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By Maureen McCracken
I support heterogeneous educational groupings for myriad reasons. I know those who support grouping by ability do so for a variety of reasons, too, but I wanted to address one that I have heard articulated most – that eliminating honors classes limits our kids' ability to follow their strengths and the educational path that's right for them. To me, honors classes grouped by perceived ability have greater potential to limit paths and choices than the individualized approach to "honors" curriculum being promoted by administrators.
When we group kids based on perceived ability, we create perceptions and set expectations. Whether a student stays in their track, loses ground, or even excels beyond what is expected, our expectations have set the context for that achievement. And we're not just talking about how teachers teach in the classroom. These groupings have implications for how kids view themselves, and maybe even what their peers and parents expect of them. And then there's the issue that perceived ability is largely impacted by a student's socio-economic background, their family's values and approach to education and not necessarily talent at all. We might miss an opportunity with a truly gifted student who hasn't followed the traditional path. When we set expectations in broad strokes and based on groups that stay together for an entire school year (and likely the subsequent three years), we risk letting all kids down either by not expecting enough of them or by expecting too much. Actually, we probably do both, depending on what we think that child's "path" is.
Those that say homogeneous grouping is not tracking because kids can choose to take an honors class are ignoring the fact that a single class takes place for a full year; there are no options for moving in and out of deeper curriculum for subtopics within a class structure and within that year. Since one year represents 25 percent of each students' high school experience, it is not a trivial thing to draw a box around our expectations for a student for that whole time. Not to mention that once we have done this in ninth grade, the subsequent three years are for the most part already defined.
There is no single path for any human being – we all need to continue to learn and change as the world changes. I know many adults who have re-created themselves many times, either by going to school to retool or by changing jobs or by starting a business. I myself have done all of these a few times and I have also only recently become aware that I am a math person myself after being convinced early on that being good at math was not on my path! Being able to learn, change, communicate and think critically and having the confidence that you can do these things is a critical skill in today's economy.
I feel confident in my support of heterogeneous grouping because it goes beyond my personal feelings and experience. There are a plethora of organizations that support heterogeneous grouping and warn against tracking, including the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the Association for Middle Level Education (formerly the National Middle School Association), the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Education Association, the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People, and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (our school's accrediting organization).
We need to be able to prepare all of our kids with a strong foundation in learning; forget the singular path so that they can reach their full potential and be successful as adults. Sometimes this will mean pushing them harder than they think they can handle; sometimes it will mean backing off and helping them gain some life balance. It should never mean putting 14-year-old students in boxes based on what we (or they) think they can and cannot do as of September 1.
I believe that the program of personalized learning plans and multiple pathways that the Harwood administration has been talking about is the only thoughtful way to create a strong foundation and an exciting potential for each of our kids. I'm not saying doing this will be easy, and I'm sure this will push boundaries for teachers, administrators, students and parents; but I truly believe we need to get creative and stop following only what we know because the world our kids live in as adults will not be like the one we live in today, and we can't possibly create a path to it.
McCracken lives in Waterbury.