When diversity clashes with excellence

Although diversity is a worthy objective in education, the No. 1 goal should be excellence. When we focus on the former over the latter, there will be unintended consequences (“DeBlasio’s school ‘diversity’ plan will be a progressive failure,” New York Post, May 2). New York City serves as a case in point, but it is not unique.

Until recently, all students there had to apply and be accepted to a middle school.  Their status was determined by scores on the state exams.  But because this criterion has resulted in a disproportionate number of white and Asian students, Mayor Bill DeBlasio wants to give priority to students who don’t meet the requirement. It includes students who score a 1, which is “well below proficient.” In short, the mayor wants to establish a racial quota system.

The unavoidable effect will be to force teachers to lower their instruction to the lowest achieving student.  That might please their parents, but what about the other students?  I’ll bet their parents will demand instruction geared to their needs.  They might even pull their own children out and enroll them in private or religious schools.  Depicting such parents as racist is outrageous.

I don’t think diversity and equity can simultaneously exist on a large scale. Any attempt to engineer diversity based on rigid quotas will invariably result in pushback.  The closest we’ve come to that goal is some charter schools.  But charters play by a completely different set of rules than traditional public schools.

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6 Replies to “When diversity clashes with excellence”

  1. Another chapter in the seemingly endless conflict between the pro-tracking and anti-tracking philosophies.

    Tracking is educationally efficient but inevitably results in lower-SES students (disproportionately black/Hispanic) in the lower-track classes and higher-SES students (disproportionately white/Asian) in the higher-track classes. This causes anti-trackers to view tracking as racist. Govt officials (including judges), seeking to avoid being tarred as “racist” or honestly but mistakenly believing that SES-integrated classes are sound educational policy then eliminate tracking. With tracking eliminated, low-achieving and high-achieving students are mixed in the same classroom. Inevitably, the instructional level is too high for many and too low for many. The frustrated or bored students engage in minor misbehavior to relieve the frustration or boredom. Concerned parents desperately want to get their children out of classrooms in which their children are bored and in which minor misbehavior is endemic. These concerned parents apply political pressure to the govt officials. The govt officials, who cannot reinstate tracking for fear of being called racist, implement reforms that create a variation of tracking — i.e., charters, magnets, vouchers. Charters, magnets and vouchers allow concerned parents to send their children to tax-$-supported schools where the classrooms will be filled with the children of other concerned parents. The children of the unconcerned parents will continue to attend their neighborhood school (or, in an all-application system, the default school). The neighborhood school classrooms will contain a disproportionately large percentage of low-achieving students while the charters, magnets and voucher schools will contain a disproportionately large percentage of high-achieving students. In effect, tracking but tracking based on parental characteristics rather than student characteristics.

    And, the charter/magnet/voucher schools will — for a variety of reasons — usually have inferior teachers, curriculum, facilities and support services relative to those offered by the neighborhood schools. Also, the charter/magnet/voucher schools will usually require that someone — usually parents — provide daily transportation to a school located much further away than the neighborhood school.

    Everyone loses here. The obvious answer is to eliminate charter/magnet/voucher schools and reinstate tracking in the neighborhood schools. Then, everyone wins — except the die-hards who mistakenly believe that tracking is inherently racist and that combatting mistakenly-perceived racism is more important than effectively educating minority children.

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  2. Labor Lawyer: Tracking can take various forms, but in the final analysis they are viewed by most people in this country as elitist. It’s interesting to note that most countries abroad with schools that are envied use tracking. For example, Singapore begins differentiation with Primary School Leaving exam and continues the process for the rest of a student’s days. I think that differentiation so early in a child’s life is unfair. But life is unfair in that not all children possess the same aptitude and motivation. Finding the right curriculum and environment is the key to preparing young people for a fulfilling life. But I don’t think differentiation will ever be fully accepted in the U.S.

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    1. Tracking, by definition, is elitist — the stronger students will be in one class and the weaker students will be in another class. Of course, US society accepts tracking in most other contexts, just not in K-12. Our college admissions process is tracking — Harvard does not accept via a lottery among all applicants. Our college and professional sports programs are tracking — coaches do not create a team by randomly selecting among all the athletes who want to play for the team (which, obviously, results in blacks being disproportionately selected to play on college and pro basketball and football teams). Most employers — and all higher-paying employers — select the more-qualified applicants to hire and then pay higher wages to the more successful employees; few employers randomly selected applicants to hire and no employers set wages on a random or equal basis among all employees. In choosing a marriage partner, virtually everyone bases his/her decision on an assessment of the relative merits of possible mates; using random or lottery selection would be laughable.

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  3. Labor Lawyer: Correct! Life eventually results in differentiation in one form or another. Yet when it comes to public schools in this country it is seen as anathema. An ad for Southern New Hampshire University proclaims that talent is distributed equally but opportunity is not. The former statement is patently absurd. Yet it appeals to many people. I realize that people need their delusions to go on in life, but that claim is outrageous.

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  4. Are we putting “tracking”, “heterogeneous” and “homogeneous” all in the same basket?
    Years ago many school systems used to give Algebra 1 in two years for students who struggled with math. When I used to teach Algebra 1A I would transfer students into regular Algebra 1 when they showed a higher level of ability. This was done in a very high end community in Massachusetts.

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  5. mathcoach2: The terms are indeed confusing. I think the most important thing is that students are grouped according to their ability so that they can get instruction tailored to their specific needs. Also it helps teachers design lessons better.

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