Forty-two years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, many classrooms are not yet fully integrated because of the academic performance of Black students and their perceived ability to learn.
To change that, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) is organizing community-based groups into a national campaign to “untrack” curriculums that often push Black students into low-end courses. The Atlanta-based civil rights group hopes the effort becomes as significant as the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“Education is so critical to the success of all people,” said Deric Gilliard, a spokesman from the SCLC in Atlanta. “It is a tragedy that our kids are being channeled into areas that do not allow for their full growth. “
Last fall, the SCLC held a national summit at Spelman College on tracking and the miseducation of Black children. This year, the community groups are planning a series of regional meetings in Selma, Ala., Wilmington, Del., Dayton, Ohio, Los Angeles, Rockville, Md., and Virginia to discuss tracking. A date for SCLC’s next tracking summit has not been set.
SCLC’s campaign is aimed at helping parents and community groups recognize when children are being “tracked” and collect information about the issue. It also calls for a change in the educational philosophy to one that says that all children can learn at high levels, said Rose Sanders, founder and project coordinator of the Coalition of Alabamians Reforming Education in Selma.
“How you implement that philosophy is through a unified required core curriculum that is enriched in math and science,” she said. “Unified is important because it means students can’t be taught separately but together.”
But to do that, colleges and universities must train teachers who can teach curriculums that emphasize math and science and are comfortable in classrooms with students of differing abilities, said Emma Owens, an associate professor in the College of Health, Education and Human Development at Clemson University.
“The workplace is tough for teachers, who are being asked to teach kids of all levels at the same time,” Owens said. “It takes a very special teacher to teach both groups.”
Lola Burse, student government president at the University of South Carolina at Beaufort and an education major, said colleges and universities should emphasize classroom management and multiculturalism.
“Managing a classroom is not just discipline,” said Burse, the mother of two who served in the U.S. Marine Corps. “It also involves moving the lesson along to ensure that students pay attention, teachers teach to standards and the lesson is applicable to daily life.”
Burse also suggested that college and universities also should offer “courses in multi-culturalism so teachers can understand that not all students come from a middle-class, two-parent family.”
Tracking has led to a disproportionately lower number of Black children in programs for gifted students. That is especially true in South Carolina, where white students make up 57 percent of the state’s students and fill 87 percent of the available slots in programs for gifted students. Black students represent 43 percent of the state’s public school students, but only 13 percent of the enrollment in gifted programs, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.
In spite of those ratios, Ruthenia Johnson of Loris, S.C., was determined to get her middle-school son, Porter Jr., into a high-content curriculum. When Porter was a fourth grader at Loris Elementary School, he participated in a program for gifted students at Duke University. Duke picked him for its Talented Identification Program, an honor that in 1994 went to fewer than ten students from his school, 100 miles northwest of Charleston.
Three years after Porter’s participation in the Duke program, Johnson still sees irony in her son’s selection. She asked, if Porter was qualified for the Duke program, then why was he not qualified for the school’s honors programs when the criteria were the same?
After two years of her demanding that Porter take honors classes, he was enrolled last August in the sixth-grade honors program at Loris Elementary School. He continues to excel with an A average, Johnson said.
“I feel like I have had to fight tooth and nail to get him in there, even though he has made (A)s in all of his subjects,” she said.
Johnson’s difficulty in getting her son in the gifted program might have been due to the perception teachers have of Black students’ academic ability, educators say. But perception alone is not always the reason Black students end up in a slow-paced curriculum.
“Language development seems to be a problem in Black children [that causes them to be tracked to the bottom-end courses],” said Thomas E. Thompson, an associate professor in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “It stems from the difficulty they have with being ready for school. White kids seem to come with better verbal skills.”
Thompson said a solution is more preschool training to identify language deficiencies early and to expose children to a variety of activities.
The path to tracking starts early. According to Thompson, elementary students who need help in one area are often perceived to need help in all subjects and are placed in slow-paced classes. Eventually, they fall behind and they never catch up. By the time a student reaches high school, a teacher’s perception of the students’ ability, in part, lends to them being “tracked” into a slow, average or high-content curriculum.
And by the time a student reaches high school, it is difficult for parents to determine if a student is tracked, especially if grades are above average, Thompson said. An indicator of achievement, he said, is standardized tests. If a student scores below the 50th percentile but consistently makes the honor roll, then, in Thompson’s estimation, that could be a sign that courses are not helping a students meet basic skills.
Nancy Breard, assistant director of graduate studies at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C., is not an advocate of tracking but she supports ability grouping.
“Tracking is when you label a student and it never changes,” said Breard, who heads a program that trains teachers to teach gifted students. “Ability grouping is more flexible, and it has to do with performance. It can be done within classrooms. But teachers continue to look at students and they are placed where they need to he. In some schools that happens and in some schools it does not. We know there are abuses.”
Those abuses concerns Karen Watson of Sylvania, Ga., a small rural community sixty miles northwest of Savannah. Watson is coordinator of the Positive Action Committee. In 1995, the community group’s opposition to tracking led to a federal order to end tracking in the Screven County School District.
“Ability grouping eventually leads to tracking,” Watson said. “We aren’t going to find many systems that are going to be able to separate the two. That is part of the problem. Society still carries the baggage of classism and racism and that baggage will flow into the school system.
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