What the schools do, don’t do, should do.

The single most important truth confronting the teacher in respect to her students just has to be the differences between them. The teacher who ignores these differences is destined to lose most of her students as the school year progresses. The teacher who gives the differences too much attention, who tries to give time and place to all of them, is destined to lose herself in the enormity and complexity of the task.

In order to avoid doing either one or the other the teacher has to compromise her goals, the greatest compromise being to somehow establish a middle ground, a kind of public classroom working space in which she can keep all her students, including those at both ends of the ability spectrum, those who are able to meet the highest demands of the program and those who are not.

A pipe dream? It does seem that way. And in the past I have often said so myself. Yet that is what continues to go on in those classrooms, perhaps most of them, where ability tracking is not the rule. Tracking, of course, has been around a long time, going back at least to the one room schoolhouse of the 19th. century.

Tracking remains the most common solution to the dilemma of having to teach in the same physical space the gifted and the less gifted.

Why indeed do we resist tracking, because we do. Principally for two reasons. First, how do we know that this or that child is not up to the work, say algebra, or American history? How can we be sure? Well in many cases, if not most, we can’t.

Also we resist, perhaps even more, because many of us would not agree that the goal for our children in school is an academic education, you know, critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, writing, mathematics, all that sort of thing, that which is supposed to lead, eventually, to college and further education.

Many of us would say instead that the primary goal of schooling is to develop and foster, if not instill in our students democratic values.

And how can such values be best learned? Well perhaps by throwing everyone into the mix together, the melting pot, the classroom where students of all levels of abilities, needs, and interests will learn to get along, and to help one another, will learn that in a democracy one accepts the differences among people, one does what one can to overlook them, to make sure there is room and a place for everyone.

To separate, if only in a classroom, those with great gifts from those with lesser gifts is not to foster democratic values. So should we not do it?

Of course there are good arguments on both sides. If we don’t take the differences between children into account, pretend they’re not there, if we don’t allow the differences to come to the fore, insuring that each and every one will fully develop his or her abilities and talents, well the country’s real wealth may cease to grow because the latter has always depended more on our differences than on what we have in common.

In other words somehow meritocratic, aristocratic values have to have a large place within any democracy, including ours.

On the other hand, school may be the very best time for the kids themselves to learn about others not like themselves. Why don’t we try to make the schools resemble the population in regard to origins, social and economic conditions, racial and ethnic variety, the full range of abilities and talents, all the enormous differences that there are between our peoples?

Well this also is a pipe dream. It can’t be done, because people, our people don’t live this way. Tracking in cities and towns, in our living arrangements, may be even more pronounced that in our schools. And as a result there may be little or no possibility of our schools taking on democratic values. For where are these values in the communities and neighborhoods where the people live? They’re mostly absent.

In place of a conclusion isn’t it reasonable to say that the schools ought to be pursuing, to varying degrees, three essential tasks? — One, be sure that those with special gifts and talents are able to develop those gifts. Two, be sure that democratic values are the glue that binds students, teachers and curriculum together. And three, be sure that not anyone leaves school without having acquired the skills necessary to get and hold a job.

In the 1950s James Bryant Conant’s comprehensive high school tried to do all three, but we don’t see this happening very much anymore, perhaps only in some of our largest suburban schools, that have multiple tracts, some leading to further education, some to the workplace.

Based on the evidence of our elite colleges and universities, we do extremely well with number one. Based on our choice of representatives in Washington as well as our failure to vote in large numbers or get behind democratic initiatives, we don’t do well at all in regard to number two. And as for number three, well we just don’t do it, that is, insure that kids who drop out will have the skills they will need in the work place.

Why is this so? Why do the elite prosper, at the expense it often seems of everyone else?

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