GAPS AND TRACKS: God wants "tracking" in public schools!

FRIDAY, JUNE 22, 2018

Part 4—Why the Naep reports percentiles:
The New York City Public Schools face a gigantic problem.

Other systems face the very same problem. For the record, this gigantic problem isn't a New York thing.

(The gigantic problem seems to be worse in glorious, distant Seattle!)

The finer element in our society doesn't want to discuss this gigantic problem, which they find embarrassing. For this reason, they focus on the finer ideas preferred by their high social caste.

With the greatest respect for their lovely ideals, this is the shape of the gigantic problem they choose to ignore, as seen in New York City's schools:
Average scores, Grade 8 math, Naep
New York City Public Schools, 2017

White students: 290.71
Black students: 255.63
Hispanic students: 263.56
Asian-American students: 306.03
Those data define a punishing state of affairs—but so what?. (For all Naep data, click here.) Because its reporters and editors are refined people who "went to the finest schools," you'll never see the size of that problem described in the New York Times.

Instead, you'll see headlines like these:
Recent headlines from the New York Times:
Schools Cherry Pick, Leaving Minorities Behind

A Shadow System of Tracking by School Feeds Segregation

A Shadow System Feeds Segregation in New York City Schools
All three headlines have appeared atop this front-page report from Monday's print editions. Those headlines direct your concern toward "tracking" and alleged "segregation," not toward the gigantic achievement gaps which constitute the modern-day problem we all live with.

The problem we all happily live with, just to be more precise.

The New York Times wants to focus on "segregation." It will never, never, never report or discuss the enormous size of those gaps. You see, the finer people who constitute its staff don't live on the short end of those gaps. They direct you to finer problems, to concerns which are much more refined.

In Monday's front-page news report, attention was paid to the question of "tracking"—more precisely, to the practice of "tracking by school." The practice was described as "cherry picking" in the hard-copy headline that day.

Just for the record, "tracking" has long been a dirty word in pseudo-liberal circles. The pretty people who write our tribal novels associate "tracking" with racial injustice, even with "segregation."

With this association firmly in mind, we pseudo-liberals tend to rail against all forms of "tracking." Today, we want to help you understand why "tracking" exists in our schools.

Why does tracking exist in our schools? Why do some kids get taught a more high-powered curriculum—in high school math, let's say—while other kids are asked to navigate a less advanced course of study?

To answer your question, we're going to show you Gotham's gigantic achievement gaps—this time, without any reference to race or ethnicity.

This means that we'll have to deal with the concept of "percentiles." Cutting directly to the chase, this is the shape of those gaps:
New York City Public Schools
Grade 8 math, 2017
Scores by percentiles, Naep

90th percentile: 329.72
75th percentile: 303.23
50th percentile: 272.76
25th percentile: 245.27
10th percentile: 222.66
The Naep provides these data for a reason. Let's get clear on what those data mean.

First, those data represent scores achieved on the Naep by New York City's eighth-graders as one big happy family. Above, we showed you the average scores recorded by different "racial" or ethnic groups. These new data show the scores attained by Gotham's kids writ large, across the board.

As you can see, those data define enormous achievement gaps. At the 90th percentile, Gotham's eighth-graders racked up a score of 329.72. Lower down, at the tenth percentile, other Gotham eighth-graders scored a measly 222.66.

Given the way percentiles work, this means that the highest-achieving ten percent of Gotham's kids scored somewhere above 329. The lowest-achieving ten percent—the kids who are truly "struggling students"—scored somewhere below 223!

That's an achievement gap of 106 points on the rarely-consulted Naep scale. Judged by a very rough rule of thumb which loses all meaning at times like this, that would be described as a gap of ten academic years—with twenty percent of Gotham's kids separated by a gap even wider than that!

Basically, that ten-point metric loses utility in outlier situations like this. But we're looking at truly enormous achievement gaps when we look at numbers like these.

Here's what that fact means:

Suppose you decided to start a large neighborhood high school in Gotham. Let's suppose that, through meticulous micromanaging, your various students don't just "look like" New York. Let's suppose they also do math like New York!

That would mean that your neighborhood school will have to deal with those enormous gaps—with that enormous range of achievement in math. This brings us to our basic question:

Do you really think that the kids who scored above 329 should be taking the same ninth-grade math class as the kids who scored below 223? Does that actually seem to make sense?

Do you really think that all those kids should take the same "ninth grade math?" Or do you think your non-selective neighborhood school should decide to engage in "tracking"—should decide to teach a higher-powered curriculum for the higher-achieving kids, and a less advanced curriculum for the struggling kids who are years behind?

If you aren't completely insane, you will of course engage in some form of "tracking," dirty word though it may be. IF you aren't completely insane, you won't ask the kids who are struggling badly to take the same high-powered class as the kids who are scoring off the charts.

If you are completely nuts, you'll apply for a job at the New York Times. You'll ignore these realities altogether. Instead, you'll lobby for minor adjustments in the demographic numbers at certain Gotham schools.

You'll headline this piddle as "desegregation," patting yourself on the back as you do. In the process, you'll completely ignore the educational challenges defined by the data we've shown you. You'll also ignore the actual needs of the kids who so clearly are struggling.

You'll pretend the kids are all pretty much the same—that the kids can just study math "side by side," as one apparently delusional principal recently said in the Times, with no one questioning his unlikely statement.

Just to be clear, there's nothing unusual about the size of those (non-racial) achievement gaps. This isn't a New York City thing. Here are the corresponding data for the U.S. as a whole:
National public schools, all students
Grade 8 math, 2017
Scores by percentiles, Naep

90th percentile: 332.44
75th percentile: 308.90
50th percentile: 281.67
25th percentile: 255.01
10th percentile: 232.10
The scores are higher at each percentile, But the size of the gaps is roughly the same—enormous, very large.

The same holds true if we imagine a perfect nation, one in which the kids are all one "race" or ethnicity. Within each demographic group, those very large gaps obtain on the Naep. We offer this example:
National public schools, Asian-American students
Grade 8 math, 2017
Scores by percentiles, Naep

90th percentile: 361.47
75th percentile: 339.51
50th percentile: 311.63
25th percentile: 281.66
10th percentile: 253.56
Those scores are much higher at all percentiles. But a very large gap still obtains.

Guess what, Times subscribers? This is what kids are like! More specifically, this is what eighth-graders are like here in the United States.

Some kids are better students than others. Some kids are much more athletic, or are much better dancers. Some can sing much better than others. Some kids are shorter, or taller.

And some know a lot more math! The idea that you'd teach them all the same "ninth grade math" will appeal to you if you're totally out of your mind, or if you're an unnamed editor at the New York Times.

Some kids know a lot more math! For today, let's apply this fact to Monday'a front-page report, though only in one basic way. We return to the highly bombastic claims of that cherry-picked parent from the Bronx, and to the preceding remark by Harris and Hu:
HU AND HARRIS (6/18/18): ...New York [City], in essence, has replaced tracking within schools with tracking by school, where children with the best records can benefit from advanced classes and active parent and alumni associations. According to the city, of the more than 830 middle schools and high schools, roughly 190 screen all of their students. Many of these screened schools are clustered in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with enrollments that are more white, Asian and affluent than the overall school population.

Edwin Franco, a father of two girls who lives in the Bronx, said that too many selective schools cherry pick the best students—and deprive everyone else of opportunities. “They’re almost like a factory,” he said. “They’re churning out high-performing kids who are doing great while the rest of the kids are trying to figure it out on their own because they don’t have the same resources.”
Do children with the best records "benefit from advanced classes" at those selective schools? Presumably yes, they do!

Would Edwin Franco's daughters benefit from those advanced classes? Are they being "deprived of an opportunity" if they don't attend the schools which offer those courses?

There's no way to know that! But the vast majority of Gotham kids wouldn't "benefit" from being enrolled in such classes. They would instead be destined to fail if they were asked to take such courses. It would be a form of "legalized child abuse," to cite the quotable statement Harris and Hu cadged from another cherry-picked loudmouth in Monday's front-page report.

Should New York City run "highly selective" schools for high-achievers only? That's a matter of judgment.

We might be inclined to say no. But just for once, let's understand this bone simple fact:

If Gotham didn't perform that form of "tracking by school," it would have to "track within schools." It would have to track its ninth-grade students within its large neighborhood schools.

In New York, as everywhere else, tremendous achievement gaps obtain by the time kids reach ninth grade. By the time they reach ninth grade, New York's kids aren't all the same. When it comes to math achievement, they aren't anything like that!

The New York Times won't tell you that. They're prettier people than that. Their concerns are much more lofty.

God wants tracking in public schools. Those Naep scores basically prove it.

God didn't produce a planet full of kids who are all the same. For better or worse, God created a planet of kids with different ability levels—and with vastly different achievement levels by the end of fifth or eighth grade.

It's possible that better instruction, earlier on, would lead to fewer "struggling students." But the New York Times doesn't burden itself with complex questions like that. Instead, the New York Times wants to make minor adjustments in the demographics at certain schools, ignoring the fact that kids will then be tracked into "advanced classes" where white kids and Asian-American kids sit in the bulk of the seats.

The Naep reports scores by percentiles for a reason. That said, we can guarantee this—no one at the New York Times has ever examined such data.

In its public school reporting, the Times is a bunch of pretty people tinkering around the edges of reality. We'd call it "legalized child abuse," but Homey don't play that game.

Everybody praises the Naep, but no one reports its data! This is the elite journalistic world within which our floundering society is struggling to survive.

Next week: The gaps and the plans

Still coming: Gaps and excuses


  1. "The New York Times wants to focus on "segregation.""

    Hey, did I tell you, or did I tell you? Your zombie death cult is doing its usual goebbelsian race-war-incitement propaganda, for the elections. And it's gonna get worse before it gets better, after November 6.

    Though of course, if your predictions from a few months ago hold up, there will be no November, or (I presume) the NYT...

    1. Nothing says "Anti-Establishment" like Trump's Republican Party reducing Food Stamp funding so Wall Streeters can get a bigger tax break.

      No worries. I'm sure the "economically anxious" (and not at all bigoted) Trump voter will be up in arms about this any minute now. LOL.

    2. You want an economically anxious voter? I have one right here.

    3. Thanks for that, Caesar. I hadn't visited that blog for a very long time, have it bookmarked now.



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  3. Teachers used to teach all grades, all levels of academic competence in the same classroom. Older kids or more advanced kids acted as aides. It can be done that way, but it isn't necessarily the best way to do things now, for much larger numbers of students.

    The dirty name given to tracking was earned when minority kids were routinely tracked into lower classes without regard to their ability. This meant they were unqualified for admission even to public colleges because they were tracked out of college prep classes and never had the chance to take things that were required for college admission (languages, physics and chemistry, algebra II and trig). That was challenged in courts and eliminated in most districts because it was a baldfaced end-run around desegregation intended to keep minority kids out of classes with white kids.

    Now tracking is coming back, but perhaps without the racial trappings. The focus on desegregation and minority representation is a historical legacy of those older times. Somerby should know that. It isn't that liberals are trying to feel good by ignoring gaps and focusing instead of minority representation. It is that liberals are trying to make sure racism doesn't return in the guise of academic convenience.

    Somerby continues to present this as an either/or situation. Either you address the gaps or you address tracking/desegregation but liberals cannot apparently do both at the same time. Somerby has presented no evidence whatsoever that gaps are not being addressed in schools. The NAEP numbers suggest otherwise, since there is some closing of the gaps and much progress being made by minority kids. More would be better, but the intransigence of the gaps isn't because liberals don't want to see minority kids be better educated.

    Liberals staff the schools. They are over-represented in education departments at the college level. They are the ones who demonstrate their interest in helping all children succeed, by putting their bodies in the trenches and working for substandard pay under difficult conditions, with poor job security and little respect. And Somerby has the nerve to claim that liberals don't care about gaps in NAEP scores! What an ass Somerby continues to be.

    But conservatives love that tracking! They love the things that permit them to ignore minority kids by shutting them away in remedial classes. They love it that minority kids cannot go to college because their guidance counselor didn't bother telling them what courses they would need. They love it when parents are assured that the good grades their kids are earning in their tracked classes mean their kids are learning. Just not enough. Conservatives cut funding for schools and mock teachers and set up charters that emphasize discipline (to keep minority kids in their place) while neglecting the enrichment that nurtures achievement at a higher level. Black kids need uniforms not art classes.

    Now that Somerby has expressed his support for tracking, because those minority kids just cannot do the work, we can take that a step further and put those tracks in separate buildings. And white kids will know such schools aren't for them. And we will be back where we were before Brown v Board of Education.

    What is to keep that from happening? Not Somerby. Liberals, making noise in newspapers, so that tracking doesn't become discrimination. Again.

    1. How do children who are years behind their fellow students in their academic abilities catch up to their peers, if they are not given intensive remedial help?

      How is a teacher supposed to teach to both those who are years beyond and those that are years behind their fellow classmates in academic performance, while being in the same classroom? What are your suggestions for teachers in these circumstances?

      Somerby has never blamed teachers for the gaps in student performance along racial lines, just pointed out the the elite media and left media (two separate entities) never show much interest in covering it, and less interest in offering any solutions.

    2. Somerby doesn't say the Times "never show much interest"; he says they "never, never, never" discuss achievement gaps. That is demonstrably false.

      And Somerby only looks at the Times, which is not the entirety of the "elite" media (whatever that is) or "left media" (whatever that is).

      How much coverage is he missing? How much coverage just in the Times is he ignoring?

      Also, Somerby does not limit his attacks to the media. He accuses "liberals" of not caring about achievement gaps and hence they don't care about black and Hispanic kids. Do you honestly believe, given his record of vicious character attacks on "liberals" as a group, that he means just "elite liberals?"

      And if Somerby wants to see a discussion in the media, if his blog isn't doing the trick, then why not submit an op-ed and start the discussion himself? He has some expertise, as an educator, a writer, a writer of op-eds about education, and at least 20 years of blogging and thinking about education and the gaps to have an informed opinion. He would have to make his case without insulting everyone though.

    3. Anonymous 12:05 - Your first three paragraphs seem to get at the key questions here: what is the best way to teach kids of widely varying abilities...and pointing out some of the historical injustices that have been wrapped up with that question.

      Alas, none of these questions were addressed by Hu and Harris, and that seems to me to be the heart of Somerby's complaint about the article.

  4. Franco said: "“They’re almost like a factory,” he said. “They’re churning out high-performing kids who are doing great while the rest of the kids are trying to figure it out on their own because they don’t have the same resources.”

    This reflects the difference in attitude between people who believe that academic performance is the result of innate talent and inborn ability versus those who believe that academic performance is the result of hard work. Today's NY Times has an opinion piece by a former Tiger parent, an Asian man reflecting on his choice not to raise his kids the way he was raised by his immigrant father and mother. He attributes his accomplishments to an unrelenting focus on academic achievement coupled with harsh discipline for failure, a childhood full of hard, continuous work to get ahead academically, leading to a professional career and a successful life.

    Franco obviously believes that there is some magic supplied in special schools, resources that will make his children into high performers. He thinks it is something done to the kids there, not arising from who the kids are but from what they are made to do in special schools.

    Resources and opportunities arise outside the child. Talent and ability come from inside the child, are brought with them to whatever environment they find themselves in. Whichever you believe, determines your attitude toward tracking and special schools. Americans tend to believe academic performance is a matter of inborn ability, not hard work. They console kids who struggle -- they don't demand that they do more work in order to make faster progress. They don't punish them for being lazy, as many other cultures do.

    Somerby wants to put low achievers into special classes where their comparison will be other low achieving kids and there will be fewer demands placed on them. This may be comforting to the kids and easier on the teachers but will it produce more learning? If you believe harder work is needed to catch up, probably tracking won't help. If you believe ability is missing due to childhood disadvantage, tracking is kinder because being with higher performing kids will be discouraging and no amount of attention will help them catch up.

    Since we are a democracy, tossing the football to the parents by offering school choice might be a solution. Let parents decide whether to give their kids an easier time or a harder time. Let parents decide whether the problem with a given child is lack of ability or lack of motivation. But educational philosophy is at the heart of Somerby's complaint.

    Somerby mocks a principal who thinks all kids are equal. That says a lot about Somerby's viewpoint. In a democracy, we treat all kids as if there were equal by providing equal opportunity, while recognizing that people are different and will make different choices. Some choose to work hard in class, pay attention, follow the lecture, persist with the homework, seek tutoring, and so on. Some choose to tune out, play with their phones, joke with their friends, daydream and ignore what is done in class, copying friends homework. Parents can help a child decide which path to take, but the child makes a choice too. Our society has decided that equal opportunity means letting people make such choices, not forcing them to achieve or denying them the opportunity to achieve. That should dictate one's opinion about tracking.

    1. Somerby wants to put low achievers into special classes where their comparison will be other low achieving kids and there will be fewer demands placed on them.

      Could we have a cite for this claim about what Somerby wants?

      Americans tend to believe academic performance is a matter of inborn ability, not hard work. They console kids who struggle -- they don't demand that they do more work in order to make faster progress. They don't punish them for being lazy, as many other cultures do.

      Could we have some support for this amazing generalization?

      Let parents decide whether the problem with a given child is lack of ability or lack of motivation.

      That’s what you think is going on? Did your parents decide to drop you on your head when you were a child?

      Somerby mocks a principal who thinks all kids are equal. That says a lot about Somerby's viewpoint.

      No, that says a lot about the principal. And you.

    2. New to the education literature deadrat? Not a teacher. Demanding proof of the things you would have learned in college. But blaming other people for your ignorance. Typical.

    3. 12:26
      Americans… “console kids who struggle -- they don't demand that they do more work in order to make faster progress. They don't punish them for being lazy, as many other cultures do.”

      Ah, yes, punishment, the backbone of enlightenment philosophy. Of what use is consolation?

      “In a democracy, we treat all kids as if there (sic) were equal by providing equal opportunity…” Really? Which democracy, in which “we” exist, are you referring to?

      “Parents can help a child decide which path to take, but the child makes a choice too. Our society has decided that equal opportunity means letting people make such choices, not forcing them to achieve or denying them the opportunity to achieve.”

      Cheez ‘n’ crackers. Has “our” society really done that? In terms of schooling, what if you don’t have a choice? And using the term “dictate” to describe one’s opinion on the matter of tracking is all I need to know about your ideas.


    4. Corby,

      Am I new to the education literature? The education literature? I’m not sure what that is. Are you asking whether I’ve read the research promulgated by the educationist apparat? The answer is no.

      What part of “education literature” would tell me that Somerby wants to put low achievers into special classes? Or that Americans tend to believe about academic performance?

      Not a teacher. OK. Was that a claim or a question just missing its question mark? No, I’m not a teacher.

      Demanding proof Proof is hard to come by outside mathematics, baking, distilling, and minting. I just asked for evidence.

      would have learned in college I’m a long time out of college, where I majored in mathematics. And would have? What does that mean? If I’d gone to college? If I hadn’t been drunk for four years in college? If I’d paid attention in topology class?

      Blaming other people I’m not blaming anyone for anything. My ignorance is my own and hard won. If Somerby has written that he wants to put low achievers into special classes for the undemanding, I missed it. A simple cite would cure that.

  5. "The New York Times wants to focus on "segregation." It will never, never, never report or discuss the enormous size of those gaps."

    Hmm. "Never, never, never." Here are the first few headlines, after just a casual search, additional to the "three" that TDH lists:


    Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares


    Relevant text:
    "We’ve long known of the persistent and troublesome academic gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in public schools."


    In School Together, but Not Learning at the Same Rate
    By Elizabeth A. Harris


    Relevant text:
    "The academic gaps between groups of students — the poor and the middle class, or black and Hispanic children and their white and Asian peers — often are examined in broad strokes, across a district or an entire city. But a new analysis from the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School takes a closer look by mapping the achievement gaps within each public elementary school in New York City. "

    Education Gap Between Rich and Poor Is Growing Wider
    By Eduardo Porter


    Education by the Numbers
    Statistics show just how profound the inequalities in America’s education system have become.

    By Alice Yin


    Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say
    By Sabrina Tavernise


    Why American Schools Are Even More Unequal Than We Thought
    By Susan Dynarski


    Relevant text:
    "Education is deeply unequal in the United States, with students in poor districts performing at levels several grades below those of children in richer areas."

    It Takes More Than Schools to Close Achievement Gap
    By Diana Jean Schemo


    Schools Slow in Closing Gaps Between Races
    By Sam Dillon


    Relevant text:
    "When President Bush signed his sweeping education law a year into his presidency, it set 2014 as the deadline by which schools were to close the test-score gaps between minority and white students that have persisted since standardized testing began."

    1. Damn, Sparky! Evidence to make your point? No calling Somerby names? No mindreading?

      Are you sure you're in the right comment section?

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. "Would Edwin Franco's daughters benefit from those advanced classes? Are they being "deprived of an opportunity" if they don't attend the schools which offer those courses?"

    Is this what Franco is saying? He says they are being "deprived of opportunities." He doesn't say they are being deprived if they don't get to attend the selective schools or advanced classes. He indicates that they are being deprived because they "don’t have the same resources."

    Couple that with this statement from the article:

    "New York, in essence, has replaced tracking within schools with tracking by school"

    Does this mean that advanced classes no longer exist at individual schools, and that they are now offered only at the selective schools?

    190 out of 830 schools, including both high schools and middle schools, screen all of their students. Most of these are in Manhattan and Brooklyn. What if you don't live in either borough?

    Is funding going down for the non-selective schools? Do they have fewer resources? Does the attrition of the best students degrade the performance of non-selective (or traditional) schools and threaten their existence?

    If these things are true, then that may be a problem.

    Even Mr Carranza, the schools chancellor, is not opposing "tracking." He questions the screening process.

    And none of this shows that the authors or the Times oppose tracking.

  7. Let's suppose a screened high school requires a minimum test score of 90.

    What if a student scores an 85? Is he relegated to a traditional school without advanced classes?

    What if a student scores an 80, because she had a bad day, or is a poor test-taker, but is actually capable of scoring a 90?

    What if a student scores an 80 because that is the best they can do, but through hard work and determination are able to score a 90 next year. Are they stuck in the traditional school?

    What is the effect of clustering lower performers together, without the presence of higher achievers as positive examples? Does that enhance or detract from the learning experience?

    Same question: what is the effect of clustering higher performers together, and removing them from any interaction with lower performers?

    How difficult is it to staff a school that consists of lower performers vs one that consists exclusively of higher performers?

    Should a test score alone determine a child's educational opportunities?

  8. These are all legitimate questions, and should have impact on the way we design our educational system.

    However, I think Somerby has a legitimate point in that none of these questions were raised by Harris and Hu. The only observation they made is that we are tracking by school, and it has unfortunate effects on racial compositions. A sensible discussion would have focused much more on the questions you raise.

    1. I agree that the article was not exactly stellar. However, Somerby accuses them of being uncaring, pseudiliberals, mainly because they do not mention achievement gaps. Their article was about the current debate about screening in the NY public school system, and not achievement gaps. Must every article be about achievement gaps? Why, if you don't talk about them, does that somehow make you an uncaring pseudiliberal? There's no logical connection there.

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