For more than 30 years, Philadelphia has grappled with ways to desegregate its schools.
But little attention has been paid to the patterns of segregation within integrated schools.
While students themselves introduce some degree of social segregation into schools, academic tracking of students into different classes based on perceived ability results in further racial separation.
Often the perceptions guiding schools' decisions about tracking students are influenced by “stereotyping and racism,” observed veteran guidance counselor Doris Shirley.
“We're all guilty of that,” she noted.
Critics say tracking causes separate and unequal spaces to emerge within integrated public schools, and children conclude from this segregation that students with different color skin have and deserve different levels of education – that some are therefore inherently smarter.
Racial separation within schools often begins at the elementary school level with the grouping of students based on their reading levels. There are no districtwide data on that, but the District does have data on students identified as gifted through IQ testing. These children typically get pulled out of their regular classrooms for special enrichment activities in a small class setting.
Over 8,000 African American students in Philadelphia are classified as mentally gifted, just 48 percent of students so classified. African American students comprise 65 percent of Philadelphia's school population.
At the high school level, further evidence of segregated tracks is provided by comparing participation in college-level Advanced Placement (AP) courses in schools that are well integrated.
Central High School's White enrollment is only a few percentage points higher than its African American student population. Yet 219 White Central students took AP exams last year, and only 53 African American students did. Similarly, George Washington High School's African American enrollment is only slightly smaller than the percentage of White students. But there only seven African Americans took AP tests, compared to 186 White students.
Since tracking is based on the belief that teaching can be more effective when it is addressed to relatively homogeneous groups of students, assignments of students to tracks and, hence to classrooms should in theory be based on objective measures such as students' scores on aptitude tests.
But even if the decisions actually are fair and objective, a danger in tracking is that, with higher expectations often generating higher achievement and lower expectations generating the opposite, the practice often sentences poor children and children of color to learning environments that are unlikely to develop their potential.
As a classroom teacher, Debbie Bambino of Philadelphia challenged the rationale for sorting students into academic tracks in an online journal on the topic: “As a teacher, I now question why bright kids must be separated to succeed . . . The research says that differentiation is the way to go, not homogeneity.”
But she noted, “It's easier to separate kids than to differentiate our instruction so all our kids can join in the conversation.”
Raymond Gunn, a doctoral candidate and researcher who mentors students at Philadelphia's Bodine High School, is aware of how some students respond to segregated environments. Bodine is majority African American, and many of Bodine's students are low-income and come from neighborhood schools. Gunn's observations indicate that African American girls excel at Bodine; but with rare exceptions, African American boys “are at the bottom [academically].”
The fallout of negative bias, according to Gunn, most acutely impacts African American boys. They are stereotyped as “not interested in academics,” and there is an “undercurrent of unsociability” – not outright antagonism, but “coolness” from peers.
Closing the achievement gap between White students and students of color will require identifying features of segregated classrooms that contribute to the gap in the first place.
A 2004 paper by Jean Yonemura Wing of the University of California at Berkeley, describing research at Berkeley High School, identifies several alterable features that contribute to the achievement gap:
Curriculum choices that permit (and often encourage) some students to leave high school unprepared for college or living-wage jobs;
“Mass-production” organization of schools and rules that sort students into large “batches” and deprive students of supportive relationships with adults;
A school climate that treats racial disparities as normal;
An absence of advocates and networks within and outside of school, similar to the supports that advantaged students have.
Wing noted that the most academically successful low-income students or students of color require stable relationships with school personnel who believe that giving students “extra” support is reasonable and normal, and does not reflect deficits in a student's background. Nurturing these relationships can do much to address the negative impact of segregated classrooms.
Doris Shirley stressed that African American teachers can be particularly instrumental in inspiring, motivating, and informing students of opportunities to pursue the higher track.
Bambino speaks passionately about another possible strategy: ending the harmful effects of tracking by grouping students in diverse, desegregated groups. She said, “In a classroom where multiple perspectives are valued and students are assessed in multiple formats, everyone improves. I've seen it. I know how powerful a mixed ability classroom can be.”