Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Beaten Track

By Shannon Peters Talbott
Taken from Santa Clara Magazine

Do ability groupings serve students' best interests?

If you graduated from a U.S. high school during the past quarter-century, chances are you were tracked. As a college-bound student, you probably took algebra, perhaps advanced placement English or honors history, while your counterparts who were headed straight for jobs may have been assigned to general math, business English, or bonehead history, as they might have called it.

For the past 40 years, ability groups, which divide students according to scholastic performance, have been standard practice in the United States. Brought on by Sputnik, the Soviet space triumph of the late '50s, the tracking movement was America's attempt to eclipse the Soviet Union through rapid development of the country's brightest students.

Currently, however, this system is being rethought. How well does tracking accomplish its purpose--the encouragement of the country's top minds? And how does such a setup serve the needs of other students? Those questions have taken on particular urgency as studies indicate that ability grouping often results in racial segregation, with minority students confined mostly to lower tracks.

The moral dimension of this debate was explored in a recent session at SCU's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics: "The Ethics of Ability Grouping: A Brief Against Detracking Our Schools?" Presenter Jeffrey Zorn, senior lecturer in English, argued that ability grouping should be retained as the best way to ensure a solid education for students at all levels. He supported ability grouping within heterogeneous classrooms as early as elementary school and encouraged separate institutions by high school for students of different abilities.

Zorn rejected as repugnant the purposeful use of tracking to resegregate students at integrated high schools, but he also suggested that placing those minority students who are struggling academically in classes where they could not succeed was not the way to remedy racial injustice.

In the audience for Zorn's presentation was Stephanie Etukudo, psychologist for the University's Counseling Center. Etukudo argued that disparities in ability at the high-school level are, in some ways, created by the educational system itself, in which low-income and minority students are more likely to attend schools with lower expectations and less money.

As an advocate of detracking, Etukudo said she believed a fairer distribution of resources would reduce the differences between students that have seemed to necessitate ability grouping. She also argued that lower expectations--set at an early age and often based on extraneous factors such as race--result in lower achievement.

We asked Etukudo and Zorn to continue their discussion on the ethics of tracking for Santa Clara Magazine. Their dialogue appears below:

Jeff Zorn: I became interested in this topic when I began to see detracking as an ascendant movement in the education field. The most progressive thinkers became detrackers, and I began to see articles entitled, "How to Make Detracking Work," "The Case for Untracking," and "Ending Ability Grouping Is a Moral Imperative." I didn't feel that this was obviously wrong or muddle-headed, but it seemed hasty. I began to think more about my own ideas on ability grouping and why I almost instinctually support it.

First of all, I think we need ability grouping on a cognitive basis. There are some things for which there are strict cognitive prerequisites. The best example is a middle-school math class, where, in order to do algebra, you have to have a mastery of simple arithmetic. I cannot imagine how a detracked eighth-grade mathematics class would work productively.

My next concern is what would happen to anyone above average in a detracked classroom. That may sound elitist, but I don't mean it to be. I picture teachers teaching to the middle, necessarily going over the heads of some of the students and undershooting others. Just by the force of it, they will have to spend more time with students who just aren't up to the material, leaving the others to teach themselves. I see this leading to what I call the lowest-common-denominator standard.

Finally, detracking is presented as being good for lower-tracked students. I don't think that's necessarily true. I don't think it helps less-developed students to be grouped with students who are far ahead of them. I know self-esteem is a turning point in this debate, and it is thought that you get low self-esteem if placed in a low-tracked class. I would suggest that self-esteem could be hurt if you are put in a class with kids who are much above you and you are seen as the slowest in the group.

Stephanie Etukudo: I bristle at the utopian perspective that if we detrack our classrooms and put all students together under one common curriculum, they will all achieve similarly. No matter how we formulate our educational system, I believe there will be mass variability. What I take issue with is that some proponents of tracking seem to systematically ignore variables that determine a student's ability to achieve.

Several variables affect performance in a classroom, including, for example, teacher evaluation and standardized intelligence testing. Both are deficient. There are numerous studies that suggest that teacher evaluations are rather biased, and racial factors influence how students are evaluated. There is also literature suggesting that the more similar teachers are to their students, the more likely the educators are to be reinforcing and believe in their students' abilities. They automatically assume that some have greater capacity for learning.

We've bought into this erroneous concept of intellect or intelligence, and we make tracking decisions based upon it. I believe this thinking is flawed. Even I, with my high academic achievement, would hesitate to say that I have a greater amount of intellect than the masses. I think it's a case of my exposure and experience, which I obtained by virtue of an available educational system. I don't think the mass of students have that opportunity.

JZ: This is probably an area in which we agree. I don't like the use of general intelligence testing for placement. I don't believe in this "G factor" [general intelligence or IQ], which differentiates students in the classroom. I see people as being good at certain things and not so good at others. I also agree that there is much subjectivity in teacher evaluation, based on race and gender and class. I would like to see this changed. In my view, however, this reform needs to be made within the tracked system.

I'd like, however, to talk much less in terms of capacities and abilities than in terms of achievements. I think that teachers, irresistibly, have to work with children and young adults based on what they can do right now. I've always been leery of trying to infer ability and capacity from what you can do. It's the same with music: If a child has never been exposed to the oboe, he or she will not be able to play it. Pedagogically, we deal with the present, regardless of capacity for moving on in leaps and bounds. I don't see the good that's done by mixing those who can play the oboe with those who cannot.

SE: I have a different view. I think educators should look at students not in terms of achievement, which is retrospective, but in terms of capacity. I view individuals as fishbowls: At the beginning of the educational experience, the bowls are one-tenth full. Our job as educators is to fill these fishbowls to the brim. When we emphasize achievement, I think we're viewing the fishbowls as one-tenth their actual size. I object to this.

JZ: You have a wonderfully positive attitude, and I think all educators need that. You can't go into a classroom situation thinking that you are seeing all that the students can ever do. I'm not sure how this cuts with the tracking issue, however. While some arrangements might imply that we are setting limits on what students can achieve, it isn't built into the idea of tracking. In fact, I would be against these types of ability grouping arrangements. I believe that the sky should be the limit for everyone in a tracked system, but emphasis still must be placed on the questions, Where are you now? and What's the next step that needs to be taken for you develop to your potential? Especially now, with the expansion of higher education and the abundance of community colleges with open-admissions policies, there are great opportunities for late bloomers to develop.

I respect what you're saying about the need not to make present judgments permanent. I think that has been the fault of many of the European, Continental school systems. At a very early age, students are tested and go into a track, and they stay there. In the long run, I think you underutilize a large percentage of your national intellect with this type of rigidity. You make people less than they are.

SE: This has not been an overt intention of the American school system. But in a way, I think our outcomes are similar to those in the European school systems, which overtly say, 'Yes, we are trying to determine at an early age who will be the physicists and who will be the laborers.' I think we have done that too, but not admitted to it. The practice has become institutionalized.

JZ: Is it your vision, then, that a movement to heterogeneous grouping would better the situations of students who are not achieving as highly as others? Would untracking work better than ability grouping does now?

SE: It isn't that simplistic. I think my vision is more toward heterogeneous classrooms--but not without a redistribution of tax funds that feed schools. Right now, we have other issues layered on top of our understanding of students' intellect that exacerbate the problem. We have more resources going into certain school systems--which allow for greater experience and exposure. Unless we redistribute equally the funds that go to institutions, we won't improve the situation.

JZ: I share with you the sense that the present educational system is not doing well at tapping the creativity and intelligence of more than a few. But I think detracking would make an already bad situation worse. Rather than detracking, I like the idea of pushing people back into the traditional academic disciplines. I think we began sliding and falling away when we moved from this traditional education. Other factors started entering in, such as the idea that we need to educate the whole child. Schools began taking on family roles, AIDS education, and lots of similar functions. Also, we became overly concerned about self-esteem: We can't be flunking some people and passing others. I think that all of this sounds good, but it has a bad outcome.

There's such a thing as pandering to the idea of self-esteem. Many students react to initial failure by saying, 'I'm going to do better than this.' It's best for them to be told realistically, 'This is where you stand now. Let's really work and push further.' I don't understand how this can happen when students are doing group work, and final products are signed by everyone. Teachers often say that all the kids did equally well. What I've witnessed is that the more eager, energetic kids do almost all the work. The people who don't contribute get equal credit, and the system then gives them a false sense of confidence. The kids who get used really don't like it.

SE: Even proponents of heterogeneous grouping don't encourage this scenario. If there is such a teaching style where grades are being distributed equally regardless of work done, it isn't right. I believe for detracking to work, we need a new generation of teachers. It's similar to Moses, who was in the desert for 40 years before coming upon a new generation, able to bring an end to slavery. I'm rather pessimistic about this current generation of educators, who have been socialized with certain perspectives about behavior and curricula and learning styles. I'm waiting for a new generation of educators who have different styles and practices and perspectives on human achievement.

JZ: I have seen this new generation of teachers coming through our graduate schools for the last 15 or 20 years. And I think the result has been more poor scores, further diminution of academic excellence. I look for a return to the style of much earlier educators, who really had a sense of teaching in a discipline and pushed children to reach their full potential.

SE: I agree that maximum potential should be the goal. Even those individuals we would deem lowest-potential would achieve much more if we set a higher ceiling for them from the beginning. I think that this can be accomplished in a heterogeneous classroom. You say that for the past 20 years, these new teachers have been coming out into the classroom. That means we have 20 more years to go. The process is just beginning.

As a supporter of detracking, I'm not suggesting that reputable, selective institutions such as Santa Clara or Harvard lower their requirements or expectations. What I'm suggesting is that individuals who are given equivalent opportunities will have greater opportunity to achieve. We certainly become more specialized as we go along, and detracking will not change that. I view education as a funnel, whereby students will select themselves out as they advance through the curriculum. By the time they reach the graduate-school level, it will be the meritorious few who have jumped through the hurdles and are prepared for admission into selective institutions. What I object to is that this selection is occurring at a young age, on the basis of what I view as arbitrary criteria.

My other concern is that tracking is training different groups in entirely different bodies of knowledge. In high school, I excelled in literature. By the time I graduated, I had read all the classics in my AP classes, but I didn't know how to deconstruct a sentence. Students in lower-level courses spent all of their time learning grammar and sentence deconstruction and no time on literature and philosophy. It seemed rather curious to me that I was being trained in an entirely different curriculum. I think AP classes are valuable, but I object that they aren't advanced levels of similar curriculum.

JZ: That's something I object to as well. Lower-level students often get drilled while the higher students somehow 'deserve' conceptual learning. At Zorn Academy, that wouldn't be the case.

My ultimate concern, however, is that these AP students--when blended into heterogeneous groups--would be dragged down. What I've seen is that students with low achievement begin dominating the group, and education is leveled down, not pulled up. If you do well in school, you're considered a nerd and looked poorly upon by the masses. I see detracking as contributing to this downward movement.

SE: The emphasis must then be placed on the educators and parents to create more apparent reinforcements for achievement.

JZ: I agree. I think one of the difficulties is that it's hard to see the payoffs for getting an education. The most apparent rewards are of the moment. It's one of the limits of educational development. For many people, it just isn't apparent that studying math or English can have long term benefits. Perhaps that is why I see the potential in this elitist strategy. At least some people from this community will go through school and excel and succeed. Other kids will see that it is available to them. In the other system, everyone gets in the wash and no one comes out on top.

SE: I think that's where that ambiguous term self-esteem comes in. Encouragement and building of self-esteem are the immediate reinforcements that make us feel valuable. They are the reinforcements that don't occur often enough in the academic setting. If we had skilled educators around who were administering that type of reinforcement, even to the disadvantaged students, we'd see greater achievement.

JZ: I think that cuts on my side of the issue. I can only get those positive reinforcements if I am challenged by my work and I am capable of completing it. I see that as much more likely in an ability-grouped class. If I'm in an English class where I can barely begin to decipher a poem, while other students around me can not only read it but analyze it, I can't get that reinforcement.

SE: But attempts are just as valuable as achievement in some cases. I think one of the flaws of education is that we're very much concerned with outcome or 'Can you read the poem?' We're much less concerned with the process, such as learning a word you never knew before--those subtle, intermediate steps. I think too many students learn that unless they can read the poem, they have no ability.

JZ: I agree, but I'm still wondering what type of classroom allows this reinforcement to happen. I think it's best accomplished in a classroom where students are at roughly the same level. The image that comes to my mind is my daughter's tiny-tots swimming class. She's gone through two stages and is at a very specific level. She can benefit from certain instruction, and that's where I want her to be. I imagine if the tiny tots were in the pool at the same time as a bunch of big kids in a medley relay team, I would want the relay team to be at one end of the pool and the tiny tots at the other. That's the paradigm I'm operating with: The tiny toys and relay team members both benefit by being separated into different halves of the pool, and no one benefits if they are forced to share teachers.

SE: That's a huge disparity, which, I admit, exists today in a lot of academic settings. If we were to collapse the system, you would be correct--there would be big problems. But what I'm suggesting is that as the younger generations come into the schools, we re-evaluate how we create that disparity. If we were to begin at an earlier level with a more heterogeneous view of people's capacities and a more positively reinforcing teaching style, the disparity wouldn't be so great.

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