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Limiting Horizons

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During the next two decades, "intelligence tests'' were developed and used to sort students by ability--tests that today would be laughable. Imagine an immigrant child in Boston or an impoverished black child from the rural South being asked questions like these: Clothing is made by: a) Smith & Wesson; b) Kuppenheimer; c) B.T. Babbitt; d) Swift & Co. Or: Cambric is a: a) dance; b) fabric; c) food; d) color. Simultaneously, distinguished university scholars carried out studies to determine how racial, ethnic, and gender factors affected student achievement. Several such studies correlated rates of "retardation''--then defined as failure to be promoted on schedule--by nationality. And in 1922, George S. Counts, professor of education at Yale University, concluded in a major study that parental occupation was a prime predictor of high school graduation. "Apparently,'' wrote Counts, "the children of the laboring classes are destined to follow in the footsteps of their fathers.''

Influenced by test results and the various studies, educators, not surprisingly, steered black, ethnic, and working-class students into vocational and other less academically rigorous curricula, ensuring, of course, that Counts's speculation would become reality.

One might assume that, 82 years after Eliot's admonition to elementary teachers and 36 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in America's schools, the notion of sorting children by their "evident and probable destinies'' would have been completely discredited. But last February, students and citizens in Selma, Ala., occupied the local high school and demonstrated in the streets in protest over the very same issue--now known as "tracking.'' And some black leaders are saying that it will be the civil rights issue of the 1990's.

As the article on page 48 notes, the trouble in Selma began when Norward Roussell (pictured at left), the city's first black school superintendent, was fired for attempting to change the district's tracking policy because he believed it discriminated against black children. (White board members insist Roussell was fired because of his poor management.)

"It is a serious problem in this country,'' Roussell told the media. "Too many children, white and black, are being relegated to educational programs that don't challenge them....No parent wants his child to have an obsolete education...That's something we can't let happen in Selma, in Alabama, in this country.''

It is ironic and a measure of how engrained tracking is in our education system that Roussell was not attempting to get rid of it, but rather only to make it more fair and efficient. Indeed, he defended ability grouping as an effective way to deal with academic diversity among students. And in doing so, he was highlighting the dilemma that every teacher faces: How to meet the needs of some students in a class that includes students of widely varying ability without shortchanging others? Tracking, as the article on page 42 makes clear, is a complex and controversial issue.

In her essay on page 70, Sheila Tobias discusses labeling, which is a prerequisite to tracking and a common practice in our society. Tobias laments that students (even very young ones) label themselves. By proclaiming that they "can't do math,'' or that they're "not good with words,'' students "limit their horizons and sap their motivation and achievement.''

But there is another form of tracking that is even more insidious and destructive than ability grouping in schools or the self-labeling that Tobias discusses. It is the cycle of ignorance, poverty, and abuse. And Mary Frances Edens captures the tragedy of it in her poignant essay, "Child Of The Mill,'' on page 6. Perhaps this is what Eliot had in mind when he used that chilling phrase: "evident or probable destinies.''

--Ronald A. Wolk

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