Q: My husband and I and our two sons, 6 and 3, will be relocating soon. I have just learned that our new school system uses a technique they call "leveling," where students in each grade are grouped according to what someone believes is their ability. It sounds like old-fashioned tracking to me.
The teachers claim this makes teaching easier and more effective, but as the product of an elementary school which tracked students, I have serious doubts about such a system.
I know from first-hand experience that when you label a child's ability, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Children in the higher levels come to see themselves as bright and capable, while those on the lowest levels quickly understand that they are the "dummies."
Even the best and most sensitive teachers have very different expectations of their classes, depending on which level they teach, and the children live up -- or down -- to those expectations.
I am particularly concerned because my kindergartner is a boy, and though very bright, he's a bit on the rambunctious side, and just not as verbal and chatty as many of the other boys -- or any of the girls. This being the case, I strongly suspect that he will be relegated to one of the lower levels.
I will talk with my son's new principal shortly after we move. How can I express my concerns and how can I deal with this "leveling" best, if, as I fear, my son ends up on the bottom? Is there anything positive that can be said for such a system?
A: It depends on what leveling really means.
It can be a setting in which the teacher works with the class as a whole for part of the day, but breaks it into ability groups for reading, math and even for writing. The makeup of these groups changes from subject to subject, depending on the strengths of the children, and they change every few months, as their abilities improve. This can be a very effective way to teach.
Tracking is more controversial, because it divides each grade into separate classrooms, with a different level of ability for each one.
If the children are assigned haphazardly and the classifications are rigid, it can be quite negative.
Although tracking works out well enough for the children in the smartest group and even for those in the middle, the slower children pay a price. They know where they stand in about 2 1/2 minutes, and they're embarrassed by it.
As you discovered, children tend to live up -- or down -- to expectations, and there's even a study to prove it. When some teachers in California were told certain students had higher -- or lower -- I.Q.'s than they actually had, the children tended to live up to the teachers' expectations.
Tracking can have positive results, however, as long as children are assigned to their tracks logically and they can move upward.
It can also be particularly good in kindergarten, or even first grade, if the children are placed in a group on the basis of their developmental, rather than academic, progress.
A rambunctious little boy may thrive in a more structured class with a low teacher-student ratio and a teacher aide.
If the teacher is good, she will make the children the center of attention, rather than herself, and she'll see to it that the high-energy children get enough action.
Tracking has other benefits. It's easier to teach children who are on the same level, especially if the teacher isn't very experienced. It also can be easier on the children.
When slower children only compete against each other, they aren't as embarrassed to ask the teacher to repeat what they can't understand, and when they do good work, they get more notice for it than they would in a mixed class.
And when brighter children are in their own group, they can go at a faster pace, without waiting for the teacher to answer tedious questions.
The real trick is matching the child and the track.
Withhold your opinion on leveling until you've asked the principal how it's structured and the philosophy behind it; if it's flexible enough to make changes and if a label will follow your son from class to class.
You also should find out what kind of test he will be given and when it will be given again. A good system makes regular assessments, by giving two (or 3 or 4) tests a year, and uses other measures as well.
Ask to see any test results, too, for there's often a big difference between math and verbal scores and yet placement may be based on reading scores alone.
No matter what happens in school, your son will feel like a winner if you help him learn to climb, bikeand ice-skate -- for a child judges himself by how well he moves his body -- and if he gets daily acceptance from the people he loves best: his parents.
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