Schools used to blatantly track students. Students were funneled into high, medium or low groups and, once labeled, they remained in those groups throughout most or all of their schooling. Students viewed as college material were placed on a higher-level academic track while other students were placed in lower level tracks.
In some districts, students were labeled and grouped as early as kindergarten. But research found that more often than not parents’ income, race or language designation were reflected in the composition of their child’s academic placement.
All students must have access to the best learning opportunities or their futures are sadly compromised. Blatant tracking of students doesn’t happen anymore, but the challenge is that most schools still have systems of “sorting” students, a legacy from previous thinking that grouped students according to perceptions and expectations about their ability.
Students at the achievement extremes, both high and low, do need targeted support, but grouping students in those extremes for the majority of the day, year after year, is not the answer. In most cases, the research tells us that when classrooms are filled with students of varying levels and types of skill, all students perform better.
Many districts and schools are changing their practices and programs to align with higher standards and expectations, but this is an evolution that won’t occur overnight. Parents can support schools and help to accelerate this evolution by being attentive and giving feedback when practices don’t seem to align with the goals of higher standards and expectations.
It is important for all parents to make their voices heard so that their children are given the best learning opportunities offered at their school, and that their children are not being caught by the “sorting” legacies that can limit a child’s opportunity for success. So, what are some of the questions parents should be asking?
Is my child with the same group of students throughout most of the day?
If the answer is “yes” to this question, this is a red flag. Check to see if the group is considered “struggling” or “at risk.” If your child is grouped this way for much of the day, ask questions. This type of grouping is generally accompanied by lower expectations for the whole group, which in turn lowers students’ expectations for themselves.
It is important to scrutinize the kinds of courses your child is taking. For instance, Instead of algebra, some may get “Readiness for Algebra”; instead of biology, it’s “Life Science”; instead of English literature, it’s “Senior English.” The course titles vary, but these are oversimplified, less rigorous versions of the expected courses for college- and career-readiness.
In essence, they are remedial classes, classes that have lower expectations for students and lower levels of academic content and requirements. While these classes are created to give struggling students a greater chance to succeed, the failure rate of remedial courses is consistently higher than that of classes with students at varying achievement levels.
Bottom line: Struggling students have the best chance of academic success when seated next to a strong student rather than another struggling student.
Has my child been labeled as a certain type of student?
Schools work hard to help struggling students by giving them extra help. Decades ago, many students who struggled were labeled “special ed.,” even if their struggle was simply being an English learner or developing reader. Thankfully, we have evolved past that, but we now hear terms like “Title I kids,” “long-term English learners,” “at-risk students” and the list goes on.
There’s nothing inherently bad about the terms. However, the decisions made for groups of students who have been labeled in this way can be very bad if they serve to limit access to premium educational experiences.
If there is a specific area where your child needs additional support, of course, it is important to get them that support. But the support must result in your child becoming more proficient after the intervention than before. Ask for evidence that this is the case and ensure there is an “exit” strategy so your child’s future is not defined by what should be a temporary challenge.
What is my student taking outside of math, science and English?
If students are taking classes such as music, art or debate, they’re probably in a premium pathway. Or, if they are taking none of those, and their only elective options are classes described as “Support,” “Intervention,” “Study Skills,” that’s a red flag. If there’s nothing in your child’s schedule that’s enriching, then someone made a decision about your child’s path, and it’s important to understand what that decision was based upon and what limits are attached to that.
Shaping a new system to educate all students to meet new expectations is hard work. Today’s education focuses on programs that used to be reserved for the most advanced students.
No one is intentionally locking some kids into a future with lower expectations. However, school districts would greatly benefit from informed parents who ask: Do the school’s expectations of my child align with the new standards and my own expectations for my child?
Check your child’s placement, materials, and homework. Listen to your child. Get feedback. If you see a red flag, find out if and why your child is being labeled, what that label means and what decisions are made as a result of that label.
Ask questions until the school understands your concern. When you ask, expect that every school district is trying hard to move to a system that educates every child for 21st-century demands. Ask with the understanding that your questions will not only help your child but will also help the school better educate every student.
Robin Avelar La Salle is the CEO of Principal’s Exchange, an organization that works in partnership with schools and school districts with diverse student populations to improve student achievement and is a co-author of Data Strategies to Uncover and Eliminate Hidden Inequities: The Wallpaper Effect.
Ruth Johnson is a former school superintendent and a California State University professor emeritus and is a co-author of Data Strategies to Uncover and Eliminate Hidden Inequities: The Wallpaper Effect.