You Earned a Ticket!

Which school do you want to support?

Lesson 5.3

Selectivity and Diversity:
How Schools Sort Students

Do parents really want diversity in their schools?

hero image

Here is a suitable thesis for a term paper: Selectivity and diversity are competing priorities in the history of American public education.

On paper, California's student body is incredibly diverse. On closer inspection, it is well sorted. Throughout childhood, students grow accustomed to being sorted, or to sorting themselves: by age, by gender, by height, by neighborhood. Not so long ago, students were explicitly sorted by race; today the sorting persists by zip code or community, often with similar effect.

The following map, from California Common Sense, shows the uneven distribution of the high-need students in the state of California. (Click the map to link to visit the CACS.org site, where you can zoom in.)

Map by California Common Sense. Zoom in at http://www.cacs.org/ca/visualization/1645 Map by California Common Sense. Zoom in at http://www.cacs.org/ca/visualization/1645

Schools also sort students academically. Most colleges and some high schools are selective; students must demonstrate their ability and commitment to gain admission. In many high schools Advanced Placement courses are the academic equivalent of making the varsity team, and not all students make the team. Other schools allow students to be admitted into these more challenging courses based on student and parent choice. 

The practice of grouping students according to readiness or ability is sometimes known as "tracking," particularly where groupings persist from one class to the next. Tracking is generally out of favor in most schools, in favor of "differentiated instruction," in which teachers work to serve multiple learning levels in the same class. Arguments in favor of tracking can be found in this article from Education Next.

Selective policies tend to benefit those who ask

Some schools work to attract similar "birds of a feather" as part of an educational strategy. For example, some schools promote their emphasis on the arts. Others promise an enhanced focus on technology. Schools that emphasize Gifted And Talented programs (GATE) attempt to identify students with exceptional academic promise and provide extra learning opportunities appropriate for their needs.

Sort if you like, but don't expect extra money

The state of California no longer provides specific funding for "gifted" programs; the funding has been folded into the Local Control Funding Formula, and the amount your district spends is under its own control.

Keep 'em separated

Single-gender schools attract attendance with the premise that simplifying the social framework for their students can boost academic focus. The available evidence suggests that, all other things being equal, there could be some merit to this theory. Some studies show academic achievement is generally higher in single-gender school classrooms than in co-ed ones, but the research finding is not straightforward. Like most social science, the data are messy and the validity of this conclusion can be disputed.

California’s first new single-gender school in twenty years opened in Los Angeles in 2016. It’s an all-girls school. California law prohibits gender-segregated schools, but Federal law permits them. LAUSD obtained a California waiver from the State Board of Education to open the school.

Stand up for yourself

At the risk of stating the obvious, selective policies tends to benefit those who ask to be selected. Selecting anything (or being selected for something) usually requires an action, even a small one like raising a hand or filling out a form or talking to a teacher. These small barriers requiring student self-advocacy or parent advocacy tend to reinforce patterns of selection, even unintentionally.

Each school, intentionally or unintentionally, develops its own reputation for the ways in which it is selective and the ways in which it is diverse. In cases where parents have a choice about where their children attend school, they respond to these signals. Parents can influence the balance their local schools strike between these two competing values.

The next lesson will examine the role of special schools for children at risk.

Updated June 2017

Review

Selective programs provide selected students with special opportunities or resources. Examples include "gifted and talented" courses, math seminars for girls, and special support for students that fall behind. How are these programs funded under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF)?

Answer the question correctly and earn a ticket.
Learn More

Questions & Comments

To comment or reply, please sign in .

user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder July 28, 2016 at 3:11 pm
California's first new single-gender school in twenty years is slated to open in Los Angeles in 2016. It's an all-girls school. California law prohibits gender-segregated schools, but Federal law permits them. LAUSD obtained a California waiver to open the school. https://edsource.org/2016/los-angeles-unified-will-open-first-single-gender-school-in-20-years/566973.
user avatar
_Bruce Ross August 26, 2015 at 8:31 am
"At the risk of stating the obvious, selective policies tends to benefit those who ask to be selected."
Obvious, but until you see it play out, it is not obvious how strong the effect is.
I live in a county that effectively has open enrollment and free transfers wherever there is room. (The County Board set the policy years back, and since they will grant any transfer that a district denies, there's no point in denying them.) It's not really an ethnic/racial thing, but it broadens the divide between the aspirational middle class and everyone else. Our kids attend and I love our neighborhood school, but it is striking -- and sad -- how many of my peers literally would not think of sending a child there.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder September 24, 2014 at 3:03 pm
Research on the efficacy of "gifted" programs, summarized by EdExcellence.net http://edexcellence.net/articles/does-gifted-education-work-for-which-students
The short version: the research found evidence that gifted programs may work best for motivated students that are NOT classically "gifted" with a high IQ. The EdExcellence take: "So why would a program impact high scorers and not those with high IQ? Perhaps high test scores demonstrate non-cognitive traits, like longer attention spans and willingness to meet social expectations, which are important in gifted classrooms. In any event, the findings suggest that creating separate classrooms in every school for top-performing students is a cost-effective way to significantly boost performance, even in the poorest neighborhoods."
The full report sells for $5 at http://www.nber.org/papers/w20453
user avatar
Caprice Young April 23, 2011 at 10:54 pm
As a kid, I was identified as highly gifted early on. For a while that meant I was given crossword puzzle and word search books. Often, I would be called on to tutor my peers. Since my gifted-ness didn't carry over to social skills, this was a huge punishment. In some cases I was just given more work. No one understood that gifted didn't just mean I could tackle more advanced work earlier and faster. It meant my brain worked differently. When I attended a racially and economically diverse magnet school, I finally found teachers and peers who understood. The curriculum and instructional strategies were tailored to help us expand and train our weird brains and academic success wasn't ridiculed or stifled, as it all too often is in melting pot schools.

Grouping students with like interests and learning needs can be a great way to deliver high quality education in a more individualized way. As long as the placements are made thoughtfully and at the choice of the students' guardians, more specialized educational environments can really work well.

I participated in the bussing folly of LAUSD 30 years ago (yeah, I'm ancient). Merely bussing kids across town did nothing to integrate the classrooms or lunch areas. However, in Magnet schools, which select students in a lottery basis in order to group students by interest or learning style, we actually shared classrooms, libraries, lunch pavilions and friends. It took away that awkwardnes and let us get to know eachother as people with similar interests-- which is how friendships more naturally form.
user avatar
David B. Cohen April 20, 2011 at 10:43 am
For a complete and convincing account of one school system's success in this area, I highly recommend "Detracking for Excellence and Equity" by Burris and Gerrity (2008).
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
design by SimpleSend, build by modern interface

Sharing is caring!

Password Reset

Change your mind? Sign In.

Search all lesson and blog content here.

Sign In

Not a member? Join now.

or via email

Share via Email

Join Ed100

Already Joined Ed100? Sign In.

or via email