Friday, September 4, 2009

Charter Schools: Tracking is Alive and Well

Most people think of tracking satellites in space.
The use of the term "tracking" in education has shifted over the years. Now it means tracking student progress. In the old days it meant putting students from their earliest years onto a track based on some factors of perceived intelligence.

Under the BloomKlein administration, setting up classes based on tracking was supposed to be eliminated and classes grouped heterogeneously. Teachers are supposed to use differentiated instruction to meet the needs of a diverse group of kids. But at some point, the kids at the top suffer to varying degrees. People have gotten around these in many ways. Talented and gifted and specialized performance based schools have created pockets of very workable schools. When I was mentoring teaching fellows I covered one such middle school in Bushwick that gathered all the top kids in District 32 - and beyond- and I was amazed at how well that school worked. Reminded me of the junior high I went to as a kid - JHS 166 - Gershwin- not being partly occupied by the UFT MS charter school. I'll get back to the charter issue in a minute.

I taught in a completely tracked system where classes were grouped homogeneously by reading scores. Even in a poor almost 100% free lunch school with a relatively small population where we had 2 or 3 classes on a grade, there were major differences between the top class and the bottom class in terms of family stability, poverty- more poor, or less, behavior and other factors.

The one exception was the year I filed a grievance when it was my turn to get the top class and my principal declared my grade only as heterogeneous, which was a farce because she totally believed in severe tracking. The real issue was not just political (I was an leading union advocate) but that she hated my teaching style which ignored test prep all the time and I took too many trips. We had a very good year and the kids did very well - and yes, I took them on many trips.

The most active parents used their influence to make sure their kids were in the top classes and many teachers sold their souls to the principal to get these classes every year, in violation of the contract which called for rotation. (We had one guy who would drive miles out of the way to take the principal home.) The principals catered to these showcase classes, which were pushed hard exotically when they got to the graduating grade so they could get into one of the favored middle schools, instead of the locally zoned dump.

Sound familiar? That is exactly what is happening with the charter school movement and the element of creaming. Those very same parents who made sure their kids were in the top class and who pulled strings to get to the special middle school (many districts seemed to have them) are the ones today rushing to charters. In other words, the old system of top, in some cases called "eagle" classes, were the equivalent of today's charters, as they segregated the better performing students from the rest.

Thus. we are heading for a dual school system where kids are segregated, not by race, but by their level of performance. Ironically, these systems are used around the world where kids are tested out of the academic program, sometimes as early as elementary school and then tracked into the working class.

Accountable Talk has some interesting thoughts on tracking where he commits what is today considered a big no-n0 by making predictions on his kids, even though all teachers fully understand the reality. One very good teacher I know spent over a year in the rubber room for making a casual comment like this to a spy for the principal. (Suddenly a kid made a charge the teacher called him an idiot and said black kids can't learn, whereas what was said was, "You didn't get it and if you don't pay attention you will never learn.") Luckily AC is anonymous.

AC talks about the farce of measuring teachers when they get top, middle and bottom classes. Of course the answers from the data munchers is "value added" where the starting and ending grade of your students are looked at and you are expected to bring each one up by one year. Thus if you have an 8th grader reading at mid-4th, he should be at mid 5th grade level after one year with you. Of course, the fact that he learned at half the rate of the so-called average kid is not relevant. It is always the teachers' fault.

AC says:
I already know where my students will end up on next year's exams!

How do I know? Am I some kind of genius? Of course, but that's not how. It's just a little bit of data from ARIS mixed with a lot of experience. Here's how it breaks down:

  • In my top class, only two of my future students failed to make their AYP last year. They are readers and achievers, and when I work with them this year, they will continue to be so.
  • In my middle class, it's more a mixed bag. Only ten failed to make AYP, but at least ten others made it by a hair's breadth. These students need to be worked hard and motivated to make real progress. I'll do that, and some will have great years while others have to dragged kicking and screaming to get them to read.
  • In my bottom class, no one made their AYP. That's right--NO ONE. That's not a surprise to me, as that is what makes them a bottom class. They have very limited skills. Most have progressed about half a year for every year they have been in school so far, and it will be a miracle if I can get more than a handful to make a year's progress now.
Read it in full at:
Mr. Chips vs. Buffalo Chips

Also check out this post on tracking from new blogger Teaching and Politics:
Heterogeneity vs Tracking - Is the pendulum swinging back?

NOTE: Things have been slow on the ed notes output end due to too many meetings (heading off for a 10am now - and there are 2 of them to choose from ) and getting used to my brand new MAC Pro laptop, which I love so much, my wife has to drag it out of my hands when I fall asleep.

To all of you all still teaching in the NYC schools, have a great Labor Day weekend and good luck going back. Try to join in some of the organizing activities this year around GEM and ICE and the upcoming UFT elections. There's plenty of positions available (800) if you want to run against Unity.


  1. Mediocrity, poverty, and maintenance of the status quo for all!

    How many more children must this city doom to, at best, a marginal existence?

    But this blog isn't about student outcomes, is it? It's about education personnel who find themselves increasingly threatened by an unwieldy educational system no longer sustainable.

  2. Mediocrity, poverty, and maintenance of the status quo for all!

    How many more children must this city doom to, at best, a marginal existence?

    But this blog isn't about student outcomes, is it? It's about education personnel who find themselves increasingly threatened by an unwieldy educational system no longer sustainable.

  3. Wow. Getting emotional? I think you are the one threatened by the conuter reaction to the ed deformers.

    You guys must be feeling the heat. When you use words like "outcomes" and "it's not about students" but about educational personnel, you give away your buzzword corporate agenda.

    Maybe you haven't realized this. But teachers are the ones who actually do the teaching. There are no schools and children in schools without teachers. So, yes, this blog is all about creating a system where teachers are treated in a way that gets the best for the students. I am not ashamed to declare "A happy teacher makes for happy students who can learn in an enriching environment."

    Want to keep students from a marginal existence? Fight for jobs for all their parents.

  4. Don't forget the "staus Quo" code words. After 15 years of failure in Chicago and 7 years in New York, they are now the status quo.


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