Last time, we went over how ability grouping in schools (tracking) has, despite its usefulness and good intentions, hurt the average student (see ). Larger classes run by the least inexperienced teachers are the norm in most middle-track classrooms. The irony of this is that average classes are the toughest to teach.
Right off the bat, those larger class sizes make these classes harder to manage. Then, the ability levels of the students vary much more widely with supposedly “average” students. The students’ reading levels, motivation, work habits, behavior, and maturity all impact how a class functions each day; and the average classes have the largest variation in all these areas: Reading levels will fluctuate from a year or two behind to college level; motivation will vary between surly non-compliance to slavish devotion; behavior could be meek and respectful or insubordinate and mean; and maturity ranges from sub-sixth grade to little old lady. “Average” is really an inaccurate classification for these courses as that perfectly middle-of-the-road kid doesn’t come along very often.
Simply controlling an average class can be the major objective for the teacher each day. “How did class go today?” somebody might ask the average class teacher. “Great!” comes the reply. “Nobody got hurt, stormed out, or swore at me. It was our best class in weeks.” Without a doubt, average classes are the toughest to teach, and that the most inexperienced teachers get tossed into them without a second thought doesn’t make the learning environment any “richer.”
So, let’s see what our typical average class is like: It will have more students than the honors or special education classes, especially if the school district is having any financial problems. (And these days, what school district isn’t?) It will have the most diverse student population in terms of ability, motivation, and behavior. It will have the least-experienced teacher in that department—or the older teacher who isn’t as motivated as he once was (according to opinions on the street, which we all know CAN be inaccurate). The “saving” grace in all this is that nobody really seems to be paying much attention.
Since the path of least resistance is the predominant administrative management style (See and for more on this), average kids keep getting screwed because they don’t have those shrill advocates that have carved out better situations for honors and special education students. The key ingredient for improving the lot of average students is for the their parents to rise up and demand that average students get at least the same treatment as everybody else.
My suggestion to all parents of average students is to learn from the special education and honors parents who pressured the system to get their children as many slices of the pie as they could. Get average-student advocates elected to school boards, talk to legislators, but above all else, call the administrators to let them know that you won’t accept second-class treatment any longer. In school districts, one phone call on an issue is a trend, and three constitute a tidal wave of public opinion. So remember: The squeaky wheel gets the grease, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, stand up and be counted—whatever cliché will motivate this silent majority, somebody has to advocate more vociferously on behalf of these kids. Sure, it’s somewhat embarrassing in this over-hyped, superlative-laden era to admit that your child is “average;” but as we’ve already pointed out, that label has become absurd with the wide range of types of students in these classes, and the truth is that the resources of our schools are skewed to the extremes, with the middle getting gypped. And it won’t change unless something or somebody makes it change.
The gulf between honors and average classes is growing wider as well. As greater numbers of parents become aware of how much more opportunity is provided in honors classes, they push those borderline average/honors students into honors classes. Inclusion (putting special education students into average classes) has really exacerbated this problem: Now that students who are well below grade levels get placed into average classes, the range of abilities—already much broader in average classes than the other two ability groups—has grown considerably. Essentially, the bottom of the ability range has dropped significantly, meaning that the material and work required for average classes gets watered down.
Increased teacher attention and time are devoted to figuring out what to do with these included kids, necessarily at the expense of something else. Teachers constantly struggle to find the median difficulty level which will provide challenges for the smartest students while still allowing for some success for those with less ability. In public education, the goal should be for all students to break an intellectual sweat without pushing them to the point where they give up in frustration because no matter how much they try, they still fail. It’s never stated directly by anyone—except me, obviously—but most teachers believe that any student who tries should pass. You can take all those mission statements, behavioral objectives, and authentic assessments and pretend that they outline the philosophy of our schools; but as far as teachers go, if your child is a “good kid” (one of the highest compliments a teacher can bestow on a student, by the way), he or she will pass. A “good kid” is one who does all the work, is well-behaved in class, seems to have solid values, and tries.
For most of us, we have no stomach for failing good kids, regardless of how they do on standardized tests. But as we keep increasing the ability range in the average classes, it becomes easier and easier for the good kids to do and learn very little while still achieving top grades. So when they get A after A in the average classes without working very hard, the natural impulse is to move them up to honors classes.
What’s happening is that all of the good kids are leaving the average classes to run with the big dogs in honors. Of course, this hurts both levels. The average classes no longer have as many positive role models either academically or behaviorally. Don’t underestimate the impact the class environment has on what actually gets into your child’s head.
If every day, your meek, well-behaved son sees anyone who raises his hand ridiculed, anyone who goofs off esteemed by his peers, anyone who blows off homework seemingly getting away with it, and anyone who acts like anything associated with learning sucks venerated as cool; it will be much harder for him to maintain his cooperative ways, to say nothing of how much he is learning in a classroom that bears more resemblance to a circus than an oasis of academic pursuits. Also, that average teacher is spending more and more time trying to find things for those inclusion students to do and devoting less time to monitoring those quiet kids who don’t have an IEP (officially, an Individualized Education Plan, which all special ed students are required to have).
Your son is getting lost in the shuffle, and he won’t be able to read or write as well as he would have if those borderline (now honors) kids were still in the room and the inclusion kids were in smaller “basic” classes. We’ll discuss special education another time, but the bottom line is that those special education students are NOT necessarily feeling better about themselves simply because they have been placed in an average class.
Average classes are rapidly becoming a vast desert of disinterested, apathetic kids who know that the system can’t fail all of them; so if they just maintain their passive-aggressive behavior (do little in or out of class), they’ll get by. Meanwhile, the teachers are either struggling to stretch their lessons to cover the immense ability differences that they’ve been given, or have abandoned most academic goals in the fight to maintain control each day. No wonder they see so many movies in those average classes!
Don’t feel too smug just because your children have managed to get into honors classes. The standards of these classes are also being compromised to allow those with less ability in. Most of the incoming freshman classes at my old school have around 450 students in them. When I started there in 1987, we typically had between 10-15% of any given class designated as honors in English—usually two sections with about 50 students. Those numbers allowed for an intense, enriched curriculum; we could really rock and roll on grammar, writing, literature, speech, and anything else we chose to explore.
Twenty-one years later, the class of 2012 (which began in 2008) had five sections of English I Honors, with 110 students (Hey, I said the honors kids get the best class sizes). To be completely fair, this freshman class was closer to 500 than 450, but an 11% increase in the number of freshman shouldn’t lead to a 220% increase in the number of honors students. What really happened is the bar was lowered for honors entry.
Thus, honors teachers are faced with one of two unpleasant alternatives: One, they can lower their standards. The class will not get as far, the kids won’t learn as much, and the true honors students mixed in with all the pretenders will be less challenged and more bored. For the most part, however, this scenario won’t be noticed by very many people. As long as the grades are good, the students aren’t disruptive, and the teacher keeps the students busy; nobody except those bored students will care much that honors has become “sorta” honors.
Where it really hits the fan, though, is when that stubborn honors teacher refuses to lower his expectations for what honors students should be able to do. Now we’re talking bad grades. In case you’ve never had much contact with honors students or their parents, a “bad” grade in an honors class to some is anything lower than an A. Should the teacher keep what he believes to be the “right” standards in his class, students will wail noisily, but not as stridently as their parents. Administrators don’t like it when parents howl, so they will watch that teacher more closely. If the teacher has tenure and can get used to spending an inordinate amount of time on the phone with “disappointed” parents and in conferences with “confused” students, eventually, his reputation as “mean” will spread so that everyone will know that because of his eccentricities, As don’t flow like water in his class. In the unusual event that the honors teacher is non-tenured and young, her future will all depend on the integrity of her administrators. The most likely outcome? In the words of White Sox announcer Ken Harrelson, “She gone!”
I know it seems absurd to you that somebody could lose her job because she didn’t give the smart kids enough As, but remember: just because you went to school doesn’t mean you know how schools really work. (See ) The unintended consequences of tracking combined with inclusion have hurt both average and honors courses. In our final installment of the tracking odyssey, we’ll pull all this together and make some suggestions that would help this struggling concept to work better for everyone.