Monday, July 20, 2009

Bunny Colvin’s Dilemma: The Side of Tacking That 'The Wire' Didn’t Show

“So you pretend to teach all these kids, but the truth is you ain’t teaching none of them,” explains Bunny Colvin to a group of Baltimore middle school teachers in an episode of HBO’s acclaimed series, The Wire (Thorson, 2005). Colvin’s argument is a response to another teacher’s claim that removing behaviorally disruptive students from the mainstream classroom is unacceptable because it creates an unjust form of “tracking” that lowers expectations before the students even walk through the door. While the series is a work of fiction, in this scene, the writers and actors craftily illustrate a heated debate within education: does tracking students do more harm than good?

While Colvin, and perhaps The Wire’s head writers David Simon and Ed Burns—a retired teacher—seem to believe that the benefits of grouping students into classes with others of similar academic abilities and commitments allows all students to flourish, many educational theorists disagree on the grounds that statistics illustrate the exact opposite. However the issue is not as binary as either party seems to purport. While most current tracking systems need to be adjusted, they do serve an important role in maximizing the academic achievement of all students, not just those in Honors classes.

“Nearly all schools track students,” explains education theorist Jeannie Oakes (Oakes, 1986, p. 1). The standard definition of tracking is the practice of dividing students into separate classes depending on their level of achievement—i.e. high, average, and low (Oakes, 1986, p. 2). Different curriculums are then mapped out for students depending on their abilities. Sometimes the differentiation goes as far as creating units geared towards college-bound students and more vocational units for students headed directly towards the workplace.

The goal of tracking, so to speak, is to raise the achievement of all students by offering lessons that better fit student interests and abilities than those that would be offered in a heterogeneous classroom. “A good fit between a student’s ability and the level of instruction is believed to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the instructional process. Thus, tracking is meant to promote cognitive development,” explains tracking theorist Maureen Hallinan (Hallinan, 1994, p. 75). In theory, tracking seems to be a system that promotes higher-level learning for all students.

In practice, however, tracking creates a series of challenges that many educators feel are too high a price for the benefits it offers. The first consequence of tracking is that it typically grants higher-level instruction and teacher effort for students on higher tracks. “The curriculum and related instructional materials are more interesting and engaging in higher tracks,” writes Hallinan (1994, p. 80). As a result, higher track students learn more and at faster paces than lower tracked students (ibid.). Another disadvantage is that traditionally heterogeneous classes, such as art, health, and physical education, sometimes become tracked because college-preparatory students do not have the open slots in their schedules to take them with other students (Oakes, 1986, p. 2).

Tracking also severely affects the educational experiences of students in the bottom tier classes. Students who are tracked to low level classes often appear to retard their academic progress, as studies have even shown that placement in low tracks can result in lowered I.Q. scores (Oakes, 1986, p.4). This effect is caused by a series of instructional inadequacies found in the lower level tracks, such as uninterested lesson planning, unoriginal instructional materials, low teacher expectations and standards, lower standards for teacher performance, and “a significant number of interruptions in instruction owing to disciplinary problems” (Hallinan, 1994, p. 82). The effects of lower level tracking also affects students emotionally, as studies have found that placement in these courses can cause lower self-esteem and aspirations, as well as fostering negative attitudes towards the school or classes students attend (Oakes, 1986, p. 4). Indeed, slotting students into lower level tracks seems to affect them both their social wellbeing and their academic performance.

Despite all these glaring limitations, the most troubling consequence of tracking is seen when one considers the role of race in the classroom. Statistics show that poor and minority youngsters—specifically Blacks and Latinos—score disproportionately low on skill level assessments (Oakes, 1986, p. 5). As a result, these same students are often continuously and excessively placed in low-ability and non-college bound classes. The problem is that this results in minority students continuously remaining underrepresented in programs for talented and gifted students, and as a result are often unprepared when they arrive at college. Though more than fifty years have passed since the Supreme Court laid down its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, tracking seems to find ways to challenge ‘separate is never equal’ standards even today.

Given these problems with the current tracking system, I propose that the solution is not to simply disband it entirely, but rather to make the adjustments necessary for these programs to be more efficient and successful. To counter the most glaring issue of segregation within school systems, communities should use Affirmative Action initiatives to ensure that their college-level tracks have sufficient representation of the districts’ minority communities. School officials should also make sure that classes that are not tracked also have a mix of students with all types of abilities in them.

Administrators also need to create more fluidity within the tracks, as students who work hard to raise their skills on lower tracks should be granted access to higher level classes and students who do not belong in honors classes should be removed to make room for them. Teachers also need to be held accountable for their performances not just with the college-level tracks, but with the low-level classes. Teachers who do not improve the test scores of their students should be put through professional developments and mentoring sessions to learn how to work with these types of student populations. They should also be given access to more technology to assist in engaging different types of learners in lower level classes. If their students continue to display a lack of improvement, then the teachers should be removed from the classes and possibly the schools.

Lastly, I’d like to suggest that the discipline problems that are currently present in low-level classrooms could be solved with improved instruction. If teachers take the time to get to know their kids and make them believe in themselves, more often than not, they will want to learn. Many of these low level performers are students who have been told throughout their life that they are not good learners and will not succeed in school. Because of the troubled experiences of these students, it is important that administrators finance a fair amount of their budget to train teachers how to serve these populations and attain the technology necessary to do so.

After reviewing the issues with tracking, I am sure that the problem lies not with the act of separating students into groups based on their cognitive abilities, but rather with placing them in the classrooms of teachers who are unprepared or unwilling to teach them. This must be improved if we want to both award academic opportunities to our brightest and most motivated learners while not violating the civil rights of their lower-performing classmates. Imagine if Bunny Colvin’s alternative program for disruptive students had featured a series of uninterested and apathetic teachers, instead of the dynamic young educators The Wire depicted. Surely the students would have revolted, and many would likely have dropped out. Sadly, The Wire is only a show and more often than not, the less desirable of those two situations takes place. All students deserve the right to an education, and a teacher that only focuses on advanced level students is not doing more than half of their job.

Works Cited

Hallilnan, M. (1994). Tracking: From theory to practice. Sociology of Education, 67(2), 79-84.

Oakes, J. (1986). Keeping track, part 1: The policy and practice of curriculum inequality. Phi Delta Kappan, 68, 12-17.

Thorson, K. (2005). Episode 4: Refugees, The Wire. Balitmore: HBO Productions.

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