• by Oanh H. Maroney • IDRA Newsletter • September 1998 • 

Over the years, education reform has been a much-talked-about topic. Individuals from many walks of life – educators, politicians, community leaders, religious leaders, business leaders – have all become involved in the conversation. They agree on the fact that public schools are in need of improvement. However, the conversation surrounding how to go about improving our nation’s public schools has gone in many different directions.

Education continually finds itself subject to “quick-fix” remedies proposed to alleviate public education of all its current ills. These proposed solutions run the gamut from alternative class schedules and school year calendars, to curricular reform, to even doing away with public schools altogether.

Public opinion plays a critical role in the maintenance of our public schools. Because we continually hear statistics about the abilities and performance levels of our nation’s students, some people believe that public schools have failed completely. The perception is that public schools are riddled with problems that are unfixable. Interestingly, many of the problems that parents cite as reasons for removing their students from public schools and placing them in private and/or religious schools are societal problems, not problems within the institution of education.

The Digest of Education Statistics 1997 cites data from “The Annual Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitudes toward the Public Schools” (NCES, 1998). The major problem cited most by respondents in the 1996 survey was “use of drugs” (16 percent), followed by “lack of discipline” (15 percent), which has consistently remained a highly cited problem. “Fighting/violence/gangs” (14 percent) and “lack of financial support” (13 percent) were ranked as the next highest among the list of major problems facing public schools. Three percent of the respondents for the 1996 poll cited “poor curriculum/standards” as a major problem facing the local public schools. Data were not available to indicate what percentage of respondents felt “standards/quality of education” is a major problem.

As can be seen from the results of the poll, those problems perceived to be the most threatening are those that exist in the larger society and come to school with the students and educators – they are not caused by the schools. There are many institutional problems that exist in education. However, the problems that our public schools and their students face are rooted in the outdated, prejudiced beliefs of the larger society.

The Context for Reform

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education, created by Secretary of Education T.H. Bell, published a report called A Nation at Risk, which said:

Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world…We report to the American people that while we take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people NCES, 1995).

Based on the findings of its study, the commission put forth a series of recommendations that were designed to improve education. As a result of the report and the implementation of the commission’s recommendations, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that “42 of the 50 states had raised course requirements for high school graduation, [and] 47 states had mandated testing standards” (1995).

A Nation at Risk has spurred much activity in the arena of education reform. Our nation has put forth newer and higher goals for educating our children. A major part of the conversation about improving the quality of education that our public schools provide to students is the notion of high standards: upping the ante on what students must know.

Population Sifting

One of the issues that has long been included in conversations about education reform is ability grouping. Known also as tracking, ability grouping has been implemented in our schools since the early part of the century. It was seen as a solution to the diversity that existed once schools began to serve a larger, more heterogeneous population of students who were not all college-bound. The general idea was to divide students by ability (e.g., low, average and high achieving students) so that they could receive the appropriate level of guidance needed to achieve academically.

Through tracking, schools have become agents for maintaining the social hierarchy that exists in our nation. White, more-affluent students are often placed in courses for high achieving students. In essence, they remain at an advantage for access to knowledge that, in turn, provides them access to post-secondary education and more-affluent jobs.

Minority students and students from low socio-economic groups tend to be overrepresented in the lower tracks, which include vocational courses that do not provide the necessary job skills to enter the work force and lower-level academic classes that do not meet the entrance criteria for post-secondary education. Such differences in access to knowledge have, for the most part, not been challenged because the groups being denied this access have been denied equitable access to opportunity (within and outside of the field of education) for many decades, anyway. Years after we emerged from the Civil Rights era, our nation’s schools continue to select and sort students, distinguishing the “haves” from the “have nots” and perpetuating the social hierarchy (Robledo Montecel, 1996). Jeannie Oakes, a well-known opponent of tracking, notes:

Tracking is just one of many problematic school structures and practices. Tracking supports and is supported by much else that is wrong with the schools – thin, skills-based curricula; passive, teacher-dominated instructional strategies; [and] standardized, paper-and-pencil assessment (Wheelock, 1992).

Interestingly enough, when queried about what they felt was the most important goal for education, public school teachers said: “building basic literacy skills” (49.9 percent), “promoting personal growth” (20.4 percent), “promoting good work habits and self-discipline” (13.2 percent) and “encouraging academic excellence” (11.1 percent) (Snyder, Hoffman and Geddes, 1997).

In examining the percentage of high school seniors who reported that they were in a general (includes special education, “other” and “don’t know”), college preparatory/academic or vocational program, NCES (1997) reports the following:

  • Over the 10-year span between 1982 and 1992, the percentage of public and private school students reporting enrollment in a general or college preparatory/academic program increased (from 35.2 to 45.3 percent and from 37.9 to 43 percent, respectively), while the number of students reporting enrollment in a vocational program decreased (from 26.9 to 11.7 percent);
  • For public school students, general program enrollment increased from 36.7 to 47.1 percent, college preparatory/academic program enrollment increased from 34.5 to 40 percent, and vocational program enrollment decreased from 28.8 to 12.9 percent;
  • When considering socio-economic status, the students in the “high quartile” comprised the majority of college preparatory/academic program students (60.1 percent in 1982 and 60.8 percent in 1992). Students in the “low quartile” comprised the larger part of the general program (40.3 percent in 1982 and 55.6 percent in 1992) and the vocational program (39.2 percent in 1982 and 21.1 percent in 1992).

Ability grouping is directly related to the issue of curriculum standards. Tracking, as it has been implemented in schools, subjects students to different sets of standards according to the ability group track in which they are placed. And while the curriculum and learning objectives for the various ability group levels are intended to meet the students’ varying ability levels, those students who are placed in the lower-ability-level groups are often subjected to unchallenging, watered-down, basic skills curricula that barely meet minimum-level standards.

The National Education Goals Panel was created in 1990 to assess progress toward achieving the nation’s eight national education goals. The third goal, “student achievement and citizenship,” states:

By the year 2000, all students will leave grades four, eight and 12 having demonstrated competency over challengig subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our nation’s modern economy (National Education Goals Panel, 1997).

In the panel’s 1997 report, we find that in Texas:

  • Twenty-six percent of the public school students met the goals panel’s performance standard in reading in grade four, compared to 30 percent of public school students in the nation; and
  • Twenty-five percent of the public school students met the goals panel’s performance standard in math in grade four, and 21 percent met the performance standard in math in grade eight, compared with 21 percent and 24 percent of students in the nation, respectively.

The Condition of Education 1997 reports that more students are taking higher-level math and science courses:

High school graduates in 1994 were more likely to take mathematics courses at the level of Algebra I or higher and science courses at the level of biology or higher than their counterparts in 1982 (Smith, et al., 1997).

The report also notes that 51 percent of high school graduates in 1994 had earned at least four units in English, and three units in each of science, social studies and mathematics. However, students still needed to enroll in remedial courses upon entrance to college: “One out of three college freshmen enrolled in a remedial course in either year. More students took remedial mathematics in 1995 than either remedial reading or remedial writing” (Smith, et al., 1997).

Of the more than 41.6 million students attending public schools in 1993-94, 10.88 percent (4,528,437 students) were enrolled in a remedial reading program, and 6.9 percent (2,871,895 students) were enrolled in a remedial mathematics program (NCES, 1998). While most of the students enrolled in these programs were at the elementary level, there were still approximately 774,000 (5.63 percent) students enrolled in remedial reading and approximately 692,000 students enrolled in remedial mathematics at the secondary level.

Preliminary data from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) Student Assessment Division show that, statewide, 80 percent of the students who took the Biology I end-of-course exam in spring 1998 met the minimum expectations. However, only 39 percent of the students who took the Algebra I end-of-course exam during the same term met the minimum expectations. Although far from satisfactory, these preliminary data demonstrate an increase in performance in Algebra I from previous years, 28 percent passing in 1996 and 35 percent passing in 1997 (TEA, 1997). These percentages are important because “mastery of Algebra is a strong indicator of preparation for college. Algebra I is a required course for high school students, beginning with the freshman class of 1997-98” (TEA, 1997).

Standards and Tracking

As is well known, educators’ expectations affect student performance. Regardless of students’ individual abilities, educators’ attitudes about their jobs, the subject matter and the students whom they teach are, essentially, everything.

In a study of 38 schools in 13 communities, John I. Goodlad found that teachers tended to believe that ability grouping itself takes care of pupil variability. These teachers saw the vocational education offerings as valuable job preparation for those students who were not college-oriented and had no chance of going to college. Goodlad also found that an achievement gap between ability levels persists, and even increases, over time: “A self-fulfilling prophecy appearing to ‘prove’ the prevailing assumptions is created…result[ing] in giving up on many individuals” (1984).

As a result of schools’ low expectations of students who are deemed less likely to succeed academically, schools subject these “less likely to succeed” students to less challenging, watered-down, connect-the-dot curricula.

Historically, while we have reached for common standards, we have also made adjustments in standards in response to individual differences among students. This is seen in the enormous variability in academic expectations by school, by classroom, as well as within classrooms, and by type of child – often on the basis of ethnicity, language, economic means, gender, disability, and simply average and below average placement in the achievement hierarchy (Weinstein, 1996).

Tracking mirrors the beliefs that are held about particular groups in the larger society. Many research studies on tracking concur:

Assignment to different pathways has been found to reflect racial, class and gender groupings, even when differences in ability have been controlled. Thus, poor children, certain ethnic-minority children, and girls in math and science are often the recipients of lower expectations. Evidence points to limited mobility once placed; to remarkably different curricular exposure between reading groups, tracks and schools, with achievement gains largely favoring students in the higher levels; to the ineffectiveness of retention practices; and to the dead-end nature of some special education programs. Research also underscores students’ awareness of such differential treatment, a factor in the stigma, eroded motivation, and disidentification associated with low group placement (Weinstein, 1996).

In addition, many of these studies have also found “compelling evidence that when students are placed higher and given appropriate supports, they rise to the challenge with no detriment to the higher achieving students” (Weinstein, 1996).

Much of what we hear every day is that our youngsters are not leaving our schools with the knowledge and skills that they need to be competitive in a global market. Many would argue that all students should be governed by the same set of high standards. This is, indeed, a valid argument. However, if we want all of our students to be governed by the same set of high standards, it will be necessary to level the playing field.

All students need to have access to high-quality teachers who share high expectations for every student because

Even the most pedagogically advanced strategies are ineffective in the hands of educators who believe that ethnic, racial and linguistic-minority students are at best culturally disadvantaged and in need of fixing or, at worst, culturally or genetically inferior and, consequently, beyond help (Trueba and Bartolome, 1997).

In addition, students need exposure to a challenging, high quality curriculum – one that goes beyond the premise of limited basic-skills learning. Rhona S. Weinstein, states very clearly the issues at hand:

Calls for the raising of standards (however meaningful) and for the accountability of offenders (however implemented) fail to grapple with the complexity of what is currently in place in schools and the systemic changes needed to fix the problem. Attention must be paid to changing limiting beliefs about differential abilities to learn and the self-defeating teaching methods that follow from such beliefs. These have led to the inappropriate adjustment of teaching methods (watered-down treatment) for certain groups of children, thereby creating enormous inequities in the conditions for learning. Three missing links in the equation (confronting entrenched beliefs, implementing effective teaching methods, and engaging in a change process) are essential to ensuring the fulfillment of the declared prophecy of higher standards for all children (1996).


There are several questions that must e considered in this particular discussion: Is it feasible to believe that it is possible to effectively improve the quality of public education simply by raising standards? Is it likely that merely raising standards will raise the level of expectation held for all students in public schools? Will increasing learning standards with out emphasizing a change in course curricula be beneficial for students? Is it acceptable to continue to sort students into ability-level tracks and provide them with unchallenging curricula that less-than-adequately prepares them to compete in a global society? To all of the questions posed, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Raising standards by which students are expected to perform is a step in the right direction. This must be done. However, in order to ensure that all students are given a truly equitable opportunity to achieve academic success in our public schools, we must do several things. We must change the “select and sort” philosophy that is inherent in the structure of our schools. We must instill an understanding in the philosophy of public education that while different students possess different abilities, all students have the potential to achieve academic success, given high expectations and a challenging curriculum. We must realize that we do not have to promote favorable academic opportunity and success for some students at the expense of comparable opportunity for others.

We know that our public education system has problems. However, the solution is not to do away with public education. Nor is the answer to implement “quick-fix” remedies that do not adequately address the issue of equity for all students in our public schools. Despite what many might believe, the problems that exist in our public schools are fixable. And we can fix them, once we properly acknowledge just what it is that needs fixing.


Goodlad, J.I. A Place Called School (New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, 1984).

National Center for Education Statistics. Findings from the Condition of Education 1994: High School Students Ten Years After “A Nation At Risk” (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, May 1995).

National Education Goals Panel. The National Education Goals Report: Building a Nation of Learners, 1997 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997).

Robledo Montecel, M. Keynote to the Rio Grande Valley Texas Association for Bilingual Education (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1996).

Smith, T.M. and B.A. Young, Y. Bae, S.P. Choy and N. Alsalam. The Condition of Education 1997 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997) NCES 97-388.

Snyder, T.D. and C.M. Hoffman and C.M. Geddes. Digest of Education Statistics 1997 (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, December 1997).

Texas Education Agency. Executive Summary: 1997 Interim Report on Texas Public Schools. (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, 1997).

Texas Education Agency. Statewide Results: Algebra I End-of-Course: Student Assessment Division (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, 1998).

Texas Education Agency. Statewide Results: Biology I End-of-Course: Student Assessment Division (Austin, Texas: Texas Education Agency, 1998).

Trueba, E.T. and L.I. Bartolome. “The Education of Latino Students: Is School Reform Enough?” ERIC Digest (New York, N.Y.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, July 1997) Number 123, EDO-UD-97-4.

Weinstein, R.S. “High Standards in a Tracked System of Schooling: For Which Students and With What Educational Supports?” Educational Researcher (November 1996) 25(8), 16-19.

Wheelock, Anne. Crossing the Tracks: How “Untracking” Can Save America’s Schools (New York, N.Y.: The New Press, 1992).

Oanh Maroney is a research assistant and administrative assistant to the IDRA executive director. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]