Care and Feeding

Odd Woman Out

I’m the only teacher who thinks tracking is wrong. How do I speak up?

Meek teacher.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by SIphotography/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:

Carrie Bauer, middle and high school, New York
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York

I am a fourth grade teacher at a small charter school with only two classes per grade. We have a dedicated and talented staff and truly try our best to service the students. Next year our current director will not be coming back and a new one has already been chosen.

At the end of each year, the current teachers decide where students will go in next year’s classes. We discuss this carefully, taking into account personalities and academic achievement. We try very hard to create balanced classes so it will benefit the learners and the teachers. This past year, though, the current fifth grade teachers decided that one teacher would teach all of ELA and social studies, and the other teacher would teach all of math and science. I have no issue with this, but here is the problem: They decided to level the students by academic ability, thus creating a “low” group and a “high” group. From my perspective, the results have been not been positive. One class has a ton of behavioral issues because they are aware of their label and feel like they are in the “dumb” group. I know that some of the students labeled “low” feel some resentment, and rightly so!

I completely understand that sometimes we need to pull small groups by ability, but it goes against my teaching philosophy to constantly group kids at this age by ability, because then what do they have to strive for? I really want to do say something but am at a loss as to how. These are colleagues I get along with fine but they are more seasoned teachers, whereas I am only in my fifth year of teaching. I have dropped hints asking if they feel it was valuable, and whether they’ll do it next year, but I don’t think they’re budging. How can I appropriately bring this up with my new director coming next year without seeming like a snitch?

I really want to advocate for these kids in the lower group. I truly feel that some students I had last year who are in the “low” group are being viewed unfairly. I worked so hard to bring them to grade level and make them feel good about themselves, but now sometimes I see them and it’s like they don’t even care. I get it: Why should they? They obviously feel stupid (which they’re not!), and they don’t feel like they should put forth effort because they’ve been labeled as “low.” It’s heart-wrenching for me to watch so many of them completely lose confidence and hate school. It must be so demoralizing! I want to bring this up professionally, but just don’t know how or where to begin.


A Concerned Teacher

Dear Concerned,

You do know how to begin—by writing this letter, you’ve already outlined your thoughts clearly and professionally. Now you need to figure out where to begin.

It sounds like as a staff you need a unified philosophy and approach to grouping students. (In fact, I’m a little unclear about how the tracking of the fifth graders came to pass—if you and your fourth grade colleagues made recommendations for balanced groupings, did the fifth grade teachers simply override your input? If so, all the more reason to open the discussion.) The good news is that with a new director coming on board and an existing precedent for thoughtful end-of-year team meetings, you’re in a perfectly natural position to initiate that conversation. It’s probably about time to schedule your usual meeting anyway; when it comes up, I would add something like, “Since the fifth grade team tried a new approach this year, I’d like to invite them to join this conversation, too, so we can all get on the same page about our recommendations for how to group the current fourth grade class next year.” If your new administrator is known to you, and available, invite him or her as well, for the same reasons.

Once in the meeting, I’d come out and ask about the groupings! You work in a very small school; it’s not like their decision to create homogenous ability groups is some covert operation you’re exposing. Try a simple, “Now that the year is over, how do you feel it worked to have a ‘high’ class and a ‘low’ class?” You may find that they’re more open to returning to mixed-ability groups than you predicted, and the plans for next year proceed smoothly.

Of course, they may feel like their choice was a resounding success. In that case, I’d be prepared with the points you outlined in this letter: Your philosophy about the implicit messaging of the tracking, the behaviors you observed in your former students, some recent research. You’re pushing back on other teachers’ decisions, and that always has the potential to get a bit contentious, but you said your school has a culture of dedication and putting students first; if you keep it respectful, open-minded, and framed around establishing consistency and what’s best for kids, I’d be surprised if the tone escalates beyond “robust professional debate.” Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will choose not to track—despite all the points you make, the group consensus may still land on ability groupings, in which case I’m not sure what more you can do.

One other thing: I came away from this letter wondering why raising this issue feels so intimidating to you. The topic itself is important, and I certainly recognize the potential for disagreement, but asking “where do we, as a school, stand on tracking?” in an end-of-year transition planning discussion doesn’t strike me as the delicate, potentially explosive situation you describe. I think one of two things may be true here. One, you’ve got some internal work to do on your professional confidence. If that’s the case, don’t be shy about bringing your perspective to the table. I did a bit of a double-take when you described yourself as “only” in your fifth year of teaching. While you may not be the most grizzled veteran on staff, you’re no wobbly newbie, either! Two, this environment is more toxic than you’ve let on in your letter. I’ve never worked in a school that’s entirely free of rivalries and power struggles, but there’s certainly been a range from “everyone’s human and we’ve all got our flaws and vulnerabilities” to “Game of Thrones–esque shifting alignments and jockeying for control.” Hopefully your school is more of the former. If you actually work in Westeros, then this particular issue is a symptom of a bigger, super unhealthy problem, and I’d start looking elsewhere for work.

—Ms. Bauer

My son is in fifth grade and about to start middle school. He is a great kid all around, and in terms of school he is dutiful, listens well, is responsible, does his homework, has great friends, and generally does well and gets good grades. He prefers math and science at school over reading and writing, but he does read nightly at home. My question is this: His handwriting and spelling are atrocious. Do I need to spend some time having him work on these things this summer before he starts middle school? His teachers seem to know what he’s saying in spite of the bad handwriting and spelling (analisses for analysis, for example). But I look at his handwriting and spelling myself and shudder. He and I have had conversations about it over the years, but have never made any real concerted effort on either of these fronts since he’s doing well. And with other younger kids to take care of at home, I haven’t had the bandwidth to deal, but maybe it’s time. I’d love your thoughts.

—Trying to Weigh What Matters

Dear TtWWM,

Oh, your son reminds me of one of my favorite student writers of all time—he was inventive, and his stories had great structure … and his spelling was 100 percent phonetic. One time he wrote a story about the Revalooshunary War.

As for whether you should work on his spelling and handwriting over the summer, I think it depends. I’m a single mom of twin 4.5-year-olds, one of whom has Down syndrome, and so when you say you don’t have the bandwidth, I get it. Since becoming a mom myself, I’ve relaxed quite a bit my expectations of the academic tasks parents should pursue with their kids. I used to say parents should read with their kids for 20 minutes every night; now I sometimes blow off reading my kids a bedtime story! There are nights when getting their teeth brushed is all I can manage.

Also, it’s going to depend on your son’s middle school environment. Do they use computers for writing tasks? If so, well, that’s what readable fonts and spellcheck are for!

If not, yes, you could try to work with him on it. Here’s my suggestion: Don’t make him wrong. Tell him the way he’s doing it is OK, and you want him to have another tool for his belt. I used to be a strict prescriptive grammarian—there were rules we all must follow; things were correct or incorrect. After reading a lot of books and hearing people’s stories over the last 15 years, my relationship to grammar has changed. I still love studying it and understanding it, but grammar rules are classist, elitist, and ableist. In most instances, as long as you’re getting your point across to your audience, what’s the harm in nonstandard language (or spelling or handwriting)?

That being said, code-switching is a valuable skill, and knowing politically dominant English is an asset. So now I don’t correct my students’ grammar; instead, I tell them, “That’s how you’d say it with your friends, but in this argumentative essay, you need to write it this way.” With your son, you could say, “That’s how you’d write your grocery list—as long as you can read it, who cares? But let’s pretend you’re writing a letter to your congressperson,” and have him practice writing in his best handwriting and using the dictionary to look up the spellings of words.

But again, if it feels like too much for you, just enjoy your summer, and bring it up with his teachers at the beginning of the year. Let them know his specific struggles, and ask them to help. That’s what they’re there for.

—Ms. Scott

My wife and I moved to Belgium a couple years ago for career reasons but have kept our kids in an American school here since moving. Our younger daughter, 9, has a place in a French immersion program and is picking the language up well. Our older daughter is 12, misses home more, and does not have an available French immersion program for her grade level.

This year, fearing our family would remain inside the expat bubble forever, we applied to a local French-language school that has a strong reputation and a transition program for non-French speakers. A significant fraction of the students there are expats, many of whom do not speak French yet, so the school is well set up to help with the transition.

Our kids were accepted to the school starting next year, and now we feel unsure what to do with this amazing opportunity. We intend to stay in Belgium indefinitely,and want our kids to have the broadest array of options possible when they grow up. Fluency in a foreign culture and language would be a huge asset to them, and our younger daughter seems easily up to the challenge.

At the same time, we both recall acutely that it’s challenging enough already just to be 12 years old, and we worry about overwhelming our older daughter with a new language, new school, and new friends. Our oldest is very bright, but is more reluctant to jump into this new experience, and is generally less adventurous with these things than the rest of us.

The final complication is that the younger daughter’s acceptance is contingent on her sister attending the same school. So it’s all or nothing.

What should we do?

We’ve surveyed our friends and the results are 50/50, half saying we’d be crazy to miss the opportunity and the other half asking if we’ve lost our minds completely in pushing a reluctant 12-year old into this against her preference.

—Trapped in the Expat Bubble

Dear Trapped,

That is so hard!

My first thought was of course put your daughter in the French-language school. Immersion is absolutely the best and fastest way to learn a language.

But then I remembered my own exchange experience in Italy when I was 17. I went there for a year knowing not a word of Italian … and I was truly miserable. Within 10 months, I spoke fluent Italian—to the point where northern Italians thought I was southern Italian—but I was clinically depressed, and my previous issues with food became a full-blown, binge-eating disorder.

That memory made me reconsider. Kids are going through so many changes. Would it be better to let your daughter learn middle school content in her own language? Let her process the hormones and the growth and the social missteps in her mother tongue?

Alas, no. For three reasons, I’d still say put her in the French-language school.

First, she’s younger than I was. Our adaptability tends to decrease with age, and though 12 is not that much younger than 17, I established a pretty solid identity in high school. I developed a solid group of friends. I was a leader in the band and theater. I worked my first real jobs. So when I went to Italy and found myself effectively mute and helpless, it was jarring. I think 12-year-olds are still finding themselves and can acclimate more quickly and effectively.

Second, you said you plan to stay indefinitely. That means she absolutely needs a deep understanding of the language and culture. Think about the freedom she’ll gain when she feels confident speaking French.

Third, and most importantly, she still has you. When I was suffering from loneliness and culture shock in Italy, I went home every evening to a family who, while lovely, wasn’t my family. I didn’t have anybody to talk to. This was also in pre-internet days. I salivated at the mailbox for any word from back home. Your daughter will still eat dinner at your table. She can text her friends from her old school. She can plan sleepovers with English speakers.

Dunk her in. She might flounder for a bit, but eventually, she’ll swim.

—Ms. Scott

My daughter is 4 years old, and she was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 1. She has significant developmental delays due to this. She has been in a county special education preschool since she was 2 ½. She was first placed in half-day preschool but was switched to the full-day preschool autism class five months ago as she was not making progress toward her IEP goals. She has not been diagnosed with autism.

She has an upcoming appointment with a developmental pediatrician next month after being on a wait list for 8 months. During this time her seizures have worsened, and she tends to fall asleep after them while at school. We are working with her neurologist to try to get this under control, but it is difficult.

We just had her IEP meeting yesterday, and we were basically told she is not making progress, and they do not know how to teach her. Apparently they have not had this situation before.
They feel putting her back in the half-day preschool is best as it is a less restricted environment.

I feel quite concerned that she is not making progress, the school has admitted it’s not sure how to help her, and she is supposed to start kindergarten in 2020. I am not sure how to proceed. Is homeschooling a good option? Should this be discussed with the supervisor of the preschool program? I tend to be a quiet person and not to want to cause trouble, but I feel that my daughter is not getting what she needs. I would appreciate any advice.

—Dazed and Confused

Dear Dazed and Confused,

Your situation sucks. Let’s start there. I’m really sorry that you’re in a position where none of your choices seem to be ideal. Fortunately, though, there is some good news: You have a whole year before she starts kindergarten. That’s a long time. During that time, you can test some strategies for how to help her meet her goals before she starts grade school. Second, you have a developmental pediatrician appointment. Hopefully this physician will be able to offer you a unique perspective and provide some additional insight. Ultimately, I think this is the source of your problem—you’re missing some information about what’s happening with your daughter. I’m sure this is a source of great anxiety for you and your daughter.

My instinct says that homeschooling is not the best option. Kids who are homeschooled miss out on important opportunities to practice social skills and group problem-solving strategies that are found in the larger school setting, even in the most restrictive special education classrooms. I respect homeschooling, especially if parents have tried schools and found that it wasn’t the best option for their kids, but it’s never been my first recommendation.

As for whether you should talk to your preschool: Yes. In your situation, I would wait to have the developmental appointment, and then, once you’re armed with more information, you can first talk to your CPSE/school district person about what your school options are. Then, depending on what you find out more broadly about your district, you can have a conversation with your preschool directly.

The final thing I’d recommend for you more broadly is to reach out to your community. Epilepsy isn’t a particularly common diagnosis, but it’s not rare either. There are probably support groups for parents of children diagnosed with epilepsy, either in your community or online. One of the parents in my class has joined an online support group of parents of children with her son’s diagnosis, and she is consistently the most prepared parent at meetings with teachers and the district.

Talking to parents with similar experiences can help you find the exact language you need to advocate for your child. Parents are the most important advocate a child has, and getting advice from parents who have been in your shoes is invaluable. On top of that, you will get the unique emotional support that only someone who has had the same experiences as you can offer. Good luck!

—Ms. Sarnell