By Jason Wojciechowski on April 13, 2004 at 4:27 PM

Chris Lehmann asks the questions I've been agonizing over myself for quite some time. Namely, how good or evil is tracking kids into different levels in high school classes?

The progressive education ideal, that Chris seems to believe in, and I think I do to, is that tracking is not such a hot idea. The basic criticism is that it hurts the kids tracked low more than it helps the kids tracked high, and I think I agree with that to a certain degree.

In my own personal case, teaching in my current school, it's not even an issue, though. The kids are already tracked, just by being placed in this high school. New York's public school system is tiered into an incredible number of levels. I couldn't even begin to know how many, really. There's the standard top of the list, Stuyvesant and its sister schools. After that, things get hazy. There are alternative schools, charter schools, and schools with varying levels of ability to choose their students.

That last link is to my school, which is certainly going to be near the bottom of any hierarchical list of schools kids might want to go to in the city. It's a mini-school, which has plenty of advantages, but it's not like there's a lot of choice in that regard for kids in my region: all of the big high schools are breaking down into small ones. The kids we get are the ones books about urban education are written about: they read and do math at 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade levels; English is a struggle; they have difficult home situations. And what do they get for their struggles? A school full of Teaching Fellows, people who've never taught a day in their lives and have no education experience, when what they need are the best teachers, the ones with experience and confidence in methods that work, whether traditionally progressive or not. (NB: I'm a Fellow myself, so don't take this as me bashing the program or the members of it.)

In what I'd consider a "normal" school (one that has kids of all ability and performance levels, not just the kids who can't get into the good schools), even if there were tracking, there would be peer role models in the school. No, they wouldn't be in classes together, and that's a problem, but schools like mine and many others don't even have the option of tracking. We have heterogenous populations in our classrooms, but it doesn't mean anything, because they're all struggling.

This isn't literally true, because I have some kids who, comparatively, are very good at math, and learn quickly. But those kids and the kids who aren't as good as them know the reality of the situation just as well as the teachers do: the smart kids in this school would be only a little above average in a truly heterogenous (with regard to NYC's entire population) school. That has to be depressing to them, and you'd think they last thing the school system would want to foist on these kids is another reason to be depressed. They know the realities of where the housing projects where they live. They've seen how few of the people around them have moved up in the world or "gotten out of the ghetto," to use the old movie cliche. That school is just a continuation of the life around them, rather than an escape from it, might be the biggest problem urban schools face.