There has been increased talk of late that Manchester should end the practice of leveling in the city’s schools. Leveling, or tracking, is the practice of dividing classes by rigor.
In the wake of a Department of Education complaint that minority enrollment in Honors/AP classes at Manchester’s three public high schools was inadequately low, a number of voices ranging from school district officials to a guest opinion writer in this paper have raised the specter of eliminating leveling altogether.
As a former student not too far removed from Manchester’s high schools, I’d like to chime in and offer a defense of leveling.
I had the privilege of attending public schools, culminating in my time at Manchester West from 2003-2007. At West, I took the complete battery of “Level 4” Honors and AP courses — courses that ranged from Honors 9th grade civics to AP biology, where we dissected cats. One misconception regarding leveling is that teachers assign students based on perceived ability. This is not true.
Students submit their proposed course schedules — if a student is eligible to take Honors English but opts to take a less rigorous course — that is entirely his choosing. All that is required is the teacher’s signature to the course selection (most courses also required minimum grades in prerequisite courses). The honors classes ranged from roughly 4 percent of our class in the most advanced math classes to close to 20 percent in Mr. Lubelczyk’s famed Senior Law course.
The remaining students were nearly evenly split between Level 3 courses, which were designed around a college prep curriculum, and Level 2 courses, which were intended for students who did not wish to ultimately pursue a four-year college degree (a small percentage of students were enrolled in Level 1 Special Education courses).
While some students took all of their courses at a given level, others took a more rigorous course in the subject which interested them the most or in their strongest subject.
Leveling provides a number of benefits. First, it enables students to choose a curriculum that reflects their interests and demonstrated abilities. If a student has had a shaky track record in math courses, he shouldn’t have to select a level where he is destined to fail and become discouraged. Tracking is helpful for students who — through either superior interest, ability or a combination of both — can take coursework that is sufficiently challenging and prepares them for their education beyond high school.
It is beneficial to teachers. Teaching adolescents — many of whom are less than respectful of their teachers — can be inherently frustrating. During my time at West, I spoke with many teachers who would have left for other districts were it not for the challenge of teaching honors courses to students who were more engaged than their peers.
Leveling is beneficial to the reputation of the school system. If Manchester West did not have a rigorous curriculum, than my parents would have made sure I went elsewhere. Multiply this on a larger scale, and the most community-minded parents have largely moved out and Manchester has lost much of its civic lifeblood.
If not leveling in high school, when? Given that almost all students ultimately attend the most prestigious school or accept the most lucrative job they’re offered — a form of de facto leveling — why prohibit leveling in high school? Despite taking all of the AP tests offered at West, I had fewer tests under my belt than most of my peers when I entered Dartmouth. It would be wrong to future students at West and the other city schools to say, “You have the ability, you have the motivation, but it is unfair for us to give you the preparation you need to achieve your dreams.”
I think we can all agree that the purpose of our high schools is to prepare students to be productive adults. If we find it unacceptable when schools serve to babysit students who will either drop out or graduate well below grade level, why don’t we find it equally offensive that Manchester’s schools would consider denying opportunities found at most other public schools to hard-working, disciplined, capable students who seek to make the most of their public school education?
Zach Blatt is the founder of the software startup RightBid and a 2007 graduate of Manchester West, where he was Student Council president.