Monday, August 3, 2015

Rethinking Equity?

A couple of weeks ago at a concert I met an enthusiastic 7th grade trombonist.  During the intermission, our conversation moved beyond the excellent brass quintet we were listening to and his playing experience, and he began telling me about his school.  He explained that at his middle school students are divided into three teams -- the A team, the B team, and the C team -- and that the A team was for the kids who do well in school, the B team was for regular kids who don't work as hard, and the C team was for the kids who have trouble.  He had noticed that most of the kids in band are from the A team, but he wasn't sure why.  He also said that he mostly just knew kids on his team, and that he didn't see the others much.

He was enthusiastic and involved in his school and in band, and I didn't want to say anything to diminish that enthusiasm, so I just listened, but I found it easy to imagine the increasing stratification and inequity in his school.  As I listened to his description, it seemed to me that two different trends were converging to cause what I might call a "flight from equity" in this school. 

One trend is the proliferation of charter schools, and the tendency of charter schools to avoid students who are difficult to educate, whether that is because of learning disabilities, language issues, or behavioral concerns.  In this student's town there is a charter school whose name implies that only top students should apply (the "Advanced Math and Science Academy").  Most recently, according to the state department of education statistics (2014-15), this charter school has 0.1% English language learners (compared to 16.4% for the public schools in the same town), 3.6% students with disabilities (compared to 19.0% for the public schools), 9.6% "high needs" students (compared to 49.5% for the public schools), and 6.1% economically disadvantaged (compared to 25.2% for the public schools).  This charter school is obviously not working with the same population of students as the public schools, and I have heard from parents whose children attend this school that they like it because the school attracts "serious students" and does not have many students who are "behavior problems."  Meanwhile, of course, the student population of the town schools has become more heavily weighted toward students who do have learning or other difficulties, making it more difficult to have balanced classes and to succeed with all students.

Another trend is the increasing emphasis and consequences associated with standardized test scores.  One of the negative results of this emphasis is the tendency of many schools to reinstate "tracking," in an attempt to tailor instruction to the needs of different groups of students, in order to more effectively increase test scores.  Tracking is often supported by parents, particularly parents of high track students, who feel it will provide their children with advantages.  Listening to this student's description of the different "teams" in his school, which sound very much like "tracks," it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the school has this structure at least in part in response to parental concerns about the needs of the "serious students," as well as in a (well-meaning but misguided) attempt to give each group of students teaching geared toward their particular needs.  (As a former middle school principal with experience in scheduling, I wondered whether the students on the C team even could include band in their schedule or if their schedules were too full of remedial classes.)  Unfortunately, as Carol Burris has demonstrated so persuasively in her recent book, On the Same Track,  tracking like this just increases inequities and increases the achievement gap between different groups of students, because the lower tracks inevitably create a culture that inhibits learning.  (She also noted the National Research Council conclusion that "students should not be educated in low-track classes due to the overwhelmingly negative research regarding them." (Burris, 2014))  It seems to me that this town is well on its way, thanks to charter school policies and the pressures created by the current testing mania, to separate schooling for the "haves" and the "have nots."  Because of the charter school, the local students are split into two "tracks," one at the charter school, and one in the local public schools.  Because of pressure created by testing policies and parents, then, within the local public schools, students are further separated into three tracks, thus increasing inequity.

Burris noted, that supporters of school choice (such as charter schools) tend to think that a child's educational opportunity should depend on parental choices:
". . . Parents make good choices or bad choices as to where their children are educated, and children live with the consequences.  This is very different from the perspective that sees the providing of equality of opportunity for all students -- not only those in choice schools, but those left behind as well -- to be a public responsibility."

In my view, we should be responsible for all students and all students should have equal educational opportunities.  The research demonstrating the deleterious effects of tracking is extensive, and a system that tracks between schools (charter school and local public schools) and then again within the public schools is only exacerbating the problem of the achievement gap and making it impossible to succeed with all students.

If you haven't, read Carol Burris's book -- On the Same Track: How Schools Can Join the Twenty-First-Century Struggle Against Resegregation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014).  I hope that many people will read it and join the fight to provide excellent and equal educational opportunities for all our children.

No comments:

Post a Comment