Tracks Versus Levels - The Difference is Critical

The concept of setting tracks for students has been deeply embedded in the public school system for decades and, while the concept of levels may sound similar to tracks, the two ideas are critically different. At West Virginia Academy, our position is that all students, whether college bound or not, will need a similar skill set in order to be successful in an increasingly global and technology-driven economy, particularly in the core topics of math, reading, and writing. Our approach is to place students at their level to enhance their educational experience, but to not segregate students into altogether different tracks.

The Track System

Public schools have had college-prep tracks and rudimentary tracks for many years. As early as elementary school students are funneled into talented and gifted (TAG) programs. By middle school students are divided into different levels of math that follow entirely different paths in later years and offer honors and non-honors classes in some topics. By high school, students can have entirely different educational experiences within the walls of the same public school and the differences are largely based on the track they are on. In some instances students choose these tracks, while in others these decisions are made by school administrators or by using rubrics based on student performance in prior years.

The difference in the track experience is not just limited to curriculum design and topic. The quality of the instructors is often vastly inferior in the non-college tracks. School administrators function in an environment where they must manage teachers, but there is a severely diminished incentive structure built into public school teacher contracts and the law for teacher salaries. Left with few incentives to reward high performing teachers or correct teachers who are under-performing, the track system is commonly used as a carrot and a stick for public teachers. High performing teachers are typically assigned to the "college-readiness" track students and will often teach the honors and AP classes while the low performing teachers are relegated to the rudimentary tracks. School administrators apply this method to place the best teachers with the "best" students. So the discrepancy in the educational experience between the two tracks often runs deeper than just the curriculum being taught.

The Level System

All students are unique individuals who learn and retain information at different rates and this variance applies to different topics and even individual concepts within a topic. We believe the traditional track system is harmful to students in public schools based on current and anticipated future market conditions. This harm is particularly pronounced with students who are "late bloomers" in their educational development or students who have a period of struggle due to factors outside the classroom, which are often beyond their control. Our plan is to implement a robust leveling system beginning at about the fourth grade to ensure that students are being taught on their level, but not on a different track that segregates them into the "haves and have-nots."

This approach is optimal both for gifted students as well as students who struggle with a particular topic. We will use a modified term schedule with two week breaks every nine weeks so that students who learn at slower rates in a given topic, or even just at a particular time, can be given the additional support they need to meet standards of excellence within their level throughout the year. This approach is vastly superior to a system that allows students to get further and further behind throughout the year and then attempts to compensate with summer courses for students after they have already failed a topic. Additionally, because charter schools are not impeded by the archaic incentive structures and low pay that hinder public schools, students at all levels should be taught by motivated and high quality teachers. Students who are high-achievers in a particular topic will be given the flexibility to progress more quickly by enrolling in accelerated courses. However, the topics will remain constant between accelerated and standard courses as all courses are designed so that each student arrives at the level of college readiness in core topics prior to graduation culminating in a capstone AP course. A student that is learning at a faster pace will be able to complete these requirements sooner and then can continue their education with concurrent enrollment college courses or branch out into related AP courses. This approach matches the educational experience to the individual learner rather than the other way around.

At West Virginia Academy, our goal will be for every student to be college-ready prior to graduation with competence in the same core topics so that all students have the freedom to choose their own path forward post graduation. We believe these choices belong to students and their families rather than school administrators and that our role as educators is primarily to support students to attain knowledge that will enable them to succeed in an increasingly global economy.

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