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Students aren't interchangeable

Kay's Comment: Nobody wants to be average! Everyone wants to be a genius. But, there are many average kids in public schools who simply fall through the cracks without "middle level" classes and vocational education. "The fact is that every child can learn, but every child cannot learn as fast as, or learn as much as, every other child. "

by Patrick Welsh

Average kids are shortchanged in a two- track system that divides high achievers and weak learners. Not all kids learn at the same speed. The curriculum should adapt to the student, not the other way around.

By Patrick Welsh

One of the biggest concerns of parents for the new school year is this: What kind of kids are in my child's classroom? The answer to this question is particularly difficult for parents of average students, the most forgotten group today.

All parents want their children to be with the nice kids, the bright and well-behaved types who will pull classes up, rather than with kids who will drag them down. In big, economically and ethnically diverse high schools such as mine, T.C. Williams in Alexandria, Va., where there is enormous variation in academic abilities, average kids run the risk of ending up in one of two tracks: in classes full of students with weak skills and lousy attitudes or in so- called advanced courses where they find themselves in over their heads.

A major part of the problem is the anti- tracking movement, which began in the mid-1980s. Since then, tracking has become to education what abortion and gay marriage are to politics an incendiary topic with fanatics on both sides. So-called progressive teachers and administrators, whose mantra is "every child can learn," want to do away with tracking.

Anti-tracking movement

Good teachers, and fancy sounding course labels such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate, are supposed to raise the level of all students no matter how varied their skills or abilities. In truth, social engineering mixing of races and ethnic groups in classes is what many administrators really prize, while giving lip service to academic rigor.

On the other end of the tracking wars are fanatical parents usually white, in my experience who think their kids are geniuses, who must be protected from less talented kids and who are entitled to every advantage and resource the school system has to offer.

Parents at a school for gifted children on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, for example, have been outraged by Chancellor Joel Klein's decision to have part of their school share facilities with a new charter school intended to help poor kids. They have filed a lawsuit.

T.C. Williams has seen its share of the tracking wars.

In the 1970s there were five "tracks" in English, resulting in a type of de facto segregation with the top tracks virtually all white and the lower tracks virtually all black.

But while the five-track system was grossly unfair to low-income minority students who populated the lower tracks, today's two-track system shortchanges average students, who have the choice between regular classes, many of which are in fact remedial, or Advanced Placement classes, which they can't handle.

The reasons the needs of average kids are ignored are many. In the first place, most parents are not going to be too eager to acknowledge that they have an average kid. I have heard teachers in neighboring Fairfax County, Va., joke that every middle-class white kid is labeled either gifted and talented or learning disabled. The LD label goes over with parents because it implies that the kid is brighter than his or her work shows.

School systems ignore the average kids for somewhat the same reason: They don't help confer status on the school system. Schools have become so busy worrying about getting their worst students to pass state exams that they have let the average kid who can easily pass those dumbed-down exams fall through the cracks. Raising the test scores of minority students from low-income families is the surest way for administrators to get recognition and win promotions.

Too high a hurdle

What is happening more and more around the country is that average students are being pushed into Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes to make schools appear as though they have high standards. In a sense, average kids have become a pawn of school boards and administrators who want to get good PR for boosting the numbers in supposedly rigorous courses. Administrators here in Northern Virginia boast about the numbers of kids taking AP courses but don't talk much about students' test scores.

What is needed is a middle track for average students call it college-bound or some other name that will please parents. The fact is that every child can learn, but every child cannot learn as fast as, or learn as much as, every other child.

Given the present obsession with raising the test scores of the weakest students, average kids will not get on the radar screens of schools until their parents band together to bring pressure the same way that parents of the learning disabled and gifted kids have.

Until that happens, average students will continue to get a below-average education.

Patrick Welsh is an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., and a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

Posted at 12:16 AM/ET, September 18, 2006 in Education - Forum, Forum commentary, Welsh | Permalink

— Patrick Welsh
USA TODAY, contributer
Missing Average Kids




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