I have no idea what the answer is on Honors classes and heterogeneous classrooms. I debated this one in my Education program 10 years ago (no one got to choose the side they argued for, and I got to argue for tracking), but I feel like I have a new epiphany every day I teach about which way it should go.
I teach at a highly tracked school with the richest members of the community and the poorest immigrant kids from Tonga and Latin America in my district. My school is nothing but tracked. There are virtually no Latino, black or Tongan kids names on the GATE lists (unless someone like me nominates one which means that not a single teacher in their 7-10 years of schooling noticed that that this kid was bright); and the honors and AP classes are packed with Asian and white kids at a 40% Latino school.
WTF? I mean this just seems wrong, and it is wrong because common sense dictates that smart kids don’t belong to only a couple of ethnic groups. But this is what happens over and over again, and teachers, we love to try to turn it upside down. I mean, really, who can be a teacher who doesn’t believe that every kid is capable? If you believe that black and brown kids were born dumb, well you would have chosen a different line of work in this day and age.
Some teachers love tracking; some teachers hate it. Most teachers feel uncomfortable and have mixed ideas about it. Our one and only black teacher who teaches World History bemoans the day that AP Euro started being offered to sophomores because it meant that there was one less opportunity for kids to actually engage academically with each other across the color and socio-economic divide, and in a World History Class, no less. And now, white and Asian students can learn only Euro history and get away with it, along with their other 3-5 tracked classes of the day. And tracking doesn’t just track students; it tracks teachers. Many of the same teachers teach Honors classes year after year. The ELD teachers at my school are seen as second class citizens by many of the Honors English teachers because of the content that they teach and their students. It is actually incredible to see some of these interactions of snubbing and dismissiveness toward the ELD teachers, who, being realistic here, usually work twice or three times as hard creating lessons as an Honors English teacher, and went to the same colleges and read the same books as their peers. Duh. I know it seems like I am making this up, but it really does happen. I am just as sure that several Lowell teachers in this district look down at their colleagues who teach at Mission High, yet pat themselves on the back when they look at the Lowell API scores, as if the teachers actually accomplished that. But, when Mission High had their API scores started go up — that feat actually did require some heavy lifting and some amazing teaching.
After my one year stint teaching the lowest performing Latino students in a Spanish class for Native Speakers, I said never again would I subject myself to the sociological battle that ensued in which the students themselves argued with me that Latinos are indeed stupider than whites and Asians. I realized that the “sweat hog” tracked kids basically spend all day with each other and have never known what higher achieving students do in their classes and assume the worst about themselves. I even started getting shit by my administrators and the dean for sending down so many referrals, and I started wondering what an Honors English teacher would do — an Honors teacher who has rarely had to write a discipline referral on a kid. Seriously, I got crap because I chose to teach the lower performing kids and tried to discipline them for nasty behavior. Who wants to teach in that environment, seriously? No wonder no one wants to teach at lower performing schools — everyone is mean to you, not just the students. So I took a different tactic the next semester. I started elevating some of these kids into my Honors Spanish class at the semester just so some of these kids (including some of the worst offenders) would have access to higher level ideas and functional academic behaviors in their peers. Each year I have tweaked the program so that no Spanish teacher in my department ever has to deal with a class of purely unmotivated and angry kids who have hated school for a long time and have never gotten to be around honors kids doing interesting things. Now we mix them into other classes where, wow — many of these kids perform and achieve at a higher level. Learning is so amazingly social and psychological, and the trick seems to be to have kids be around as many motivated kids as possible; yet not in a class that is so far above them that they feel completely stupid.
We all judge. Every student judges himself and forms a belief about their academic potential, and when they are in tracked classes they believe what the tracking is telling them, and that is usually a racial, if not racist message. And teachers judge. And I judge. And yet I am bewildered by how students show me different sides of themselves each year, each semester. My super low level special ed student from last year’s Native Speakers class begged me to let her take my Honors Spanish class, and I really didn’t want to let her. She had so many problems with memorization and deep understanding, I thought that she would die in a more rigorous class, and yet she didn’t. She freaking completely turned around 180% and articulates her opinions as well as any other kid in my class and passes my hard grammar benchmark tests the first try, unlike many of my white and Asian straight A students.
The suck about tracking is that it is always so wrong, even in one summer a student can change their mind about themselves and their goals. And all of the current research on intelligence and performance is about the psychological and sociological games being played, how we all learn more or less the same; and thus more and more teachers are tapping into this research to change young minds about how they think about themselves and their potential. I don’t know if this is the research that SFUSD is looking at, but I am the first one to argue for fewer divisions up until age 14 or 16, deeper and more meaningful content for everyone, then let the young adults figure out what track to take next and give them some vocational options. It also seems to me that SFUSD, or the lack of leadership at many of the schools, may mistake “equity” for teaching to the lowest common denominator. And this is probably more a societal error because all of us are just accepting test-driven lowest common denominator curriculum as the nature of public schools these days. The trust between the public and the schools diminishes and diminishes, and by taking away “honors,” the school system alienates the educated families further. And yet, many many teachers want more heterogeneous classrooms because we, as teachers, are more engaged by them, as they engage more of our students.
But my rant doesn’t mean that I think that all kids should be together all the time either. When grouping students in any class, kids need to be grouped with others at their level much of the time. In my class, I think super carefully about how to group the kids. Of course, sharp kids need to be challenged. Sometimes this means that the uber sharp “I want to learn Spanish right now” kid has to work with the kids who arrived in this country two weeks ago, and won’t get to use a word of English; sometimes this means two brilliant creative story writers work together to create a dialogue; sometimes this means two weak students have to struggle together and gain some confidence in themselves. And sometimes brilliant kids flop; and sometimes weak kids surprise you (and I get giddy when all of my preconceived notions are spoiled again!)
If schools are taking away rich engaging curriculum from kids, and teaching to the test, it is not in the name of “equity,” but in the name of poor teaching or poor leadership, and definitely poor politics. If you have to take an art class away, you better have a lower student to teacher ratio in teaching something else. Equity for me and my cohorts means providing amazing teachers for everyone, and having a full well-rounded curriculum for everyone. Heterogeneous classes are part of how to do this; and specialized leveled classes are part of how to do this. (Currently, the state of California mandates that all 9th graders take Algebra, even if they came here from rural Guatemala speaking Mayan and can only count to 10, it is illegal to teach them anything except Algebra, until they can be tested for Special Ed). There is no one approach that will work all the time, and leadership has to figure out the best way to balance it, and create trust with the community in creating this balance.