Wrong Side of the Tracks


by Nancy Flanagan

When I was in Junior High — long, long ago — my school organized students into tracks by ability. They weren’t subtle about it, either. Each track was labeled (7A, 7B and so on, down to the dreaded 7F, a truly shameful designation, kids presumably destined for working at the landfill).

Our pictures were arranged in the yearbook by track, and we traveled together through civics, meat macaroni, and math — where we 7As were told that we had special books, and we would be learning about the associative and commutative properties, and other mathematical things apparently unfathomable to the lower classes.

A few years ago, I took my high school band back to my alma mater for an exchange concert. It was great fun, conducting in the auditorium where I once performed as a young flutist, and the folks at my old school were terrific hosts.

At a reception following the concert, a beefy, vaguely familiar-looking man pumped my hand and held out his card. He introduced himself, and suddenly I remembered him as a fellow 7th grader, 40+ years ago. His card identified him as a systems analyst and CEO of his own small company. He was also president of the School Board; he presented me with a plaque and made gracious remarks about my accomplishments as music teacher.

And what was the first thing I remembered about him? That he was in 7D.

That’s the thing about tracking

We educators arrogantly believe we know things about children and their capacity to achieve in life. We honestly believe we can sort and level kids, identify raw ability and potential through scientific testing, and classify without activating our biases around class, gender, color and personal qualities.

We think that labeling and grouping kids makes instruction more “efficient” — a hangover from our love affair with industrialization. We fail to acknowledge that the tags we hang on students can last for 40 years, although they may have no bearing on eventual life outcomes.

As No Child Left Behind languishes, I’ve been wondering about the identity of the whiz kid who came up with the phrase “soft bigotry of low expectations.” As rhetoric, it’s unassailable, a nifty slogan that captures something real and important: the concept that we are not challenging the kids who would most benefit by demanding curriculum.

The expression implies that our preconceptions about who is likely to succeed may be skewed, and our will to teach all children to the highest standards may be tainted by hidden doubts about their ability. The words nip at our social biases — who is going to admit that, in their heart, they don’t believe all children can learn at high levels?

It is deeply ironic, then, that one of the definitive outcomes of NCLB is a demonstrable narrowing of curriculum and a focus on getting low-achieving schools up to speed through highly prescriptive, teacher-proof instructional programs. There are a couple of ways to look at this: (A) children who can’t read or do basic math will never reach their potential; and (B) once again, we’re funneling the kids from the poor side of town into equally low-rent academics. For their own good, of course.

The antidote for low achievement

Most good teachers who see a need for tracking want to provide quality, targeted instruction for the underdog kids they’ve come to love; they don’t want to see them embarrassed or floundering in regular classes, and so provide little havens where kids can be successful. More power to these teachers—but the bigger question is around how early learning experiences in schools become self-fulfilling prophecy. The soft bigotry of low expectations, indeed. Here’s a revealing story from Ellen Holmes, of Maine:

A few years ago, as a reward for receiving my National Board Certification, I was moved from one side of the city I worked in to the other to see if I could “make a difference” for the students there. The students in my new school were much like the ones I had left, although many had low socio-economic status and raised-by-sibling syndrome. Most were performing one to two grade levels below their counterparts on the other side of the city.

Teachers did not believe that these students would ever achieve at high levels. They were hard-working professionals, but not used to differentiating, working together, or trying new ways of doing things. They were also pretty defensive about their students’ performance. In their minds, school was all about student accountability, not teacher responsibility.

A significant number of the 4th and 5th graders in this building were identified as Title 1 in both reading and math and were in two different pullout programs each day. Since there were only two grade levels in this school, there was considerable pressure to get those in the Title I program “tested out” before 6th grade. It was not going so well. Every day in the lunch room all I heard from my colleagues was how bad their students were.

One day I said – before my brain could stop my mouth – “Why don’t we try something new for second quarter? Why don’t you send me all of your double identified Title I students? We’ll tell the parents that we are starting a new integrated program and we want their child to be part of it. I’ll have the Title I specialists come to my room to support students instead of doing pullouts. That way, you can focus on the students you feel effective with, and we can focus on getting these students up and running at grade level curriculum and expectations.”

I was everyone’s new best friend.

What I did was expect that everyone would be able to do the work of a fourth grader. The first time we sat down as a class and started our first science project, I told them that they were going to build a replica of the Wright Brother’s glider. It was going to carry 80 to 100 pounds and fly for at least ten seconds.

First response: “Who are the Wright Brothers?” My answer: “How can we find out?”

This group of students went on to research, plan, measure, problem-solve, read, perform and act in ways that no one had ever thought they could. By Christmas, the glider was built and it flew….for 20 seconds! This was this class’s first public achievement.

Next, the three finalist slots in the school spelling bee were filled with students from this class. Then, the group developed a hydroponic garden like those developed for use in space. As a result of their correspondence with NASA scientists, they were asked to take part in a live downlink with astronauts on the international space station.

All but two of those 24 students tested out of the Title I program in reading, and all but six tested out of math.

I don’t think the success of this program was due to those students being remediated and self-contained. I believe that the success of this program was that these students were accelerated. I never let on to them or their parents that they were anything other than students who were chosen to participate in a special program.

How many millions?

How many millions of kids have been written off as academic washouts before they even make it to middle school? One of the most telling factors in Ellen’s story is that she prescribed challenging curriculum as the antidote for low achievement, not pushing kids into doubled-up, more-of-the-same basic reading and math.

Former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings argued, in 2007, that “the intensification of English and math instruction makes good sense on its own because…students who could not read or calculate with fluency would flounder in other subjects, too.”

Or maybe not. Maybe “intensification” is just the reincarnation of 7F — that label of greatest shame back at my industrial-era junior high.

Also see Nancy’s post about teaching essentials in the middle grades.

Nancy Flanagan spent 30 years teaching in a K12 music classroom in Hartland, Michigan, much of that time in the middle grades. A 1993 Michigan Teacher of the Year, she was an early successful candidate for National Board Certification. Today, she’s an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership and professionalism. She writes the no-holds-barred blog Teacher in a Strange Land for Education Week Teacher. You can follow her on Twitter @nancyflanagan.



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1 Response

  1. 09/26/2012

    […] Award winning teacher Nancy Flanagan reflects on how difficult it is to predict student potential and shares a story about some Title I kids who flew above the tracks.  […]

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