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Educators speak out on the problems of tracking, teaching

STANFORD -- Four Bay Area educators discussed the limitations of academic "tracking" for all students and deplored classroom teaching that focuses on low-skill routines during a panel discussion for the Friends of the Stanford University School of Education Thursday night, Feb. 25.

Tracking refers to the practice of dividing students into instructional groups on the basis of assumed academic ability or educational achievement.

Urging schools to return to "the circle of the wonder of learning," Alice Kawazoe, director of staff and curriculum development at Oakland Unified School District, compared her own childhood experiences in a school that encouraged creative learning, and later in one that focused on "drill-and-kill" routines.

Kawazoe began attending the school next door to her home as a child of three in Kyoto, Japan.

Her uncle was the teacher and principal; an aunt "did everything else." Four other students attended: two were five years old; two were four.

Her uncle, a Zen Buddhist priest, was "not known for his warm affection," she said. You could describe him as 'austere,' " Kawazoe told 135 people attending the dinner discussion, moderated by education Professor Larry Cuban.

Kawazoe recalled that, in her early classes, "Drawing would lead to calligraphy; calligraphy would lead to writing; writing would lead to reading."

When the children were sent outside to play among the trees and leaves, they began counting leaves. Eventually, she said, this led to "math problems with stones and leaves."

"I never knew I was studying science or the language arts; I was studying, just learning," said Kawazoe.

After three years, her uncle closed the school so he could meditate elsewhere. Kawazoe, by age six, was able to read newspapers in Japanese and Mandarin Chinese.

Then she entered another school where she had her "first encounter with academic English." For "every single day, six days a week," she diagrammed "enormously long English sentences" by "dead white men" such as Samuel Johnson and Dryden.

"After six years of this, you sort of get the hang of diagramming."

Although she admits "the only capacity I had in English was diagramming sentences by 17th-century writers," she nevertheless was placed in ninth grade at the age of 12.

In her first school, she said, students were "taught to guess, take risks, wonder, and surmise"; the second she described as "drill and kill."

"Both extremes exist in Oakland schools," she said. Some teachers "create excitement in every child they teach." In other classes, "Kids wind up comatose, or at least asleep."

The challenge, she said, is to "get those drill-and-kill people into the circle of the wonder of learning."

An inner-city 'tracking paradox'

Professor Melanie Sperling, whose research focuses on the teaching of writing and reading, discussed how "tracking" can narrow possibilities for many students. She described a "tracking paradox" she found in a low-income school located in a major California city.

"It's a Chapter One school, and the students in it come mostly from an urban 'ghetto' - a place where there's much gang activity, much violence; in all ways, a very difficult place for boys and girls to live."

However, about 200 students within the school - a small percentage of the total - comprise a "special, ethnically mixed middle- class population enrolled in an arts magnet school-within-the-school."

According to a teacher, a sprinkling of these children in other classes "really made a big difference."

The teacher, pseudoanonymously called "Ms. Jencks," noted that during a project, these students became deeply involved and would "do some beautiful piece of artwork. Then the next time you made that assignment, the other kids would come up with something a little more ambitious. So even though the arts magnet kids were small in number, they seem to have a big impact on the school."

Sperling said that Ms. Jencks also taught a 10th-grade honors English class. "But it turned out not to be a tracked class in the traditional sense," said Sperling, because the school had trouble filling the class.

As a result, "Half of the class was made up of students who got there by the usual measures - previous grades, teacher recommendations, students who might well wind up in honors English in any school, and half the class was made up of students who by usual means would never be tracked into such a class."

Mike, a disruptive African-American student, was one of the latter. In another of Ms. Jencks's classes, "he did no work and, to coin a term from the anthropologists, became, in collaboration with his peers, very good at achieving failure.

"In that class," the teacher recalled, "it was difficult to get any discussion going because there was a sort of class movement among the 'bad kids' to try to sabotage anything that was looking like it was going toward a discussion."

Still, in the honors class, Mike seemed to enjoy "not having to be bad." And the other children in the class seemed to benefit as well.

"If you look at Mike, you sort of get the stereotype of the bad kid from the inner city that doesn't care about school," Jencks had told Sperling. "I think kids realized, 'Wow! There's really something special to this guy.' "

Sperling noted that, in the honors class, "Mike wrote as much as most of the kids in the class, which was a lot.

"His favorite writing, he told me in an interview, was a letter of complaint that he wrote to the school principal about the school hat rule [students were not allowed to wear hats] that was a solidly reasoned argument, and the letter was mailed to the principal."

When Mike read it in class, said Sperling, "for several minutes of class time, this letter became the anchor around which the characteristics of letters of complaint could be discussed."

Ms. Jencks offered her students many opportunities "to impact the world...with their writing." The students wrote to Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, and the World Bank about funding rain forest depletion.

Shannon, a blind Vietnamese girl, received a response to her letter to a store manager about a defective CD she had purchased - the manager invited her to come in and pick out another one free. The incident was a "literacy event" for the quiet student, who "ordinarily said very little."

Sperling described Ms. Jencks as an "opportunity-maker," encouraging her students to enter essay and poetry contests - even encouraging one of her students to turn her fantasy stories into a children's book.

"This notion of writing, not as an end in itself, but as a means to another end - to change the school hat policy, to talk to published authors about their books, to entertain future children - is, from a theoretical standpoint, at the heart of all language development, oral and written," said Sperling.

"Children don't learn to talk for the sake of the exercise, for example. They learn to talk because they need to say something like, 'Tie my shoe,' or 'Tell him to stop hitting me.'

"The same with writing. Children who write before they enter school, or who pretend to write, often do so in the service of some greater end - playing postman or going to the market with a list. Yet it is often only in upper-tracked classrooms, honors classes, that writing gets done that will serve some greater end. . . . "

"With a heterogeneous group of students of sometimes drastically contrasting school achievement, Ms. Jencks assumed honors- level standards for everyone," said Sperling, "as if everyone could and would turn in a complete portfolio of writing at the end of the semester. In fact, all students did.

"Students, at least for the time they were in this classroom, seemed to change status in the eyes of their peers and in their own eyes as well."

Sperling reminded the audience that "policy decisions made at the district and school levels infiltrate, however subtly, the ever- changing relationships and the moment-by-moment discourse out of which writers and readers grow."

More emphasis on 'self-selection'

Two other educators spoke about tracking: Jim Brown, superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District, joked that tracking is "a vulgar term in Palo Alto - we refer to them as 'lanes.' " He noted that the tracking offered children "very little opportunity to meet children different from themselves."

He said that in Palo Alto, educators were looking into ways to put "a greater emphasis on self-selection" in student placement, rather than relying on tests.

He also said the district was "trying very directly to reduce lower-skill classes - ditto with 'drill-and-kill' classes." Brown said students benefit more from Algebra I than lower-level classes "in terms of being challenged."

He urged others "to try overall to look at the issue very carefully" in terms of "what the mission of schools ought to be in the first place."

"Is it to sort and select for different walks of life - or to prepare all students for productive, rewarding lives?" he asked.

Berkeley Schools Superintendent LaVoneia Steele noted that tracking and classroom teaching reflect the conditions of society. Describing herself as "a minority person who survived tracking - otherwise I wouldn't be here," she said that "tracking is still alive and working at Berkeley."

Steele noted the heavy distribution of bilingual students into lower-track classes. "That is unconscionable," she said.

"But it does not mean we should throw out the baby with the bath water."

Friends of the Stanford University School of Education is a fund-raising group launched last year that links the school with people locally and across the nation who are interested in education.



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