radical education

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.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for writing an interesting post, though we’re not sure that using crude language to make your point adds to your position. That being said, we’re educators, and we respectfully hold a different point of view. In your own case, the test you describe being given was non-verbal; the fact that you speak standard English, therefore, was not a benefit to you – any more than it is for the many well-parented, intelligent, non-white students recently arrived from other countries who Also take this and other non-verbal tests at an early age and do well enough on them to be placed in a class with more academically able peers. Your charge of “racism” rings hollow when you consider these children, and we wonder why you exclude them from your calculus. You also miss another very important point: By and large, the classes you rail against are filled not just with “smart” students, but with students who come to school disciplined (in a positive sense) and ready to learn and be taught and their parents are active and interested in their education. (Yes, these are the parents who sign their students up for the tests you complain about. These tests are available to All students, and so what does one conclude about parents who are so completely uninvolved in their child’s education that they don’t bother to avail themselves of the opportunity to let their children participate?)
    We’ve long felt that if one wishes to express “moral outrage” of the kind you describe, that it should be directed at an education system that indifferently lumps All students together regardless of ability level, the degree to which they disrupt their class, and the degree to which their parents are willing to be involved. For the record, we do not teach “just the smart kids.” Nor are we racist or **** up.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The phrase “well-parented” makes me uncomfortable. I read it as “well-bred” or having a good pedigree (that is, coming from the right family and class background). It begs the question: What makes good parenting and who gets to decide? Are you saying that some children should get a different education (and, in effect, a lower quality one, even if that effect isn’t intended) because they were unlucky at birth? Yes, some parents are not very involved in their children’s education for a variety of reasons, including lack of time, lack of familiarity with or confidence navigating the system, language barrier, personal dysfunction, etc. Some parents are very involved despite facing one or more of those issues. But should children be disadvantaged further because their parents weren’t on the ball and didn’t know when the GATE test was being given, how to sign up, or why it was important? Yes, sometimes parents who aren’t involved with their children’s education are uninvolved with their rearing in general, resulting in kids who are badly behaved by any standard. I agree that students who pose a threat to others in the classroom or who are so disruptive as to distract from the teaching going on there do not belong in that classroom.

      But this leads me to point out another unfortunate aspect of tracked classrooms, which is that they’re different not just in terms of curriculum but in terms of behavior as well. I don’t believe these behavior differences are the result of bad parenting (except in a few cases, and like I said, dangerous or disturbed children shouldn’t be in any classroom where they are threatening others or preventing learning) but a byproduct of tracking’s social stratification. The book Keeping Track describes this phenomenon with many examples from research, and I’ve witnessed it in classrooms in which I’ve observed and taught. In my own experience as a student, I took Algebra in eighth grade, along with all the other GATE kids at my school. I knew math wasn’t my strongest suit, though, so freshman year of high school, I signed up for regular Geometry instead of GATE Geometry. I figured we’d just go slower and I’d get more help. Instead, I was in a class of general education track sophomores, kids who never got told they were smart. The atmosphere was rowdy, and the teacher had terrible classroom management and would do things like kick the trash can when he got frustrated and tell the class, “You’re all hopeless, completely hopeless!” My classmates weren’t doing anything terrible, they were just chatty and not particularly motivated. Why should they have been motivated? Most of them didn’t think they were going to college because no one in their family had gone and their school certainly didn’t treat them like they could by providing them with the same enrichment opportunities and resources that it did to the higher track kids (who were, did I mention, all white?). Had my Geometry classmates been spread out in mixed-ability classrooms rather than all thrown together in the same room with a teacher who clearly hated them and few peer models for what successful academic participation looks like, I’m quite certain they wouldn’t be too disruptive.

      I don’t think of heterogenous classrooms as “indifferently lump[ing] all students together regardless of ability level,” but as intentionally fostering meaningful and mutually beneficial interactions between children of diverse ethnic, language, socioeconomic, and family backgrounds. This is essential for social mobility and also for a healthy democracy, in which policymakers, voters, and neighbors actually understand and have empathy for people whose lives are very different from their own.

      Finally, I want to say that yes, some ethnic and immigrant groups perform similarly to their white counterparts on standardized tests. But that absolutely does not mean that tracking based on such test performance doesn’t affect other ethnic groups in a way that is racist. The intention might not be racist, but the effect is. That’s what institutionalized racism is. This particular discussion topic is a minefield, and I have no interest in debating on the Internet about why certain minority groups test well or “succeed,” while certain other groups don’t.

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