One of the most vocal supporters of abolishing the divide between “honors” and “general education” students will speak at Garfield High School next week. Here, Carol Burris gives Education Lab a preview.
When Garfield High School teachers announced that they would blend ninth-graders in mixed-level humanities classes, rather than splitting them into “honors” or “general education,” the questions came fast.
Would the honors curricula be watered down? How could teachers challenge accelerated students and, simultaneously, kids who struggle to read at grade level? What about the long-range ramifications, parents worried. Would de-tracking ultimately affect college prospects for high-achievers?
Most of the answers are still unknown, as Garfield is only four months into its experiment. But other Seattle schools are working toward similar goals, and next week Carol Burris, a former high-school principal from Rockville Centre, N.Y., who has become something of a national spokesperson for the de-tracking movement, will talk about her experience at South Side High School.
Burris believes that so-called “ability grouping” has become a modern-day form of racial segregation, denying minority students — who overwhelmingly populate low-track classes — the opportunities offered to other kids.
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She outlined her perspective in an interview with Education Lab, excerpts of which are below. Burris will speak at Garfield’s Quincy Jones Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, Jan. 11, at 6:30 p.m.
What prompted you initially to consider de-tracking?
It came from my own experience teaching. I’d been tracked as a kid, and our daughters were tracked. I never really questioned it because it made a lot of sense — on the surface. But then, in my 30s, I started teaching, and that was what opened my eyes. Seeing the difference between my seventh-grade Spanish classes that were not tracked, and my eighth-grade classes that were, is when I realized something is really wrong. And it isn’t the kids. It’s the structure of the system. Ethically, I was so uncomfortable. Just by looking at the color of kids in a classroom, I could guess what the track was — every time.
Educators who advocate de-tracking usually talk about needing certain ‘supports’ to make it work. What do they mean?
A lot of before-school help for students. In Rockville Centre, they renegotiated the teachers contract to create an extra-help period where teachers were available each morning between 7:30 and 8 a.m. We altered the bus schedule, too. Then we had to make sure the kids who needed the support took advantage of it, so I walked the halls.
Our high school also had three social workers and two psychologists. They were key partners.
But as a principal, I had to take responsibility for those de-tracked classes, which meant looking at rosters over the summer to make sure no teacher was overwhelmed and every class would have high-achieving kids who could help lead discussions. It’s not a mechanical reform where you snap your fingers and overnight it happens. You have to do it in a very thoughtful way.
But what if kids are coming from a tracked middle school? Wouldn’t their skills be so far apart by ninth grade that blending is impossible?
That would make it more difficult, yes. Math, especially, would present a problem. But in science, English and social studies, you probably could do it. Difficult, but not impossible.
Your old high school is 10 years into this now, and showing great success. Did you encounter resistance at first?
There will always be a group of parents, or teachers, who push back and say if you do this kind of reform, the kids at the top are going to be the losers. Sometimes people will say ‘white flight’ or ‘bright flight.’ But with us, it never happened. If you de-track correctly, there’s nothing to worry about. Our school district is living proof. We actually saw test-score increases among our high-achieving kids too.