Back-(to)-tracking on student expectations

I came across two disturbing and closely related articles in the Mar. 6th, PEN Weekly NewsBlast.

The first timely piece comes from Kylene Beers, President of National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) who exposes the growing trend of “segregation based on intellectual rigor” in urban schools. [News flash, it happens in rural schools too.] She argues that poor students are being subjected to pedagogical segregation—condemned to lower expectations and mind-numbing basic drills.  What I found most chilling in the article, however, is the attitude of the principal and teachers that they are helping the students by imposing test-drill methods and what Beers called “militaristic” disciplinary procedures. The staff make frequent references to the students’ chaotic home lives, and their need for structure.

This drive for “law and order” in the classroom sometimes masks a deeper fear of the students and the parts of society they represent. What becomes most important in these settings is control; making the kids submit to authority for the sake of security [real or perceived] trumps everything else. For all the talk in education about helping students become critical thinkers, the truth is many people–including some educators–don’t really want all these disadvantaged, disaffected youth thinking critically about their situations, and how things got the way they are.

The piece resonated with me, and makes me wonder whether this approach to poor and minority students is spreading due not only to the NCLB-driven emphasis on teaching-to-the-test, but also to the proliferation of the “culture of poverty” myth.

As several of my TLN colleagues have pointed out in our discussion of this article, this revives the ongoing debate about tracking. Detracking in places where it has been in place a long time is a challenge: logistically and psychologically. It’s hard for educators (like all people) not to attempt to categorize people.

Worse yet, schools that had gotten away from tracking are going back to it. Partly, out of a sense that it is helpful to students and because actually providing differentiated instruction to students in heterogenous settings is so difficult. The tendency in a mixed setting is to aim for the low/middle, rather than aim high and everybody pull everybody up. But I learned from some of the old veteran black teachers who worked in the old racially segregated schools (which for the most part, were heterogenous out of necessity) that aiming high for all students is not only possible but essential.

The ultimate form of tracking is the alternative school, which is why I was not surprised by the second article highlighting the recentreport by the ACLU on the alternative schools here in Mississippi. Although most of the public response here was aimed more at the ACLU’s reputation than the content of the report, the facts are clear. In Mississippi, [and surely we’re not alone] alternative schools are seen more as holding tanks for the students with chronic disciplinary problems, than as places for meeting the learning needs of the most challenging students. According to the report’s findings, twice as many African American students are referred to alternative school as compared to white students; a disproportionate number of special needs students are sent to alternative school; and black students are more likely to be sent for “subjective” reasons rather than “objective” ones. As the authors put it, “Unfortunately, where alternative schools neglect their remedial role and overemphasize punishment, they may contribute to a nationwide trend known as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ toward pushing out and criminalizing students who misbehave.”

All across the state, in too-familiar scenarios, the investigators found that black students were more likely to be sent to alternative school as punishment for offenses for which white students got lesser punishment or none at all.  In one example, 7 black students and 7 white students from the same school district were found guilty of the same offense. All seven of the black students were sent to the alternative school for 22 weeks each; only two of the white students were sent to alternative school, and only for 13 weeks. Three of the white students were suspended for three days; the other two only got a warning (ACLU, p.32).

I don’t teach in a fantasy world. Discipline problems are real and need serious, consistent solutions. One of those solutions is effective teaching based on high expectations for all students.