There’s an article in The New York Times today about an issue on which I take a strong stance: gifted and talented education (GATE). In education lingo, this is called “tracking,” which means sorting kids into different groups, classes, or cohorts based on their perceived ability level. It happens in almost all schools to varying degrees. In my elementary school district, those of us whose parents signed us up (key phrase there) took some type of logic test at the end of second grade. I remember looking at pictures of a piece of paper folded a bunch of times with holes punched through the layers and having to choose from A, B, C, or D what the pattern of holes would look like after the paper was unfolded. I remember feeling like it was impossible, but I did well and thus the course of my education and life were determined when I was seven years old. For the rest of elementary school, a handful of us got pulled out of class every Wednesday and put on a bus to another school where we did enrichment activities. In junior high, mostly the same group of kids took GATE classes separate from the rest and honors and AP classes in high school. Eventually, most of us went to selective colleges and now have jobs in academia or the white-collar workforce. Everything from our careers to our social circles are largely due to a test our parents signed us up for before we had even memorized a times table. I benefitted from this system, but as an adult educator, I will go so far as to say the system is morally reprehensible.
As much as I might want to believe that I am somehow innately smarter than the majority of society, I know the truth is along these lines: I have a privileged education because I am white, speak Standard English, grew up in a rich town with well-funded public schools, and have parents who made huge sacrifices so that I could be the first person in my entire family to graduate from college. In high school, I sensed something was amiss when I noticed my classes only had white kids in them when the school was half Latino. I TA’d for my AP English teacher senior year during a class he taught called “Basic English Skills.” Instead of reading books, the students were writing cover letters for job applications. This was their English class. The NYT article interviews a parent of triplets, each in a different track (gifted, general, and special ed) at their elementary school. The parent at first suggest that the classes are pretty much the same, but then backpedals: “Leon does seem to be pushed harder, Ms. Bloch said. He is asked to think of things in complex ways, not just to memorize dates of the American Revolution or names like John Adams, for instance, but also to understand relationships between events and people, or to explain possible motives or forces behind certain events, like the Boston Tea Party.”
The article focuses on one aspect of tracking, which is that it helps to perpetuate the de facto racial and socioeconomic segregation that is pretty much the norm in public schools. The article gives a lot of predictable statistics about gifted kindergarten in New York City public schools (i.e., its racial demographics are the inverse of the district’s) and describes the lack of access that students in the poorest neighborhoods have to these enrichment programs. Gifted kindergarten! Gifted kindergarten is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, nothing but privileged kindergarten covered up by language that tells five-year-old children that some people are better than other people.
It is really hard to explain to non-educators (and, horrifyingly, to some educators) what is wrong with tracking. Well, maybe it’s not that hard to explain, but it’s hard to accept that most people have never questioned the ethics of it. When I meet strangers at parties and tell them I’m a teacher, a frequent comment I hear is how it must be nice to be a teacher if you get to teach the “smart” kids. I want to slap people when they say stuff like that, but I can’t because they are totally and pathetically oblivious to how racist, classist, and just plain fucked up the comment is. As an observation, it is, of course, correct–it is nice to teach kids who have been labeled “smart” by the education system. What is disturbing is how people use that label as if were not a label at all but a genuine demarcation between humans without critically examining how and by whom the designation is made and how it shapes people’s identities for their lifetime.
So, on the one hand, I was pleased to see the article because it raises an issue people don’t think about critically enough, but on the other hand, it disappointed me because it doesn’t get even close to the root prejudice here. That tracking segregates schools by race is a problem. But the bigger problem is that we live in a society that teaches us from a very young age that if we can learn to do things better faster, then we are better people who have more value and status. The root of all discrimination is the belief that some humans are better than others, and as long as we believe that, as long as we communicate it to our children implicitly, then there will always be an underclass. And I’m supposed to tell my students, as a matter of political correctness, not to say the word “retarded” for something they think is stupid, as if their society doesn’t judge all of them by a set standard of ability, as if it doesn’t then class them off accordingly.