Studies indicate that the practice of academic tracking has the unintended consequence of segregating students by race. Replace tracking with other ways of organizing the student body. In required courses, students could be assigned alphabetically. Elective courses could require certain skill sets or a level of competence in the subject. These methods of organization are less likely to result in unintended segregation.
Changing the method of organizing might result in eliminating some advanced placement courses that require a certain grade point average for enrollment. As a consequence, some fear, a bright girl from Oak Park or River Forest might fail to gain admission to Princeton or Swarthmore or Grinnell. I believe we need to consider this reform in the light of the purpose of public education, paid for by our tax dollars. The purpose of public education is not primarily to prepare students for further schooling. The purpose of public education is to educate thinking citizens who are aware of their duty to promote the common good.
Thinking citizens need to possess both book learning and street smarts. Most cultural traditions favor one over the other. The students who qualify for advanced placement courses are largely from cultural traditions favoring book learning. Making these advanced courses available to high-performing students from these cultural traditions can be seen as an aspect of “white privilege.” Students who find themselves in courses such as the derisively labeled “jolly numbers” tend to come from traditions whose circumstances demand street smarts.
While many cultural traditions value book learning, people whose history is rooted in the economic, political, and cultural reality of slavery come from a tradition in which book learning was not only discouraged but punished, often cruelly and ruthlessly. The literate slave was well advised to conceal his/her ability.
Alternative organizing methods could bring students from the two different kinds of tradition together in the learning environment. Students could be encouraged to help one another learn rather than to compete for grades. Oral evaluation by teachers could replace number or letter grading. This environment could foster mutual understanding between students from the differing traditions.
A learning environment such as the one described above did, for a few years in the early to mid-’70s, exist at OPRF. Skeptics predicted that little learning would take place in the freer environment of this “alternative school within a school,” called the Experimental Program or XP.
The subsequent history of those XP students suggests otherwise. Among them they number: the law professor who spearheaded the challenge to the copyright of “Happy Birthday to You”; a widely published photographer; an outstanding member of the core group of Steppenwolf Theater; the judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County who ruled in favor of the right to free assembly in the case against the Occupy Chicago protesters arrested in Grant Park.
Attaining “those things that are best” does not require tracking.
Tesse Donnelly is a 55-year resident of Oak Park and mother of five OPRF graduates, including three enrolled in the Experimental Program.