Sunday, February 12, 2012

Instructional Segregation

Sheep (Feb. 2012, by M.A. Reilly)

Lately I have been thinking about instructional segregation: the practice of sorting students into tracks based on 'perceived ability'.  Ability is such a pernicious thing to begin with and when you tag on that our view of another's abilities is at best perceived--well that slope is more than slippery.  Guy Claxton asserts that “in Western educational culture, the word ‘ability’ is used as a synonym for ‘intelligence’, and is taken to refer to some inner resource which explains or accounts for performance” (1999, p. 28). When we position students as being 'low ability'--a practice that often is used to explain instructional segregation--we also tend to believe that these students' 'inner resources' are not robust enough to warrant independent learning and instead these learners are given some 'proven' program designed to make up what is perceived as missing.

How do students understand these actions?  Do we think they fail to notice their placement at school?  What about students who are privileged?  Do they carry with them an inflated sense of self? Dolores Delgado Bernal opens the essay, "Critical Race Theory, Latino Critical Theory and Critical Race-Gendered Epistemologies: Recognizing Students of Color as Holders and Creators of Knowledge" by quoting Angela, a Chicana college student.  Angela writes:
I have to say that I think my high school was pretty discriminatory because I feel that I wasn’t tracked into a college program and I think I had the potential to be. Except because I was from the other side of the tracks, no one really took the time to inspire me. . . . I had a high school English teacher who had asked us to write an essay. And I had written it about the death of my sister. And when she gave it back to me, she gave me a D. And she said it was all wrong. And I just couldn’t get how she was, first of all, insensitive, and then second of all, criticizing me on an experience she didn’t have and that only I could write about. And so that’s when I think I started to feel the discrimination, almost in the way, I guess in the expectations of what you talk about or what you don’t talk about in school. And what’s academic and what’s not academic.
Angela's comments give me pause and make me wonder:
  1. How is knowledge determined at school? What constitutes 'content'?
  2. Who's knowledge matters at school and why? 
  3. What is the role of agency in learning?
  4. Who's knowledge is misunderstood, seen, or perhaps witnessed?
  5. Who's knowledge is discounted, underrepresented and/or misrepresented?
  6. What happens across time when what a student knows is never or rarely privileged at school?
  7. What happens when the ways a student makes meaning are not permitted, understood and/or valued at school? 
  8. What types of instruction require sorting students into tracks? 
  9. Do we ask learners how they feel about tracking?  Are there voices included in what we know?
  10. What is the role of the imagination in learning and in teaching?
Some questions we might ask ourselves:
  1. Is your district, school and/or classroom a venue of hope and if so, for whom?
  2. Joe Kinchloe and Peter McLaren understand social theory "as a map or guide to the social sphere" (p. 281).  What would a map of the social sphere of your district, school and.or classroom reveal if made by you, a student, or an outsider?
  3. What is ability?  How does your understanding of a learner's 'ability' function at your district, school, or within your classroom?
  4. How do you recognize learners as holders and creators of knowledge?
  5. An epistemology is a system of knowing (Ladson-Billings, 2000). What does your epistemology suggest about what you value and recognize as knowledge?
  6. Highwater (1981) states: "The greatest distance between people is not space, but culture" (p.3). How are cultures represented in your district, school or classroom?  What associational bridges are offered between and across cultures?
  7. What stories and counter-stories are learners allowed to tell where you teach?
  8. What strategies do you employ in order for subordinated learners to have voice? 
  9. What are the social complexities inherent in detracking? How do you ensure that the same system that gave rise to instructional segregation changes at the belief level so that tracking doesn't continue via grading, differentiation, or course selection?
  10. If tracking is a type of master narrative, what counter stories do you tell?


  1. Such an important issue. Your questions are heartbreaking. Our schools' values reflect those of the community at large. Everyone's contribution is not equally valued, everyone's humanity is not recognized. It is very hard to create the opportunity for recognition and respect for all in school when the world is not that way outside of school.

    One terrible example I can think of is my own high school, 50 years ago. Many smart but poor kids were tracked to secretarial or vocational programs, so if they wanted to go to college, they didn't have the right courses and couldn't go. No one said "Wait a minute. This boy/girl should be in college prep. courses." And there were state schools and scholarships. There wasn't any good reason why this happened.

    It is an issue for some parents when schools attempt detracking. They feel their child will lose something important when he is learning with a cross section of his peers. Parents want their child's education enriched. Shouldn't every child's education be enriched? I found in my career that the only way to detrack successfully was to offer so much to everyone that the heterogeneous classroom was attractive to all of the parents because great work was happening there.

    1. Thanks for your response. Just the word, detracking, raises alarm for many. I have seen this in my own work at schools. Often in very 'progressive' school districts the possibility of detracking causes alarm as parents wonder or conclude that their own child may learn less if placed alongside someone else's child.

      I agree that offering 'more' can be an incentive. Because I believe that children learn so much from one another, the richness that comes from detracking is so significant.


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