‘Is This Just Regular English?’

An English teacher examines how tracking affects her students

By Esmé Schwall

Photo:Joseph Blough 
From left to right: Leslie Theiste, Isaac May, Alexandra Perez, and Esmé Schwall at East High.

They were in their seats before the bell rang: 28 spit-polished 10th graders waiting silently in their chairs. In my four years of teaching, I had never encountered a room of 15-year-olds so quiet or so still.

And then a voice timidly piped, “Is this English 10-AcaMo, or just regular English 10? Cause my schedule says ‘AcaMo,’ and the chalkboard just says ‘English 10.'”

My student was referring to the three tiers of English instruction at East High School in Madison, Wis. East serves nearly 2000 students, 40 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged. Sixty percent of the students are white, 21 percent African American, 10 percent Asian, 8 percent Latino, and less than 1 percent Native American.

Here’s how the tracking system works at East: At the top, there is Talented and Gifted (TAG) English. At the bottom, we offer “just regular” English. And sandwiched in between, there is English for the Academically Motivated (AcaMo).

For three years, I had taught 10th and 11th graders “regular” English. This was my first year teaching AcaMo, and my student teacher, Colin McGinn, and I had been stewing all summer about how to approach the class. Both of us were opposed to the so-called ability-level grouping the department practices because tracking students according to previous academic performance or “ability” also tends to divide learners by race and socioeconomic status.

Colin and I did not want to assume that AcaMo students could achieve more or think more critically than Regular students, or that Regular students, by virtue of their “average” label, are not “academically motivated.” We wanted to have high expectations of all of our students. We wanted to offer rich learning experiences to all of our classes. We wanted the Regular and AcaMo classes to be the same.

But from the very first day of school, we could not escape the fact that the Regular and AcaMo classes were starkly different. The AcaMo students tended to come from middle-class homes, and only two of the 28 students enrolled were students of color. In contrast, 24 of our 51 Regular students were students of color. The students in our Regular classes reflected the diversity of the school, while the AcaMo class was disproportionately white.

As the year progressed, it was clear that our Regular and AcaMo classes embodied very different academic cultures. Regular students had far more missing assignments and received lower grades. During the first quarter alone, we lost 14 Regular students to alternative programs or mobility and gained six new students. And fewer Regular students had adults representing them at parent-teacher conferences.

After teaching both Regular and AcaMo classes for just 10 weeks, I could see that tracking sustains—if not creates—two academic cultures: a Regular culture in which under-achievement and non-attendance are pervasive, and an AcaMo culture in which high achievement and engagement are the norm.

Advocates of tracking say that ability grouping allows teachers to meet students where they are and gives all students opportunities for advancing their knowledge and skills. But in my experience, academic segregation does not adequately prepare any student academically or socially. One classroom experience in particular taught me what low- and high-achieving students are missing in an educational system that practices academic segregation.

Building Community

I begin every school year with creative writing assignments that help build community and trust by centering the curriculum on students’ voices and experiences. Together we answer the question, “Who are we?” Students write pieces about their names (“My Name,” a chapter from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street), heritage (“Heritage,” a poem by Linda Hogan) and backgrounds (see “Where I’m From,” in Linda Christensen’s Reading, Writing, and Rising Up), all of which ask students to articulate and understand who we are as individuals and as a community.

Next we try to answer the question, “What are we doing here?” I pose the question to prompt students to make their own concerns, interests, and questions central in the classroom. What is it that we are to learn and accomplish together? The answer to this question arrives in stages.

First, students participate in a timed writing. I set a timer, and for five minutes we write “Questions I Have About Myself.” I demonstrate by writing my own “self” questions on the board: When will I die? Will I ever run a marathon? Will I have children? Will I always be a teacher?

Without comment or discussion, students turn their papers over and begin a second timed write. This time the heading is “Questions I Have About the World.” I begin my list: How long will U.S. military forces remain in Iraq? Why does Wisconsin have such a high incarceration rate for African-American men? Will this country ever elect a president who’s a person of color?

Next, we discuss the importance of finding places where our own “self” and “world” questions intersect with others’ questions. Students meet in small groups of four or five students to find their common concerns and passions. We compile the lists and use the themes that emerge to select texts to read throughout the year. The students look at all of the texts available to tenth-grade English students at East, and identify the books that are most relevant to the themes they have collectively generated.

I’m interested in how consistent many of the questions and theme groups are from year to year and from class to class. There are queries and concerns that seem inherently human, issues we all puzzle with, ideas that inevitably intrigue and compel: What will my future be like? Is there an afterlife? What will the future of our planet be? What future technological innovations will there be? But Colin and I were also surprised at sharp contrasts between the questions and themes the Regular and AcaMo classes generated.

Differing Views

The differences in academic culture and expectations are clear. For example, students in the AcaMo class asked, “Will I go to college and where? How will I do in school? Will I use my foreign language skills? What will I be when I grow up?” The students in Regular classes asked, “What will I do after high school? Will I find a job? Will I ever go to college? Will anything stop us from achieving our dreams and goals?” The AcaMo questions sounded more confident to me, as though the students see a purposeful future unfolding from their present lives. The AcaMo students asked, “What will I be?” and not, “Will I be something?” They asked, “How will I do?” and not, “What will stop me?”

I also notice the way that abstract concepts like violence or power intersect with students’ assumptions and experiences. For example, the AcaMo class asked, “Will there ever be world peace?” while a Regular class, in addition to asking about world peace, asked, “Will gang violence stop?” The AcaMo class asked, “Will there ever be a female president?” The Regular classes posed the same question, and also asked, “Will there ever be an African-American president?” The AcaMo class asked, “Why is there so much violence and hate in the world?” while a Regular class asked, “Why are people racist?” The AcaMo class didn’t mention race once, whereas both Regular classes created theme groups that focused exclusively on racial discrimination.

The difference between the degrees of racial awareness expressed in the AcaMo and Regular classes made me think about the ways in which tracking is hazardous for upper-track students. On the surface, tracking works for upper-level students because they are assured opportunities for academic success. They inhabit a culture of academic achievement where they are expected to perform with vigor and insight. But in a tracked environment, the cost of this academic culture is racial separation and isolation.

A Tibetan student in our AcaMo class spoke to the discomfort of racial isolation. At his parent-teacher conference he told us that the class “is kind of weird because I’m the only Asian.” A few weeks later, a Hmong student transferred from one of our Regular classes to the AcaMo class, and the Tibetan student’s face visibly lit up when we introduced the new student. Students of color are disproportionately isolated in upper-level classes, while white, academically successful students are more likely to encounter people in their academic lives with whom they share common experience, and to enjoy the privilege and safety of not being alone.

But too often the comfort and safety of residing only within a common culture lead to the assumption that this shared experience is a standard or normalized experience. For example, AcaMo and Regular students had very different responses to a writing assignment about injustice. The assignment was to include examples of injustice from A Gathering of Old Men, a novel by Ernest Gaines about the racial tensions that arise over the murder of a Cajun farmer on a Louisiana sugarcane plantation, as well as “real-world” examples. Many AcaMo students struggled to discern moments of injustice in their own lives or in the fabric of the school, community, or country. An AcaMo student wrote, “I like that there is not any inequality between races . . . definitely not in Madison.”

Within the same week, however, a Hmong student in a Regular class wrote a poem that revealed a different truth:

While I was walking, [I] heard someone shout,
It was a cracker saying “Hey Chinese boy, ching chong ching chong,”
Trying to make fun of me and my race, for we are Hmong!
Better brace yourself, G,
Messing with me is like messing with my whole family,
The cracker said, “Nice shoes, Chink,”
As I looked down at my torn shoes, that’s when I had to think,
I told the cracker to back off,
Or get his ass lost 

In a tracked educational environment, students who are not aware of the racial tensions that exist in the community are less likely to be in a class with students who have experienced racial tensions or hatred first-hand. So, tracking creates—or at least reinforces—an underclass of low-achieving students who are disproportionately low-income and minority, while also discouraging traditionally high-achieving students from having real conversations about race and injustice.

Racial segregation in public schools was deemed unconstitutional in 1954; yet, half a century later, many public schools continue to practice a form of academic segregation that results in the separation of students by race and socioeconomic status. This segregation denies all students access to voices and experiences that could radically alter—and make more accurate and complete—their understanding of the world.

Esmé Schwall (eschwall@madison.k12.wi.us) teaches English at East High School in Madison, Wis.