Right Track

9 July 2002

Well, I'm doing better than yesterday. Slight fever, nothing to worry about, hardly anything to notice. I'm (yes, Ma!) keeping hydrated and staying in today, as far as I know. Something may come up, but the plan is to work on the books and then do the Asimov's-sponsored chat for past Asimov Award winners. You can get there from here, if you like, and I hope it's interesting. It's at 6:00 my time (that's Pacific time, for those of you who don't pay a lot of attention to these things -- two hours off of Central).

I'm still reading my trashy fantasy novel -- I've gotten about halfway through. It's 600-some-odd pages, and I'm just not sucked in by it the way I am with some other books, so I'm not picking it up quite as often or for quite as long. Still entertaining, though.

Watched "Dogma" yesterday on Comedy Central, and I liked it more than I expected I would. Alanis Morissette was really good as God. If you had to have a human being play God, she was a pretty good choice. Warm maternal smile. Handstands in plaid boxer shorts. Good stuff. I still have no desire to see "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," though.

Sigh. There's a newspaper article about high school administrators who have resigned because their high school is piloting honors classes this year. They're afraid that the honors classes will end up being racially segregated, because they're afraid that Hispanic parents won't encourage their kids to take honors classes. Note: afraid. It's not that they've looked at the enrollment numbers. It's not that they've made an effort to inform parents about their students' abilities and choices and found that that effort failed. They're just afraid it'll work that way, so they resigned? That makes no sense to me.

But there's a pretty telling paragraph later on in the article: "Recent research shows students learn better in a mixed class, especially when the teacher sometimes breaks up the class into small groups according to academic ability. However, other research suggests extremely bright students benefit from separate classes." Those two findings aren't contradictory. I've read up on this. The scores of the highest achievers go up in tracked classes. But the average student's scores go up in mixed-ability classes. Given how a lot of mixed-ability classes are taught, I'm sure they do. I'd like to see the class average for a mixed-ability class, then remove the top three to five students and bring in three to five teacher's assistants and see where the scores are. Because that's how the smart kids are used.

Used. Yes. People used to say to me, "Oh, but you learn by teaching! You have the concepts reinforced, so it's helpful to you, too!" This was bullshit, and I think most of them knew it. I've tutored intro level physics, both for the major and for the non-major. I've learned grad-level Mechanics. It's not the same thing. Sure, I got a few neat-puzzle level insights from tutoring, and I learned a lot about tutoring and how other people's minds work. But most students in the public schools didn't sign up for 6-8 units of "Educational Techniques Practicum" per semester, and that's what the bright ones are getting, at best. At worst, the class average gets dragged up by that hideous beast Group Work, meaning Smart Kid Does All The Work To Cover His/Her Own Ass.

I'm not really bitter with the students who tried to make public school hell for me. Many of them would be appalled at that behavior now, and anyway, I've forgotten most of their names. But I'm still angry with some of the teachers and administrators who used me for cheap help and attempted to waste years and years of my life, because I know that they and people like them are continuing to do it over and over again, and because they were adults who should have known better. And because I know that I will have to deal with them again one way or another when we have kids. Given the parents they will have, both genetically and environmentally, chances are very good that my kids will be the bright ones. Even if they're not, I don't want them taught that it's okay to use people as long as you do it by making them feel guilty about their own abilities.

I don't believe for a moment that this is about race. Not in the ways that they stated, anyway -- I don't know if anybody involved is uncomfortable with high-achieving Asian kids, but it looks like it's fairly common out here. (If you want to see racism in action, ignore how people treat the minorities who are in trouble for a minute and keep an eye on the ones who are succeeding. It's nauseating.) But if it was about race, they could institute a formal affirmative action program. They could ask teachers to informally encourage bright minority students to take honors classes, or even to insist upon it. Teachers have a good deal of power on these things. They could make an effort to phone the parents of bright kids and help them find out what their kids are capable of and how they can help. They could do any of that, but instead these administrators are resigning. It's not about race. It's about tracking.

And as Mark pointed out when we were discussing this, if you have disparity in who's going to take the honors classes, you have already failed. You have already failed to educate a segment of your students up to their potentials -- and by refusing to see if it works that way, you're closing your eyes and pretending you haven't. But educating students up to their potentials isn't the goal here. Enforcing social ideals is.

I feel really strongly about tracking, I guess, because I was in both tracked and untracked classes in high school, and the tracked ones probably saved my sanity. (No comments, thank you.) The teachers I learned from were teaching tracked classes. It didn't matter a lot when I was in a higher level class than I was "supposed" to be -- if it was untracked, it was going to be a waste of my time. I had one professor in college who managed to teach a class (Western Civ I) to students of vastly mixed ability and background knowledge and make sure that all of us learned something, but I think that's a pretty rare talent. I am quite opposed to a system that's willing to refuse to teach kids because they're smart. And that's often what an untracked system does. And people are willing to resign rather than to give smart kids a chance to learn better and not be used as cheap TA labor. (We used rather stronger language around here but said roughly the same thing.)

Ah well. At least the district didn't cave in and cancel the classes.

So it's back to work for me. New work on the NTMB and a few edits of Reprogramming if I can get to them. The internet connection is down right now. If it's not up by tonight, I don't know if I'll dial in or just skip the chat. Sigh. I don't really want to do either. We'll hope for the best.

I think of myself as an optimist, because I truly believe that the best is yet to come and things are going to get better. Timprov thinks that optimists are supposed to be rather more Panglossian than that and think that things can't possibly get better because they're just so darn great now. Is that what it means to you guys? Let me know what you think....

I just ate a Dove Dark Promise. They're pretty good, but they sound to me like a teenager's first attempt at a horror novel. Something that would come with a pen name: Dark Promises, by Victoria Ravenstar.

Apologies to anyone out there who's actually named Victoria Ravenstar. Hmm, wait, those should come from your parents.

Oh, hey, it's National Ice Cream Day. Well, I know what you should have been doing while you waited (anxiously, I'm so sure) for this journal entry to come up. No? Go do it now. Ice cream is good.

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