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Detracking Helps At-Risk Students

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People often ask me what my secret is behind the high scores of my students. I have one answer--stupidity. When my colleagues and I began our school in a Maryland state prison, Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, all of us were "green" to corrections. None of us had worked in a prison before; therefore, none of us knew that "prison inmates cannot learn," or that "prison students won't work," or that "inmate pupils don't care about education." All we knew was that we were supposed to begin a school. Naturally, we expected our students to learn, to succeed, and to graduate with General Educational Development diplomas.

We began our school with few supplies. We were still waiting for most of our books to come in, and we had only limited access to a copy machine. I was to teach language arts classes, but I didn't have much of a curriculum. I had just been given a general idea of what would be covered on the GED test. So I did what every good teacher does: I improvised. I was teaching freshman composition in the evenings at a local college, so I included many of the same lessons in my GED classes.

The response from my prison students was remarkable. The light bulbs went on; the sparks flew. It was one of those precious moments for teachers when you've really gotten the students' attention.

Four months after we began our program, we had our first GED test. Much to our delight, our students scored at a pass rate of 80 percent--the highest in the state.

Shortly thereafter in my correctional teaching career, I began networking with other prison teachers at meetings and conferences. There I learned that inmates "couldn't learn"; however, it was too late. I had already observed them demonstrate the contrary. Clearly, teacher expectation, my "stupidity," had made the difference.

If teacher expectation can work with the ultimate at-risk students, prison inmates, how much more successful can it be in "detracking" our nation's public schools?

Tracking, placing students in classes according to their perceived ability, undermines achievement because the majority of students are denied access to a challenging curriculum and are not well prepared for higher education. It causes students to develop negative attitudes toward school and lowers self-esteem. I have discovered that my biggest job is convincing my prison students that they can learn. Once we've crossed that hurdle, the rest is easy.

According to the January/February 1997 issue of the Harvard Education Letter, teaching all students as though they are the brightest (detracking) extends opportunities to those who never had them before. Detracking involves developing a meaningful curriculum for all students with less emphasis on "basic skills." Lower-ability students are given support so they can stay in class with more successful students. This is accomplished by extra coaching, Saturday school, double classes in weak areas, or training volunteers to help out in the classroom. In my classroom, this is accomplished by hiring inmates with stronger academic backgrounds (often some college credits) to work as classroom aides. (They work for about a dollar a day and good-time credit.) This ensures that all my students get the personal attention and immediate feedback they require to keep them on task and interested in my assignments.

When schools detrack, teachers begin to use exciting methods, such as interdisciplinary curricula, cooperative learning, hands-on activities, and critical thinking. All students--both high- and low-achieving--benefit when teachers and parents have high expectations for them. Surprisingly, all students achieve in a heterogeneous classroom.

The core of detracking is high teacher expectation. This strategy works in prison, where students have a host of learning and emotional problems not encountered in such concentration in the public school system. The students at Eastern Correctional Institution have had the top GED pass rates for nine straight years, frequently in the high 90 percent to 100 percent range.

If correctional educators can take students who "fell through the cracks" and enable them to become successful through high expectations, so can public school teachers. Detracking public schools would push more students toward success and away from our barbed-wire fences.

Susan A. Olsen is a teacher and writer living in Fruitland, Md. For the past decade, she has been a language arts instructor at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Md.

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