As an occasional, peripatetic teacher for about 45 years in nine states and the District of Columbia in high schools, community colleges, four-year colleges, I have been around. As a long-time civic activist in public education, I know most of the issues; as the parent of two extremely intelligent children, one of each flavor, I know the elaborate arguments and strong feelings on the issues of ability grouping and tracking. Parents of the gifted want the best for their children; most, but not all, parents of the non-gifted also want the best for theirs and resent what they perceive as the stigmatizing of their children and, by association, of themselves.
Minorities—more Blacks and Hispanics than Asians and Jews—protest such sorting as a structural principle of inequality. To them, course, program, and classroom separation is like school segregation, and thus contrary to the law of the land since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Topeka in 1954.
Even in virtually all-white school districts, ability grouping—with state or school course curriculums shaped to, and teacher expectations matched to, same-ability groups—has been not only stigmatizing, but also stultifying to the average and below-average students. Increasing the distress of these students, administrators and teachers have failed to recognize or accommodate hybrid students, the ones good in some subjects, bad in others. The effects have been educationally and socially corrosive.
The greater ease of teaching students of similar capabilities is a benefit to most teachers and some students, but a dilution of the curriculum, a lowering of expectations and standards, a reduction of instructional effort, and the stigmatizing of students penalize some teachers and affected students for no fault of theirs. School systems should not dilute the curriculum to match grade-point averages or intelligence test scores. Instead, they should ensure that all students have educational opportunities, without discrimination in subject matter or indulgence in academic standards, matched to their demonstrated competencies. Schools should assign students to courses and programs on the basis of those competencies, not a global assessment of their grades or intelligence. For example, students good in math and bad in English might take advanced math classes and remedial English classes.
The motivation of teachers and students in remedial classes is usually a problem. I have enjoyed teaching such classes—I like the challenge—and have found students very responsive to someone trying to help them—I challenge them right back—, but I am not sure how to find motivated teachers for those most needing them. I do not believe that more money gets teachers who have better attitudes and higher expectations, and who will make greater demands of students. Far too many teachers want the good, the easy-to-teach students; dislike the extra work of teaching to the needs of “poor” students; and, in many cases, have contempt for them. In many American public schools, many of those students are Blacks and Hispanics. For all the special programs designed to help them, they have made virtually no educational progress, either relatively or absolutely, for decades. The persistent nationwide gap in test scores across the spectrum of socio-economic environments suggests the differential effects of cultural influences among different ethnic and racial groups. Although I discount, not entirely dismiss, the view, widespread among administrators and teachers that the problem is the parents—you teach the students whom you have, not preach to or blame their parents—I acknowledge that some Black and Hispanic parents and their children are indifferent to education or fear failure and so make little effort; assume that schools are solely responsible for education; or believe that schools must ensure not only equal opportunities, but also equal outcomes. Despite the gap, the same may be said of some white parents with socio-economic and educational backgrounds similar to those of Blacks and Hispanics.
Thanks to more readily available media coverage in urban areas, we witness many Black and Hispanic parents complaining that schools operate in a discriminatory fashion. If honors or AP classes have disproportionately fewer of their children in them, the ready-at-hand charge is discrimination. Yet many teachers, even the best-intentioned, report that Black and Hispanic students are less likely to have the requisite educational competencies to succeed in such courses. Why? Part of the answer is poor teachers; part is poor attendance, poor work habits, poor classroom behavior, and poor effort. Whatever the reason or excuse, many have not learned their subjects well enough to succeed without special arrangements. To avoid such inflammatory charges and visible differentials in grades and graduation rates, school administrators find ways to enlarge the franchise, say, by lowering standards for admission or performance or inflating grades (I recall the “Black B” given by teachers to avoid complaints). Such devices do nothing for the education of Blacks, Hispanics, or anyone else.
The result: too many deadbeat and dropouts, too many worthless diplomas, and a lifetime of self-justifying resentment that the “system” has been against them. Too often, some minorities—students, parents, and minority leaders—blame everyone and everything but themselves. Rarely, do they admit that students did not do the work, and parents did not demand their children, to get the education which the schools tried, sometimes hard, sometimes not, to provide them. In the end, people born in adverse circumstances have rarely overcome them except by investing their energies in earning an education by their hard work; and, unless they invest in themselves and work hard, they will never be equal to their capabilities.