Specializing Schools Are More Harm Than Good

There is little to no support for the claim that specializing schools will improve education. Andrew Hanson, a fellow Teach For America Corps Member, asserted earlier this week in an article, that specializing schools will “kill two birds with one stone: teachers won’t have to work as hard and students’ achievement will skyrocket.” However, there is little evidence to suggest that either of these will be the result of such specialization. As a fellow TFA Corps Members, I assume Mr. Hanson shares my passion for closing the achievement gap and continually racks his brain, as do I, about how to meet that end. However, there are several issues with the premise of his claims, and the negative implications of specializing schools may outweigh any potential good.

There are three assumptions made in the article which are particularly troubling. First, the idea of students as widgets and schools as factories is exactly the kind of thinking that has given us standardized testing, the devaluing of creativity in schools, and student tracking, an issue I will explain and deal with later in this article. When we consider students as widgets, and we do what Mr. Hanson has suggested, group them according to interests, learning styles, etc., we ignore the reality that every single child is different, unique, and complex.

Secondly, while students may have different “intellectual capacities” as Mr. Hanson offers, we rarely determine the true intellectual capacity of our most marginalized students, i.e. minority students in poverty, because their socio-economic realities, coupled with the poor education most of them receive, never allows them to realize their full intellectual capacity. How well could you focus in school if your house was raided last night by a police squadron, or you lived in a homeless shelter, or you had no adult supervision outside of school (all three of these are true of students in my class this year)?

Finally, there is simply no evidence that specializing schools in the way that Mr. Hanson suggests will improve education. The only schools that we have as examples of specialized schools are considered magnet schools, where students must either apply, audition, or meet a certain GPA to be admitted. Therefore these schools are self-selective and would naturally have higher academic performance.

Beyond the issues with several claims made in the article, there is another potential negative to specializing schools, more student tracking. Tracking is the process by which students are funneled into remedial programs, lower leveled diploma programs, or less rigorous coursework, supposedly based on their “intellectual capacity,” but primarily based on nothing more than test scores. Student tracking takes students down a road of lower expectations, inequitable education, and less successful life outcomes. The main issues with tracking are who gets to decide what tracks kids are put on, how early their life trajectory is decided, and how fair this process is to already marginalized groups?

Ultimately, I agree with Mr. Hanson that “this system (our educational system) has many problems,” but I believe that the assumptions that one has to agree to in order to support more specialized schools and the potential negative of student tracking makes specializing schools more dangerous than good.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Edward Williams

Edward Williams is currently a 3L at the Georgetown University Law Center. He is a 2009 Teach For America Atlanta Corps Member. He graduated from Howard University in 2009 with a BBA in International Business and Finance with honors. He has interned at JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch in their investment banking/sales and trading divisions, and was a 2010 Teach For America Policy and Advocacy Leadership (PALI) Fellow at the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington, DC. Edward is originally from Savannah, GA.

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