On January 20, I published a post by a teacher who asked about how to deal with the heterogeneity of the student population. She said that charters appealed to parents who wanted less heterogeneity.
Here is an excerpt:
“We complain that charters are skimming the top, we have to take all comers and we can’t cherrypick; we can’t dump the least school ready students. We wear it as a badge of honor; we’re a force for egalitarian education for all. We’re a place where all children come together to learn. Well, that’s great.”BUT… a parent who wants to limit negative influences or increase challenge of instruction may not care about the general mission if the impact of that mission upon their child is negative. I’m not sure we can stem the tide of charters when we use middle class children as social equalizers and consider the annual limitation upon their achievement and growth as an acceptable loss. That’s an insufficient mission. This makes public school less desirable for parents who have prepared, able children.”
I sent a copy of the post to Jeannie Oakes, who is one of the nation’s leading experts on the subject of tracking, and I asked her to comment.
Here is her response.
I’d like to weigh in on the post laying out concerns about the relationship between heterogeneous grouping and the appeal of charter schools to parents of high achievers. In particular, I was struck by two points the poster made:
One, he/she identifies a key source of resistance to heterogeneous grouping:
“BUT… a parent who wants to limit negative influences or increase challenge of instruction may not care about the general mission if the impact of that mission upon their child is negative.”
Then, later, he/she identifies students who benefit from heterogeneous or homogeneous grouping, based on his or her personal experiences and reading:
“However, it is also my experience that the lowest skill level student makes no progress in a heterogeneous setting and would benefit more from a homogeneous, small class with more focused and direct instruction. It is my experience that the middle top and top does not receive academic benefit from heterogeneous instruction. I don’t know of any study of heterogeneous grouping that shows a positive academic impact on above average students.”
In fact, studies do show benefits of heterogeneity for all “levels” of students, as many high-quality reviews of the literature conclude. But this is not to say that simply mixing up students in a class will work well; neither will experimenting with one or a few heterogeneous classes in an whole-school environment that is otherwise heavily tracked. Many studies showing “no benefits” have looked only at students in single classes or over limited time or without accounting for important instructional, learning, and school climate variables. Furthermore, unsuccessful attempts to achieve heterogeneity or “de-tracking” do not necessarily reflect on teachers’ competence, work ethic, or good will; but successful detracking does require training, resources, and a network of supports. One study, for example, examined practices and outcomes at a network of “Talent Development” middle and senior high schools in urban Philadelphia. These schools offered a rich, academic curriculum (such as great literature), provided ample opportunities for students to assist one another, and used authentic assessments in heterogeneous classrooms. Their middle-school students showed significantly higher achievement gains than did tracked students in comparable “control” schools with lowest- and highest-performing students making considerable gains.
However, the conflicts over tracking and heterogeneous grouping involve more than straightforward/empirical determinations of the “best” or most efficient way to conduct schooling. In this sense the contentious arguments bear some similarity to other current social issues that reflect broader views of what constitutes a good society (gun violence; climate change; income gaps; and a long list of equity challenges—racial, gender, disability, sexual orientation, age; and others come to mind.) Each of these disputes has aspects that are normative (involving culture, beliefs, and values,) technical (best practices and laws,) and political (the power to impose or preserve practices.) Unless all three dimensions—norms, practices, and politics—are exposed and addressed in our civic discourse, we won’t see much fundamental improvement (a “better,” more caring populace; practical, efficacious school practices that promote achievement; and a more democratic and just society.)
The post suggests a conflict between a “general mission” and benefits to parents’ own children—perhaps seeing the two as incompatible. Another perspective, one that I hold, is that everybody loses if the common good is neglected in the pursuit of individual gain; and widespread scholarship supports, even if it doesn’t “prove,” this perspective. Still, as with other great issues of our time, data (however important) do not provide clear pathways through the fog of conflicting norms and power arrangements. Data do not produce the will to enact gun controls; empirical evidence does not settle citizenship options for immigrants; popular sentiments (even elections) are slow to ensure civil liberties. Yet data are crucial and must not be dismissed because of false equivalences; for example, saying that because data “exist” on both sides, both sides are equally reliable and therefore one, the other, or neither conclusion has value. More to the point, arguments for or against heterogeneous classes cannot be decided simply on the basis of which one wins the race for highest standardized test scores.
So we have no easy answers for parents who are eager to negotiate, through tracking, some perceived advantage for their children: many people believe that that’s a parent’s job. It’s not for us to tell a parent to reject a rare better schooling option in favor of a lesser one. But all are diminished by systems that force us into making such choices. Further, we can hardly fault teachers who work very hard at becoming accomplished at what the school wants them to do. But we’d ask those teachers and parents to consider that they can both do their very best within the system and work to change the system. Finally, as with all contested aspects of social life, our advice is to identify your own and others’ deeply held values and beliefs and decide where you want to go with them, determine who has power and who benefits from its use, and then as Eleanor Roosevelt said many years ago, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Jeannie Oakes, Presidential Professor Emerita, UCLA