kitchen table math, the sequel: cranberry on wealthy schools & the sorting machine

Monday, February 23, 2009

cranberry on wealthy schools & the sorting machine

The tracking and sorting process goes on, while the administration denies its long-term effects on the students. Placement into high school courses is decided on the basis of teacher recommendations, not grades, strangely enough.

In our affluent high school, we're told, "all the students who remain in the top math track, who take AP BC calc, receive 5s." As a parent, I feel that this means that they are too restrictive in placement, and encourage too many children to drop out of the most demanding track. 3 is passing. Our society does not need to save tuition for 6% of the graduating class. Our society needs as many children as possible to take challenging math classes.

I took AP BC calc in my day, and received a 5. Frankly, it's not that challenging a course. More than 6% of the school population should be prepared to take the test. If the top 20% were encouraged to remain on track for BC Calc, or even the top 15%, I'd find it much more equitable.

I do feel the pressure of, "your kid's not that special, you know," in the insistence that the academic load is challenging, while seeing how restrictive placement is.
Same here.

Attewell's study (pdf file) is a revelation:
The odds of a student in an affluent star public school taking AP math or AP science are 71 -76 percent of the odds of a student of the same demographics and SAT who attends a nonstar public school.

The Winner-Take-All High School: Organizational Adaptations to Educational
by Paul Attewell
p. 286

That's what we pay the big bucks for.


Rudbeckia Hirta said...

Devil's advocate here.

1. BC calc is not that hard if you have a good algebra/trig background. I think that it's entirely reasonable to restrict high school calculus courses to students who have a strong algebra/trig background and to put the other students into a course where they can acquire the needed background so that they can successfully master calculus in college. It does no one any favors for a student with a weak algebra/trig background to enroll in calculus. I see a lot of those students in my calculus class. They took calculus in high school, didn't score well enough on the AP for our campus to give credit, and are now taking calculus again in college. And are not doing well because of gaps in their algebra/trig backgrounds. They would have been much better served by a rigorous precalc course their senior year.

That being said, I have no idea what fraction of the student population should be on any given track in any given school.

2. If a school is going to offer more than one section of BC calc, they're going to need to find a way to schedule it and teach it. I suspect that more schools than care to admit it have only 0-1 math teacher who is mathematically savvy enough to teach BC calc. I know that in my own (university) department, we have faculty with masters degrees (non-tenure-line) who are considered unfit to teach our standard freshman calculus sequence. Many high school teachers have at most a bachelors degree in math (many just a bachelors in education with some math classes) and may not have done that well at calculus when they did take it. Do you really want your kid's BC calc class taught by someone who got a C in calculus 10+ years ago?

lgm said...

The math sorting machine is a joke in my large rural school. All that is being sorted are affluent tutored students vs. nontutored students. The prize is the 'honors' designation and a boost in the honors child's GPA.

The sham is that the honors courses are not honors courses...they are just reg. ed. courses given a year early to those that can memorize algorithms quickly enough to do well in 7th grade honors math.

We could select for true honors courses if the results of the CogAt and the math reasoning portion of the SAT-10 were used as the criteria rather than grades (5/6 of which is 'effort' and behavior) or teacher recommendation (based on teacher pleasing behaviors and using a file). Basically anyone that is above average in intelligence should be able to handle Alg I..but in elitist districts like mine, many students would not have had the chance were it not for pressure from the state to drop the local diploma.

The takeaway for me is that math is a joke in public schools here. Full inclusion means that the necessary pre-reqs for Honors Pre-Algebra aren't taught in the the affluent and in-the-know win the sorting game. I applaud the homeschoolers for creating the demand for appropriate curriculum material so that I can use same to tutor my child and provide him with a math education at the quality level I rec'd in public school but my district refuses to offer.

cranberry said...

"If a school is going to offer more than one section of BC calc, they're going to need to find a way to schedule it and teach it."

Of course. But, if a school's offering one section, and the kids are earning 5s, I'd wager that they have a capable teacher. The administration may need to juggle things so that that teacher teaches more than one section. They may need to take a good look at the math backgrounds of their teachers. Isn't that what an administration should do? I'm not arguing that every student in the grade should be forced to take BC Calc.

Also, if the BC Calc teacher is weak in math, the other teachers won't be any better. I think any math course can be poorly taught. One of the fallacies of the American education system is that the more complicated the math course is, the more math the teacher should understand. I'd say that, even in kindergarten, the teachers should understand the principles behind the math they're teaching. I think there are kids who are hopeless at math, because their 1st, (2nd, 3rd, 4th ) grade teacher was hopeless at math, and she taught them terrible approaches to the subject.

lgm has a good point about placement. I'd add that placement for freshman year in high school is based on the impressions of middle school teachers. Some students, especially boys, have issues with organization, which sort themselves out with age. With the tracking system as it's set up, though, the "affluent and in-the-know" know which buttons to push.

Attewell's study is spot-on, with what I'm seeing at our local high school, down to 6% of the class being permitted to enter the highest math & science track. I also hear "how much homework there is." Well, there's good homework, and there's busywork. I've seen enough cut & paste art projects come through our house, to know that the amount of time required for homework is not a reliable measure of its efficacy.

I also think that Attewell made a good point about grading curves being held to punitively high levels. A child with good work habits who can score an 800 on the SAT should not receive Cs in math. That's the sort of grading approach I would expect in premed courses in college, for example, where the intent is to "wash out" a large percentage of the students, in order to decrease the number of premed students. That approach has no place in a public high school. They should not be "washing out" kids who can do the work. The schools should be trying to educate as many kids as possible as well as possible, not create classes of "the elite 6%," and "everyone else."

As the math courses are used as prerequisites for the science courses, managing access to math nicely controls the numbers permitted to enroll in the science honors track. So, while your good suburban school may have 20 AP courses, does it do the majority of the kids any good, when they're not permitted to enroll in them?

I'm starting to agree with Jay Matthews more and more. Also KIPP, as their philosophy does seem to believe that the kids can do the work.

Crimson Wife said...

On the other hand, there needs to be *SOME* selection criteria for AP courses in order to keep them challenging enough for the bright kids.

A student allowed to enroll should have a reasonable expectation for scoring at least a 3 based on previous test scores and grades. If more than 25% of the class are scoring <3 and/or more than 10% wind up scoring a 1, that's a sign that there needs to be more stringent selection criteria.

Rudbeckia Hirta said...

And a 3 on the AP Calculus exam is roughly like getting a C in calculus. Fine if you don't need to go on to Calc III but really quite worrisome if you're expected to actually know calculus in the next course.

Cranberry said...

I agree there needs to be a minimum skill level for entering students. However, after reading Atewell's study, I have reservations about the selection criteria used by the schools he dubs "star public schools."

If my child were to be in the class, I would be o.k. with a system which allowed any reasonably behaved child to take the class--as long as he (or she) would be free to drop down to a lower level, if he desired. Also, if he couldn't earn a C in the class.

I would also welcome the use of an objective screening test. How about the PSAT? As long as the minimum score necessary for the course isn't set at a needlessly high level. Crimson Wife, your profile says you're a homeschooling mom. Good for you. Please believe me when I say, grades are not necessarily an indication of a student's individual talents. If a student gets a C for a group project, because two members of the group refused to do any work, and then received a B- because a "creative math project" was neither colorful nor neat enough, is his grade in the class a good indicator of his abilities in math?

A "C"? Wouldn't it be better for him to earn an A in the next lower level? Not necessarily. (The next lower level might not be AB Calculus.) Is the next lower level a challenging course? Or, has the school bought into a star student/everyone else model? Part of this isn't really about math at all. It's about the rationing of the school's confidence in students' academic skills. It would be great to see schools set up intensive math courses for kids who wanted to catch up to the top kids in the grade. I read about schools supplying tutors for struggling students, and I know parents pay for tutors. I've never heard of a public school supplying extra math courses for the ambitious.

Understand, please, that my children are very strong math students. It's just, as I read through the high school's placement system, I realize that the world has changed in the decades since I was in high school. My parents had no need to sign me up for tutors, or therapists, or summer schools. They didn't need to petition administrators for permission to enroll in challenging courses. Parents who decided that their child should be in honors courses weren't dubbed "pushy parents."

Yes, I had fellow students in the honors track who would have earned higher grades in the college prep track, but they weren't counseled out of the honors track. Perhaps much of this is an elaborate game, rigged to burnish high schools' college acceptances, as Attewell implies. If so, as a taxpayer, I say it does the country a disservice. So, a 3 on the AP exam would be a C in Calculus. Is there shame in that? Realistically, if a student doesn't take calculus in high school, I would bet that her odds of signing up for it in college are very low. There are also many majors which need a good background in math. A student with a 3 probably should sign up for a college level calculus course. That isn't the end of the world. Students who have the talent to take more demanding math courses, but have been required to take less demanding courses, because the high school wants to brag about high AP scores, that is worse.

Tracy W said...

I realize that the world has changed in the decades since I was in high school.

On the other hand, in NZ, my mother flunked out of maths in high school at age 15 (didn't pass her school certificate exam in maths, but did pass with high marks in every different subject. She's had a mental block about maths ever since). Grandma and granddad didn't do anything. One of her cousins' husband one day went up to his maths teacher and said "I'm sorry sir but I don't understand any of this" and the teacher shrugged his shoulder and said basically, "do arts". On my paternal side, my grandfather got to university because his older sister decided he would go and tutored him after school (and then paid his way through uni itself).

My father wound up in the top maths class at his high school in his final year, where the teacher handed them a bunch of old exam papers and answers and then just left them to it. (Dad did pass, well enough to get direct entry into chemistry at university).

None of their parents ever interfered or hired tutors, they just accepted what the teachers did, with the solitary exception of my great-aunt, who, incidentally, was a teacher herself.

I can believe that maths education has gotten worse, but I do think that to a large extent parents like my great-aunt Marian have spread, and all of those generations of education focused at teaching kids to think for themselves have paid off, thus explaining the rise in "helicoptor parents".

Rudbeckia Hirta said...

Typical guideline:

A student will have about a 50% chance of passing calculus with a B or higher or a 75% chance of passing calculus with a C or higher if he/she has an ACT math score of 26 / SAT math of 650.

If you're going to be unhappy with roughly 25% of the class getting Ds and Fs, then you should raise the cutoff a few points, say to ACT 28 / SAT-M 680.

This cut-off comes from the ACT's studies of how students with various ACT scores tend to do in their courses.

Cranberry said...

Attewell made the point, which I believe Catherine has also made, that the normal distribution of SAT scores in "Star publics" is much higher than in "average" high schools. Yes, there still is a curve, but it's pushed toward the high end.

I think it's telling that the whole "pushy parent/helicopter parent" thing comes up in affluent suburbs. You don't hear it from "average" high schools, and you don't hear it from exam schools. It is possible that many of the parents are right. The children of normal to high intelligence, with educated, engaged parents, should be allowed to take courses which suit their interests and abilities.

Worst case scenario, a kid takes a math course above his capacity, and receives a D, or flunks. That isn't the end of the world.

SteveH said...

Our high school requires a minimum grade (typically 80 - 85) in the previous course of the AP sequence, starting with algebra, to continue on. I don't know if parents can override that. I will have to check. It could also be a scheduling problem. I wouldn't be overly surprised to find that the grading reflects the need to keep the number of kids down to fit into the allocated number of classes. I don't think the school wants to limit the number of kids, but it might take them some time before they are forced to open up another class.

Crimson Wife said...

Group work and "creative math" do not belong in a rigorous math class IMHO.

The reason I think grades should factor into AP selection criteria is because there are kids who are bright but underperform on standardized tests like the SAT. My youngest brother was like that. If they've demonstrated that they can get A's in rigorous courses in the past, they should not be excluded simply because they score below a certain number on the PSAT.

Allison said...

but seriously, why would they get an A in school and do poorly on a test?

no one will believe it's for any reason other than "works hard but is dumb" anyway. not the teachers--and they are writing the letters of recommendation.

i said this on the other thread but it bears repeating:
the teachers will NOT write positive recommendations even if these kids were let into the AP class. They have already decided these kids don't belong in top schools, whether the teachers are right or wrong.

Anonymous said...

but seriously, why would they get an A in school and do poorly on a test?

How about they are not naturally good at math, say, but have parents who want them to work hard so that they learn as much as possible?

Which, as you say, isn't necessarily going to help them in the Ivy League Sweepstakes, but I thought part of the point in this discussion was that said Ivy League Sweepstakes shouldn't be dictating what classes the student body as a whole can take (nor should it determine which students get appropriate preparation for higher level classes).

I would think a better solution than grades or PSAT's (or some equivalent) would be testing to determine mastery of prerequisite skills. And students who fell short could (in an ideal fantasy world) be put in a class that would, say, work on those skills so that they could at least theoretically move on to the higher level class if there was time before they graduated.

Not that that's gonna happen any time soon, of course.

C T said...

"I've never heard of a public school supplying extra math courses for the ambitious."

I actually went to a junior high in southern California that was going to bus me and just one other student to the high school for a higher level math course than what the junior high offered. Of course, the junior high (7th-9th grade) only went up through Geometry. Is it normal to not expect at least one classroom of 9th graders to have reached Algebra II? I'm guessing they didn't worry too much about wannabe AP Calculus BC test takers in that school district!

cranberry said...

C T, in that case, you and the other student would have been in the top 6% who are permitted to take the most challenging course available.

What of the 9th grader who is not placed into honors geometry, but wants to take calculus senior year? I suppose it would be possible to get credit for a course taken in the summer, but I've only heard of summer school for those who are in danger of failing. I know students take courses more-or-less voluntarily during summers, but I think they're regarded as enrichment by most high schools.

Allison, the point is that the decision about the tracks is completed in junior high/middle school, or before. As Catherine has pointed out, if you aren't placed into the highest math group, as soon as a school begins tracking, you can't join that track at a later point.

lgm said...

Cranberry, tracking begins in Kindergarten in my area (huge rural high school in NYC commuting radius with elitist selection model). A bright or gifted child of parents not 'in-the-know' can easily be cheated out of an education just by placement in the 'low' section or a section with the tenured teacher that doesn't know how to teach math or science properly. The district does not offer the full math curriculum, as defined by the NY State Regents, to any section of any grade that my kids have been in (K-8). Private tutoring is necessary to prepare for the honors cut in 7th grade. Cut is based on Gr. 6 teacher recommendation, math and science course grades in gr. 3,4, 5,6 (must be 95 or greater) and state test scores in gr. 3,4,5 (must be a 4 unless teacher recommendation overrides and it's a high 3). One must take both 8th gr I Alg 1 and Earth Science. If you make the cut in one and not the other, you are out...and this is a school that is huge enough that it doesn't need the scheduling restriction. One may not take 2 math courses simultaneously in the high school and one cannot learn the missing material over the summer and get into 8th gr Alg 1. No transfer of credits from outside institutions is allowed.

Contrast this with another district in the region: must have 90 or greater in preceding non-honors course and successfully complete summer packet to enroll in honors course. Honors 9th grade IAlg. I is available as is 9th and 10th gr. Honors Geo and 10th and 11th IAlgII. A disorganized boy is not blocked out forever in that district. A child that wants to put in the effort and get an education can. Math honors is independent of accelerating in science. A student can, on the high school campus at no extra fee, take the Calc sequence, Intro to DiffEq, and Linear Alg. and if that is not enough do an independent study with a teacher on campus or a nearby college or take an on-line course.

>>but seriously, why would they get an A in school and do poorly on a test?
The most common reason is that the material on the test was not covered in the class. Many regents level classes don't bother teaching the whole course b/c of the feeling that the 'students can't handle it'. They are given no opportunity to even try. One is expected to buy a test prep book and teach oneself if one is serious.

It is shameful that we are paying almost $20K per pupil, hearing that the nation needs more people educated in science and math and having school districts select and discard capable students rather than teach them.

SteveH said...

"...tracking begins in Kindergarten in my area..."

Perhaps this is something we need to follow up on. Schools talk about not tracking kids, but things happen in K-8 and parents are not told. I remember when it first happened before my son entered Kindergarten. It was a mandated state test that even included tossing and catching a bean bag toy. They said that the state was only collecting data. I don't know whether the results stayed at the school with his name attached.

In kindergarten, they gave my son a reading (?) test of some sort. They didn't want to tell us the results. We knew he could read, but they didn't want to tell us the results because, perhaps, they thought we would get weird. I got the distinct feeling that it was none of our business.

There must be many other official tests that they have given him that I know nothing about. At the beginning of this year (seventh grade), they gave him a DRA (?) reading test, I think. I only heard about it in a tangential way. "Can I see the test?", I said. "I don't know.", came the reply. He supposedly did well, so I didn't pursue it.

As IGM says, tracking happens right from the start and parents don't have a clue. Our school is all about full-inclusion and no tracking. However, the tracking seems to happen with lower teacher expectations and work that is differentiated to the child's perceived level. You could say that tracking always happens. It's just now done in an implicit (authentic?) fashion. The downside is that parents have no clue about what's happening until it's too late.

I've been telling parents lately about the big math decision in sixth grade that determines whether their child will even have a chance at AP calculus in high school. The school gives the kids a test near the end of sixth grade. The teacher has some influence too, but the decision is made. Most parents don't understand the consequences. So, after 6 years of Everyday Math, it's all over. It's virtually impossible to get back on the right track. Worse yet, the lower track students don't get the same rigor, but at a slower pace. Few will ever get to the pre-calculus course. At best, they will struggle to get to Algebra II. Doors are closed in sixth grade by schools and teachers who may not understand or even like math.

I suppose I could go into the school's office and ask to see all of my son's records. Has anyone done that? What do schools actually keep in the files? I suspect that they won't see it as a friendly request. Worse, I think, is what Allison talks about; the perceived impressions of the teachers. It could be a form of self-fulfilling tracking via lower expectations. I know that I'm sensitive to how my son is perceived by his teachers, but there is not much I can do to advise him.

I said long ago that K-8 schools like to see education as a natural process. They want to pump kids along at their natural pace, rather than filter them with early tracking. I now think that they are just fooling themselves, fooling the parents, and misleading the kids. Tracking happens.

Anonymous said...

My children's school denies they use tracking. However, they decide who are low, medium, and high kids and put them into classes with supposed an equal distribution of each type. The teachers are supposed to differentiate instruction in each classroom so that all children are challenged.

So apparently, the children are tracked onto different levels but are all kept together is the same classrooms.

How could this possibly work effectively to get kids to learn?

I didn't even realize that this was a form of tracking until I read Steve's post.

AAACCK...sound of head on keyboard.


Anonymous said...

I called it tracking within the classroom years ago. It seemed so ineffective to have a teacher deal with three or more distinct levels (by design)in the same classroom.

More and more of the upper and lower ends have to be supplemented by resource teachers and pullouts.

I feel for the parents coming up behind me. I warn anyone who will listen.


Allison said...

Tracking refers to separating out kids into different classrooms by some metric, be it IQ or aptitude or whatever you want to call it. At least, that is what tracking used to mean when it was considered positive. In the 40s and 50, tracking wasn't just "a math track" or "a history track". You were either in the fast camp, the normal camp, or the slow camp: bright kids got A-level courses in math and reading and history, the middle got none, the low end were in the slow versions for all of the above. There was no "honors English" student who was also in normal math.

When people complain of tracking now, it seems to be on a much finer scale: we're complaining that there is a math track that we couldn't get our kid into, rather than our kid has been excluded from all opportunities for advanced courses, etc.

Still, it's hard to understand the schizophrenic school that somehow manages to track kids and do full-classroom inclusion at the same time. Aren't we on this blog constantly complaining at full inclusion, differentiated instruction, etc.? How do you square the circle of differentiated instruction is bad but separating out by skill is too?

Or is the issue simply that placement is determined by teachers? I mean, really, does it all boil down to that--there isn't any other quantitative or objective measure by which kids are sorted into the fine grained tracks?

In my day, we had placement tests. Piece of cake. The obvious solution. Is the issue that placement tests are disallowed? Does this whole discussion go back to the issue of how to stop the teacher from having so much control over the student's outcomes?

Allison said...

okay, other comments arrived after I wrote mine but before it posted...

having read the rest above, the answer is:
yes, the teachers have all of the discretion and power over the student's future because their recommendations moreso than any other criteria are the basis by which our kids' education moves forward. It affects which classes they can take, which school they'll get to attend, etc.

And teachers have all this power probably because those schools don't trust the grades they give out to kids--either due to inflation or deflation, who knows which--so they just go with teacher recs. And even if they did something reasonable like a placement test, earlier teachers have been systematically un-teaching or mis-teaching enough material, whether by design or not, so that only those kids whose parents were in the know and sought outside remediation were able to overcome that massive gaps in knowledge.

Have I got it all down?

We used to trust teachers. We used to trust their intellect and their judgment. Now big swathes of folks don't.

And we're in that swath. We might have to pay lip service to having how hard teachers work, what saints they are, but largely, we don't trust them as a class anymore, and we think that those who do are the ones whose kids are getting left behind.

Teachers feel that distrust and respond by circling wagons, making parents the enemy, using edujargon, etc. Everything to keep the distrusting from getting any real evidence to use against them.

So, the issues of tracking and placement are really just strategems in this war for control.

But there's no way to salvage the trust without changing who the teachers are, and what they have been taught. So there's no peace accord in the future; all that's left is one side needs to win control. And winning here means: they do what we tell them to do? Short of that, really, what are we fighting for?

Allison said...

---Doors are closed in sixth grade by schools and teachers who may not understand or even like math

Wait, Steve, do you think this is NEW? This is what happened to everyone else who ever went to school, too.

In reality, the doors closed EARLIER than that. The doors closed before 4th grade at the latest. That is what you see if you just look at what happens to readers. Can't read well enough by 4th grade? it's over; the doors to college are closed.

Don't know your times tables by 4th grade? Can't add without your fingers? NOTHING is going to help you catch up. You can't remediate enough material to be on pace with the alg-in-8th anyway.

the classrooms bifurcate on those lines early, because either instruction has almost never mattered or matters little compared to home as long as home provides the basics for education through 4th grade.

So I guess there's at least one thing to be optimistic about: it used to be taken for granted that the doors closed by 6th grade. Now we think that's wrong. Interesting improvement.

So are we just insistent that our kids not experience what we did? Do we really think this is worse than what happened to us? Does it seem to matter more now that our kid fell off the math wagon early? Is it that our demands of teaching are now higher than they were? Or is it that instruction is getting poorer and poorer so the tracking is holding back those who we believe wouldn't have been held back a generation ago?

SteveH said...

"How do you square the circle of differentiated instruction is bad but separating out by skill is too?"

When I was growing up, there was no tracking in K-6. Almost. The lowest ability kids went somewhere else (perhaps out of district) for specialized help, and the rest were taught the same stuff. If you didn't meet grade-level expectations, you ran the risk of summer school or being held back a year. The schools started to track in seventh grade, which is still done in our schools, but to a lesser extent.

Tracking has, and always will, begin to happen by seventh grade. Even in our full-inclusion school, they realize that by seventh grade they have to separate kids in math and foreign language. You have to provide a path to the AP calculus track and a path to the second year of language in high school.

The new problems have to do with full inclusion in K-6. Our schools try very hard not to send kids out of district. There is a much wider range of abilities in our classrooms than there were when I was growing up. Many parents love (!) this idea, and some move to our town specifically for this reason. But it doesn't come without a price.

So, the issue now is not full-inclusion good; tracking, bad. It's all integrated into one classroom for K-6. Our state spends zero dollars on TAG or GATE education. The only way you can do this is to redefine education. Facts become mere and skills become rote. Enrichment takes the place of acceleration. It can work because they say it can work. By definition. (At least until seventh grade.) With such a wide range of abilities, differentition can seem more like tracking. At our schools, however, differentiation means that the more able kids have to either go to a private school (20 - 25% of the kids in our town), or get the extra help at home or with a tutor.

Ultimately, tracking (real separation and acceleration of material) will happen. I think that there were and still are the same problems about how this done, whether by test or teacher recommendation. In seventh grade (many years ago) I got placed into one of two accelerated classes. I'm sure the decision was based on much more than grades, and I'm sure it was unfair to a number of students.

I fall into the camp that says the decision should ultimately be up to the kids and their parents. However, I want schools to deal honestly with the conflict between full inclusion in K-6 and tracking starting in seventh grade. Their differentiation is not getting the job done. All they have to do is ask the parents. In effect, schools have to square the idea that full inclusion is so perfect in K-6, but tracking in 7-12 is also just fine. Something is happening here and many parents at KTM know what it is.

SteveH said...

"Or is it that instruction is getting poorer and poorer so the tracking is holding back those who we believe wouldn't have been held back a generation ago?"

I wouldn't put it quite that way.

Full-inclusion requires lower expectations and a different way of looking at education. This doesn't fit in with the world of tracking that will happen. Schools can't pump kids merrily along and then toss them into the big filter in high school.

Things are different now. There are lower expectations. Parents have to do more. My parents didn't help with my work at all.

Allison said...

--I fall into the camp that says the decision should ultimately be up to the kids and their parents. However, I want schools to deal honestly with the conflict between full inclusion in K-6 and tracking starting in seventh grade.

To the first point: that goes back to the issue of control. We no longer trust that the teachers know best, so it should be up to us. We don't want teachers controlling the pipeline because we have so little evidence that they know what's best for our kids, and their choices have such far reaching consequences. But this undermines their only asset, their authority, because their power doesn't come from knowing more material than the rest of us know. So they aren't going to concede the point.

To the second point: in the 40s and 50s, schools dealt honestly with the conflict by tracking earlier, and that probably had its drawbacks. Lgms' comments that at least other districts provide you the chance to move up a track are heartening. Your guess that by 7th grade, tracking's a foregone conclusion--just the natural variance being enough of a problem for one room--fits my intuition too. But I'm not sure expectations are lower for students now. And the parent part seems to be a regional phenomenon. It's not happening here, that's for sure.

still, you're right about the disconnect between full inclusion and what's to come. however, i think more cynically about full inclusion as lip service. I still think teachers made up their mind, just as the students did, in 4th grade about who was going to get into which track in 7th or higher.

Allison said...

btw, on the other thread, about the decline at the top, did you see my followups to your comment? I'd be interested to see what current reccomendation writing policies are in high school, etc.

Anonymous said...

Steve, there's a law called "FERPA" which entitles you to access your kid's educational records.

SteveH said...

When I was in K-12 (50's and 60's) the schools tracked out the lowest level kids. For the rest (in K-6) they were tracked by holding them back or forcing them to go to summer school. It's perhaps a stretch to describe tracking this way, but they wanted to keep all kids together in K-6 content and skill-wise. I can understand why some don't like this model.

My view is that K-6 teachers and schools are nurturing types and envisioned a system where all kids played, worked, and learned together. This required changes in assumptions about what K-6education is all about. Content knowledge (memorization) and mastery of skills had to be minimized, and enrichment had to replace acceleration. That's the only way they could get full inclusion to work. It was clear that at my son's schools, differentiated instruction was brought in to try and make full inclusion work. They know that there are issues, and they see all of the kids shipped off to private schools, but they still think it can work as a model for public education, where all kids have to be educated.

However, when I taught the SSAT after-school course last year, I saw bright seventh graders struggling to make the transition from the low expectation, developmentally-appropriate ideas of K-6 to the real work of learning content and mastering skills in high school. Many will make the transition just fine because they're quite capable or because they have help from their parents or tutors. One long-time teacher told me that the kids who get hurt the most are the ones in the middle, or those who have no support at home. Enough kids do well in high school, and that allows the lower schools to think they're on the right track.

I think there is little difference then and now about the power teachers have over your child. However, in the old days, it usually surfaced as bad grades or warnings about the risk of summer school. Nowadays, your child might just get different material or lower, developmentally-appropriate expectations in the same classroom and you won't know about it for years. The main premise of Everyday Math is that spiraling will take care of everything. Mastery of basic skills will come eventually when the child is ready to learn. It doesn't happen. Then in seventh grade, the big filter starts to be applied and it's too late unless parents take drastic action.

SteveH said...

"Steve, there's a law called "FERPA" which entitles you to access your kid's educational records."

I figured they can't stop you from looking at what they have. I just wonder what their reaction would be if I asked. Perhaps what might be more of an issue is what information do they NOT put in the file. Do schools carefully decide what goes in and what doesn't? Are records cleansed?

palisadesk said...

I figured they can't stop you from looking at what they have. I just wonder what their reaction would be if I asked.

Usually, the exact content of what goes into a students official school record file is specified by law, by regulation and by specific district policies. Required documents include report cards, IEPs, suspension documentation, custody orders, immigration status documentation, and more, mosly very official documents of legal import. Parental consent may be required for some documents, such as psychological reports, to go in the file (they are centrally filed in the relevant district department if they do not go in the student's file).

The regulations also exclude many items, so schools always have other files on students -- these may be central or classroom-based or both. Examples of things kept outside the official school file, but usually kept for several years even if a student leaves, are test protocols and results (formal testing, standardized testing, formative assessment, screening tests, informal observations), anecdotal records of behavior, parent contact logs, work samples, correspondence (notes from home, communication logs, formal letters that do not meet criteria for inclusion in the school record folder).

You have a legal right to see what is in the official record -- in most places you must make a request in writing. In my experience schools discourage this, mainly because to set up appointment for a great many parents to avail themselves of this right would be a real strain on office resources and manpower, as usually an administrator must be present and a private room provided. You probably do not have a right to see all the documents the school may have filed (test protocols, for instance, are not usually made available to the parents -- a report is supposed to be shared), and you would likely be unable to prove that the school even had such a file.

Of course, they do; they have to have a place to store the documents that need to be kept but are not appropriate for the student record file. Individual teachers may vary as to how ready they are to share what they have with you.

Perhaps what might be more of an issue is what information do they NOT put in the file. Do schools carefully decide what goes in and what doesn't? Are records cleansed?

School personnel have little flexibility in this regard, as the school record file is standardized. Even the order of what goes where is spelled out and must be observed. There are very few items that are discretionary where the school record file is concerned. Usually an administrator or someone designated by administration carefully reviews each file at the end of the school year to ensure it is in proper order.

School records may be "cleansed" -- some documents stay forever (report cards), but material that is out of date -- old IEPs from earlier years, medical or other reports that are several years old, outdated custody orders (for example, earlier prohibitions on a parent picking up the child when the earlier document is superseded by a court order granting joint custody) and so on.

When children move outside the district or the state there are other protocols for what documents are to be removed from the file before it is forwarded (if it is) to the new school. Most districts forward to another district in the same state but many do not send the actual record file to another state or country or to a private school. Regulations on these matters vary.

Anonymous said...

The original idea of mainstreaming was far enough back in the mists of time that the whole current bottom layer of children never entered the public school system. The kids with severe intellectual, medical,and psychiatric problems were most likely to be in residental facilities, until such facilities started being closed in the 70s. Even without these kids, the original idea was that the bottom 10% and the top 10% of students should not be mainstreamed.

In far too many schools, these kids are placed in classrooms where their behavior disrupts learning for the rest of the class. At the same time, their own educational needs are not being met. The one-size-fits-all approach means that too many kids (at all levels) don't get the education they need.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Rudbeckia - if you're still here -

What do you think of dual enrollment?

ie: have high school juniors & seniors take courses at the local community college....

I'm in favor, though I haven't given it a lot of thought. Still and all, teachers at community colleges typically have at least an M.A. in the subject they're teaching (and usually a Ph.D.? Is that right?)

Catherine Johnson said...

wow -- fantastic thread here -- I need to get ALL of these comments pulled up front.

Attewell's study, along with Elmore's article on nominally high-performing schools, is a core issue for me, certainly --- and I think for the country, too.

Catherine Johnson said...

I fall into the camp that says the decision should ultimately be up to the kids and their parents. However, I want schools to deal honestly with the conflict between full inclusion in K-6 and tracking starting in seventh grade.

ditto that

What I'm talking about (for now) is an asymmetry in tracking between math/science on one hand and ELA/social studies/foreign language on the other. Attewell found the same thing: "over-tracking" specifically in math/science.

Full inclusion is for ELA/social studies/foreign languages.

Tracking is for math/science.

In the middle school, the only accelerated courses offered are in math/science: accelerated math in 6th, 7th, and 8th; Earth Science in 8th. There is nothing available in ELA, social studies, or foreign languages.

If you're verbally talented you spend those 3 years reading a handful of books at the 5th grade level.

Another result of this policy, obviously, is that verbally talented kids have no opportunities to develop their talents. They read some books and "write" a couple of papers that are too hard for any of the kids to write....and when everyone gets to high school the math/science kids are way out in front while the verbal kids have suffered through 3 years of the over-accelerated math course while not learning to write and not having done any significant reading.

btw, I don't for a moment buy Attewell's explanation for why this is happening.

ChemProf said...

Still and all, teachers at community colleges typically have at least an M.A. in the subject they're teaching (and usually a Ph.D.? Is that right?)

This varies by state. In California, they must have an MA or equivalent (I had to get certification from my Ph.D. program to work as a lab instructor when I was ABD), but many have Ph.D.'s, since there is a lot of competition for those jobs, especially for the full-time positions.

Paul B said...

It is very common in a debate to cede the domain of the debate to the interrogator, i.e. a question like, "What is the best Frizdoodle?", can shape the entire discussion around Frizdoodles, to the exclusion of everything else. This thread is like that. It's essentially a debate about how to select and fill static 'slots' in a static curricula.

If the goal of education is to maximize each student's potential (and I think it is) then you need a system that puts each student into a dynamic setting that empowers him or her to move and excel at a suitable pace.

We have a public school system that pretty much makes time the constant and learning the variable. Tracking, as discussed here, simply enables that line of thinking.

Wouldn't it be better to make the learning the constant and time the variable? Tracking would become moot, mastery the norm. Movement through the system would automatically keep kids in their ZPD and at the peak of their potential.

Catherine Johnson said...

chemprof -- thanks!

That was certainly my impression.

Catherine Johnson said...

Paul - have you looked at Keller Method courses?

I have GOT to get the post about the Australian law professor who taught a law course via Keller method up....

Paul B said...

Yes to Keller. I've read everything I could get for free on the web. I feel like it's part of my DNA.

When I have these discussions with my peers I fear my DNA has mutated to something utterly different than theirs. It's like they just want to make better cereal and I want to spread all the Cheerios out on the high chair so kids can eat whatever they can reach.

I don't think the nature of the cereal is nearly as important as the way it gets eaten.

Rudbeckia Hirta said...

I'm in favor of dual-enrollment if the high school student is enrolled in an actual class at the community college. If, however, the community college just slaps a course number onto the high school class or runs a special section just for high school students, then I'm not impressed.

Of course, while this view may hold in the general case, there are some situations where it doesn't hold. The calculus class at the community college won't be as good as the one at Thomas Jefferson High School or Stuyvesant High School or an Ivy League college. But it will be better than the majority of what most high schools call "calculus."

And, all that being said, I'm vehemently opposed to AB calculus in high schools. Either a kid is ready for real calculus (BC) or else the kid needs more practice with algebra and trig. AB calculus takes out the hardest third of BC calculus and then takes a whole year to teach the easier two-thirds.

Anonymous said...

Minnesota has the PSEO (post-secondary enrollment option, I think), which allows qualified high school students the option of taking classes at a local community college or university, with tuition/fees/books paid by their local school district. It is primarily used by juniors and seniors, but I have heard of kids going straight to community college from 9th grade. My son was unhappy with the foreign language at his high school and switched to community college courses which were outstanding. It's a wonderful program.

lgm said...

>>Or is it that instruction is getting poorer and poorer so the tracking is holding back those who we believe wouldn't have been held back a generation ago?

Those who aren't being allowed to take the 8th gr algebra path are qualified. They are the stanine 7 and 8 kids who have been placed in the fully included sections of elementary..the sections where the grade level course is not covered. Had their summative grades in 6th grade been given consideration over the formative, the students would have been seen as individuals smart enough to make up the deficiencies and qualified for 7th accel.(which is really just the standard pre-algebra course).
As it is, we now have kids who rank in the top 15% of math students statewide (as objectively measured by the state math test), but are not allowed to get into 8th gr. Algebra because of 6th grade grades and lack of teacher recommendation. It's a nice cozy nest of underacheivers created by the school district.

For me personally, it is a blessing. My kid can now take a decent course from Johns Hopkins' CTY or the like while he earns an easy A at school.

lgm said...

On community college - the choices here after Math B or IA2 are CC (which is now renamed Suny-county) college algebra, trig, calcI, calc II or precalc taught at h.s. or IB Math. Only precalc is free.

Community criticism is that it costs a lot to do options 1 and 3, especially for homeowners who are already paying high school taxes and for red/free lunchers.

For what I'm paying in school taxes, I could just send my kid to the CC full time at 16, if that was the education I wanted. I would prefer the option of an open admission rigorous free college prep sequence on campus, just like my rural midwestern high school provided to allthat wish to partake.

Cranberry said...

Catherine, I found Attewell's explanation, or better defined, correlations, fascinating. As I remember, he found this pattern of tracking most clearly in school districts with 1) many professional parents, and 2) many gifted children. It makes a certain type of sense. First, professional parents are accustomed to passing through gateways to succeed. College, grad school, internships, first jobs, partnership... In the typical career trajectory for doctors, lawyers, professors, etc., they pass through stages in which many candidates are washed out, and only the elect pass. So, a narrowing system of opportunities makes sense to these parents, and they may not even realize that alternatives exist.

Second, yes, many gifted children also makes sense. If any rational set of criteria would qualify more children, the power to exclude those children gives the administration an enormous amount of power. Think about it. I know parents who will not protest anything our school does, because they are afraid of repercussions. Those parents most likely to engage with the system, the parents of bright children, who are paying attention, are much safer baking cookies and writing letters supporting bond issues.