The students that stood on that stage in front of the rest of the graduating class, indeed, would be top students during their four-year college careers. We were the ones that would go on to become doctors, engineers, architects, educators, law school students, and dentists, to name a few. Our schooling experience had been specifically designed to put us ahead of everyone else. It had set us up to be leaders and to be far more successful than the average student.
This is not to say that students on lower academic tracks cannot succeed academically in college or in their careers. They absolutely can—and do. But these are exceptional cases.
The question is this: Why do we let some faceless bureaucratic institution decide which children are worthy of high investment and which ones are not?
Think like a parent: You have a child that you love and adore with all your heart. He is, after all, a part of you. You have placed him in what you know to be a good public school just outside your neighborhood. You know that your Johnny is a smart, smart boy. He asks questions, he is articulate, and he always says he wants to be a pilot (Johnny has an obsession with airplanes). But Johnny has real difficulty sitting still and focusing on one task, let alone taking long, standardized tests. He also gets into trouble in class pretty often because he’s a talker. He’s probably not the best reader, you know that, but you also know he’s smart enough to become an excellent reader. His best subject is math, but because he’s not great at taking long tests, he often scores poorly on his math tests. But you know he understands the material. He just needs practice with his work ethic and focus.
When presented with the option of whether you’d like to place your son on the lower or higher academic track, what do you choose? Do you choose to lower the standards so that he does well with ease? Or do you choose to raise the standards so that he is challenged and forced to learn more?
Unfortunately, it isn’t your choice. And most likely, Johnny will be placed on a lower academic track. For those persistent parents that do know how the system works, there may be a chance that they have more of a say. But ultimately the decision that will dictate your child’s future is made by that faceless bureaucratic institution.
The fact of the matter is that “there is overwhelming research evidence that tracking students by ability has no educational benefit for students and in fact is deleterious to academic achievement, extracurricular participation, self-concept, peer relationships, career aspirations and motivation” (Black Students and School Failure, Irvine, p. 10).
Despite all the evidence against its benefit, tracking still functions as a means of differentiating education in our public schools. There is no doubt, and empirical evidence proves, that all people are endowed with different strengths and weaknesses. The tracking system, however, does not differentiate on this basis. If this were the case, schools would group students by these strengths and weaknesses so that they were in classes that catered to them.
Instead of differentiating the means and methods of educating students based on their strengths and weaknesses, schools differentiate based on the standards applied to those students. The end result is that the graduating class comprises students on the stage, who are starting college with a college-level educational background; and students on the floor, who barely made it through high school or just breezed by, and lack critical skills they’ll need if they even go to college. And that’s not to mention those students—about 100 out of my initial class of around 800—that drop out entirely and never graduate.
I can’t help but think that our education system in America is built to perpetuate and worsen the widening gap between rich and poor, white and people of color.
This is the reality—that the increasing achievement gaps in education reflect the growing disparity in our nation as a whole. The statistics, the data, the evidence are all there, but absolutely nothing that addresses the root of the issue is being done.
I’m convinced there is a lack of action for a reason.