Education Opinion

To Track or Not to Track?

By Walt Gardner — January 15, 2014 2 min read
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In an ideal world, all students would possess equal aptitude and equal motivation. But in public schools, this is not the case. That’s why I continue to be puzzled by efforts to prevent tracking (“High school honors classes: Elitist or not?” Burlington Free Press, Jan. 11).

Although the latest brouhaha is unfolding in Vermont, it is not peculiar to that state. The argument against separating students is that it is not democratic because it penalizes students who might be slow in demonstrating their academic wherewithal. That’s a possibility, particularly when the students come from impoverished homes or are black or Hispanic. But what about students who have demonstrated their academic wherewithal? Don’t they also deserve the opportunity to blossom fully?

I’ll go a step further by arguing that these students constitute a national treasure that we are squandering by eliminating honors classes and their variants. They’re made to feel guilty because of their intelligence and grit. (Although honors classes are not limited to gifted students, they constitute a special subclass of three million, about six percent of the student population.)

At present less than 45 percent of the nation’s public secondary schools offer Advanced Placement courses (“Even Gifted Students Can’t Keep Up,” The New York Times, Dec. 14, 2013). I wonder how we expect to produce the graduates in STEM subjects that we need when we disproportionately train our efforts on average and below-average students. It’s not that they don’t deserve what they receive. On the contrary. But no nation treats its top students as we do.

When I was teaching English in the same high school where I spent my entire 28-year career, I had honors classes. Fortunately, these students had all been chosen to be in those classes because of their academic track records. Therefore, I was able to tailor my instruction to meet their specific needs and interests. If other students had been permitted to enroll, I know that I would not have been effective.

Certainly, determination and persistence can help students step up to meet the rigors of advanced classes. But it is “educational romanticism” to believe that all students are equally endowed intellectually (Real Education, Crown Forum, 2008). Placing students with dramatically different abilities in the same honors classes will only frustrate them. As Charles Murray wrote: we are “asking too much from those at the bottom, asking the wrong things from those in the middle, and asking too little from those at the top.”

One last observation: Students who are academically average or below have other talents that augur well for gratifying and well-paying careers. Making them feel that they are somehow inferior because they are placed in regular classes does them a terrible disservice. But that’s what’s happening.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.