For the last couple articles, we’ve been discussing how tracking works and how the approach to ability grouping has slowly come to hurt all three of the tracks (high, average, and low) that most schools have in place. (See ”Tracking” and "Part II".) One consequence of the quality of the honors classes’ declining is that some schools are considering adding another track.
Since the honors track isn’t really all that honorable anymore and those who are genuinely honors material get bored in the new dis-honors classes, some districts are considering a “Super Honors” class (a track supposedly above Honors). Naming these super-honors classes will be tough, since honors has always been the top of the heap, but don’t underestimate the creativity of educational bureaucracy when it comes to pleasing one of its most demanding pressure groups—honors parents. I’m guessing that “gifted,” “enriched,” or “mega-brainiacs-to-the-max with vitamin-enriched, super-charged, scrubbing-bubble learning particles” will be the handles that they come up with. As these sections evolve, it will be interesting to see what happens with grades. You can bet that they won’t take away the weighted grades in the more established, lower honors classes; maybe they can double weight the grades in the mega-honors classes. (See "Over Weighted Grades" for more.) Instead of a grade point of 5 for an A on a 4-point scale, these wonder-honors students would get a 6! Getting straight-A’s as evidenced by a grade point average is rapidly becoming a meaningless accomplishment.
Anyway, in place of having low, medium, and high as the tracks in our schools; we’re headed toward medium (with all the special education students who have been “included”), high (with all the medium kids who do their homework), and highest (with all the original honors students who are currently being held back by the new honors students who really aren’t honors caliber). You’ve got it—I can tell that you must be in that super-de-duper honors class, aren’t you?—yeah, we’re winding up back where we started way back in the beginning with three tracks for the low, average, and talented students. At least we’ve added new obstacles (like IEPs and weighted grades) to go along with all the emotional turmoil and added challenges of working special education students into the mainstream. There must be some sort of formula we could use—you know, with numbers and squares and variables and standard deviations—that could accurately predict how long it would take for any educational idea, no matter how bad, to be born, to catch on, to become standard procedure, to become discredited, to fade away, and to be reborn under a new name.
Tracking, then, is probably about three-fourths of the way through that cycle. We’ve loved tracking for as long as I’ve been teaching, but there have been critics and legislators who’ve taken a few swipes at it. Its resiliency has been demonstrated by its ability to mutate into different forms while maintaining its basic character. It’s more efficient for most schools and educators to teach students who have been grouped by ability; and high, medium, and low are what seem to work for us. And the average kids have always gotten screwed.
I’m not advocating the elimination of tracking, but we do need a basic philosophical shift to maximize the benefits of ability grouping—the “Squeeze” approach. If you squeeze a balloon in one place, it will bulge elsewhere, which is what’s been happening with our tracking system. The low classes got squeezed, causing the average classes to bulge. That bulge caused many average students to get squeezed into honors, which is now feeling its own squeeze and could result in a “hyper” honors bubble.
My version of the squeeze entails a double squeeze—at both ends, funneling the vast majority of students into the middle. We need to pare down both the low and the high to their absolute essence so that over 90% of all students wind up in average classes.
We started with a system that assumed every kid was average and dumped the few “irregulars” that didn’t fit the regular curriculum into haphazard “pull-out” programs, like special reading groups or gifted programs. As the constituency for those extreme students grew dissatisfied with how the “dump” method was working, those parents worked hard to force the schools to improve the offerings for their special needs kids. Thus, special education and honors programs proliferated and became better at serving the needs of those populations.
The problem was, given the whole “finite slices of the resource pie” issue, that these programs came mostly at the expense of the quality of education for the middle. Average classes got bigger with a wider range of abilities (especially once the special education movements of mainstreaming and then inclusion caught on) with the least experienced teachers in charge. We should reallocate that pie by making the extremes more exclusive, not eliminating successful programs.
Smaller class sizes, additional personnel, and appropriate inclusion have improved the lot of special education students. But the “special” designation door is wide open, allowing many more students through than appropriate. Any line we draw that allows special treatment on one side and prohibits it on the other will be arbitrary, but we’ve erred on the permissive side of that border to the point that many students who have been identified as special education are not really special needs at all, but the offspring of canny parents who have worked the system to the advantage (at least short term) of their slightly below-average child. We’ll analyze special education in more detail another time.
And the same is true at the other end where more and more good students who do their homework and behave get pushed into honors classes. Think about it: We used to believe that only about 5% of any student population would be gifted enough to need accelerated, enrichment classes, usually in one or two subject areas (like reading or math). Now, many students are in ALL honors classes. Even if you’re extremely talented in math, that doesn’t mean you’re equally gifted in English or history. The opening of honors sections to anybody who wants in has significantly dropped the overall skill level of these classes. Ironically, this hurts the really smart kids in that discipline (the ones for whom these classes were created) more than anyone else since they’re not being challenged by the material any more.
I know that I’ve a tendency to make up statistics and throw them around with abandon, but we could easily cut the population at both ends of the continuum by at least 25-33%, very possibly even more. Those cuts would improve the lot of all three groups: We could zero in on the difficulties of the special needs students with the idea of helping them transition to average classes instead of creating special education junkies who are completely dependent on the system to get them through and who accept no responsibility for their own education. We could truly enrich our academically talented students by allowing them the freedom to explore issues in more detail and to follow their own interests without injecting them with weighted-grade heroin and diluting the curriculum so that many average kids can sneak into the honors classes. But most importantly, we can divert more resources to the vast savannah of the average.
Education is supposed to provide equal opportunity for everybody, which is the biggest problem with tracking—it takes the level playing field and tilts it in favor of special interest groups. By funneling more resources into the extremes, we wind up short-changing the middle, which is where most of us live. We need to devote more time and effort on methodology, techniques, and approaches for the average students. You can’t go for more than a couple of days in a school without hearing about some new conference, program, or technique to help educators teach special education or honors students. It can be years, however, between anything that targets the average.
We need a Declaration of Independence for the Average in order to get the bureaucratic behemoth that is education to heave its bulk in the direction of our regular kids. We could try to do this through the legislative process, but I’d prefer for us to take care of this without restrictive, often stupidly clumsy and expensive laws from outside the schools forced upon us. (Can you say, “No Child Left Behind”?) Regardless, the plight of the average students is one of those ignored secrets of our schools that has to be addressed. When the national organization, “Students CReated as Equals Without Exceptional Demands” (SCREWED), is formed, you can count me in.