometimes legislation actually mandates segregation, and when this is the case, we need to ensure our vocal opposition is heard. Finally, we also have to insist upon quality professional learning for teachers that includes time for reflection on identity, embedding culturally responsive practice, and embracing a continuous cycle of growth and improvement. Our pedagogy needs to become more sophisticated, and our curriculum more inclusive. Equitable access and opportunity should be the goal, but it’s going take a systems change approach to get there.
As leaders, we can get this process started by engaging in discourse that builds upon shared values and commitments. Below are a few belief statements one might consider for getting conversations started:
- We believe all students are entitled to the same high-quality education regardless of their prior achievement, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.
- We believe students who receive special education services should be included in general education classrooms.
- Our schools and programs are for every child, thus, we must adjust to the needs of every child, not the other way around.
- Our master schedule shapes learning opportunities for students, thus an equity lens is necessary throughout the process of design, build-out, and analysis.
- Our state standards allow for school and teacher flexibility – instruction should be student-centered, engaging for all, and there should be appropriate support for students who struggle.
- All work assigned to students should be work worth doing, and when students’ eyes glaze over, we have a responsibility to intervene.
- As educators, we have a responsibility to do no harm; by offering challenging and enriching experiences for all learners, we fulfill this responsibility.
No matter how we begin our efforts to disrupt the status quo, we won’t be able to achieve sustainable success without a commitment to systems that support a strong educational program promoting and encouraging high levels of learning for all students. Assigning all students to the same classes and then allowing teachers to “teach to the middle” will defeat the purpose of dismantling the tracking system, and in fact, will make things worse. An enriched curriculum that challenges and supports all learners is what we are going for here. It’s what we would want for our own children, so we should expect nothing less for all children.
The world is moving to an innovation-driven economy, and in the future of work, obedience and compliance are pretty much obsolete. The world needs artists, creatives, hackers, and go-getters. Our students, all of them, deserve access and opportunity to courses that tap into their talents and lead them toward projects and activities that capture their interest and imagination. In order to be ready for tomorrow’s jobs, our students need a unique set of skills and a more inclusive way of learning. Let’s lead the schools our students deserve and produce the workforce the new economy wants. It’s about equity; and ensuring access and opportunity is one critical step we can take right away.