Almost 4 years ago, I started at a new school as a 7th grade math teacher. On the first day of school, I taught two separate sections of math class— advanced math and math (or as my students called it “math for slow people”). My homebase was a hallmark of diversity— a reflection of the city in every way. Every demographic was represented. When I walked into the advanced math class, I could have been teaching in a different school entirely. Looking back at me was a sea of white faces. My mind began to wonder: In a school that is so diverse, how did we end up at this point? If as an outsider I was able to identify the problem on day 1, how had no one else recognized this as a problem?
I came to realize that the students who were sitting in the advanced math classroom were not inherently more brilliant. Sure there were some students who were more exceptional at mathematics, but for there was something less obvious being played out. I began asking the advanced math students how they got into the class. For many of them, the answer was simple: “my parents got me in.”
In my school, those who had parents who were confident enough in their ability to put pressure on the school were typically successful in getting their child placed in an advanced level course (a strategy that I eventually used to begin breaking the system). I have heard voices saying that the parents of the other students “just don’t care.” This is simply not true. The fact is that some parents may not have had a positive experience with school during their own education and do not feel comfortable or do not know how to navigate the system in order to change the outcome for their child.
In larger city districts who house students from a variety of backgrounds, the conditions are often more disparate than those found in a small school like mine. In the historic Little Rock Central High School where the dramatic scene of forced integration took place, segregation is still alive and well. In the HBO documentary film, Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later, it becomes apparent that there are lines drawn that segregate in terms of race and class through the use of tracking. Those students who are perceived as less likely to succeed due in no small part to their background, are placed in classes that simply do not provide the same level of educational opportunity. This is a scene that is played out in classrooms across the country. I am not suggesting that teachers and administrators are intentionally holding students back due to their background, race or ethnicity. However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the result is exactly that— students from culturally diverse backgrounds and low SES are placed in lower performing classes. The reasons that the scene continues to play out again and again at schools across the country are not immediately obvious, but are baked into the system.
School tracking perpetuates the division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’ Many of us who come from a system of tracking recognize how influential a parent voice can be in determining the fate of a student’s education. Additionally, students who do not come from the culture in power are far less likely to be recognized for their brilliance. In some cases, this means that they are placed into lower level courses as early as 4th grade. As students are placed into these segregated spaces, it reaffirms what they likely already know— the system is not rigged in their favor. Educators and administrators are the first to admit the inequity that is created through the use of tracking. I will leave you with this thought: If we know that the system of tracking is broken and unfairly favors some students over others, then why does it continue to be a staple of American Schooling?