Let's Stratify Students By Athletic Ability

We put students on "tracks" for math, science and English. Consider the benefits of doing the same for physical education.


(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High.)

One of the common practices of schools across the United States is grouping students by ability. In the educational parlance we call it tracking.

Depending upon how you count them, we have from two to six different tracks at our school.The two basic levels are honors (H) and college preparatory (CP). English students in ninth grade, for instance, would have either English 1H or English 1CP.

But there are other groupings that might fairly be called tracks.

Special Education classes are intended, as far as I understand it, for kids with learning disabilties of one sort or another.

We also have something called Companion English, which students take concurrently with English 1CP. It’s meant to help them improve their scores on the annual state testing.

Then we have something called Edge, where very low ability kids get two consecutive hours of English with the same teacher.

And, finally, there are the Advanced Placement classes, created by the people who write the SAT tests. These are the most difficult classes often with hours of homework. The lure is that, at the end of the class, they take a national test that can earn them college credit.

These tracks apply, to a lesser or greater extent, to classes in English, Math, Science, Social Science and Art.

But it seems to me that there is one area of curriculum where we don’t track and, I would argue, where we ought to begin doing so:  Physical Education.

We sort kids into ability groups so that slower kids don’t impede the learning of smarter students, and so the lower ability groups can benefit from techniques that might not work so well in honors or AP classes.

Yet when it comes to a child’s physical health we lump everyone together regardless of talent or interest level.

The physically fit youngster who plays basketball after school every day is forced to play games with couch potatoes. The bookish kid who doesn’t know a volleyball from a hockey puck is humiliated daily by trying to keep up with the girl who is headed for Sonoma State on a basketball scholarship.

There’s another facet of this that I think has potential benefits.

I have many students in my English class who are failing English, failing Math, failing Science. The one class where these students often excel is PE.

Imagine the boost of self-confidence that a young person might feel if she or he was enrolled in PE (H). Imagine the condescending looks these kids might have for the straight A Math student who is downgraded to college prep PE.

PE teachers could institute extra running in CP classes while honors classes played field hockey or softball. Eventually we could institute Edge PE classes where obese children could have two consecutive hours of calisthenics and running.

I have been told that there is strong community support in San Leandro for tracking.

If this is the case it seems inconsistent to deny the advantages of this kind of sorting to the very kids who are often relegated to lower tracks in academic subjects.

It’s time to bring these benefits to Physical Education.

(This column is written by San Leandro High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary. You can read more essays like this in the archives of Entirely Secondary.)

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David June 07, 2012 at 01:03 PM
We do track those kids. It's called athletics. You might have heard of "sports teams" and "varsity" and "junior varsity."
Tom Abate (Editor) June 07, 2012 at 04:36 PM
Oh, David, that is not the same. Have you heard of "extracurricular?" You might have heard of "school plays" and "yearbooks." Jerry is talking about moving the required PE courses away from one-size-fits-all exercise. Which you most certainly understood, the mystery to me being, why are you being such a nattering nabob of negativism?
David June 07, 2012 at 04:42 PM
A specious argument equating PE with English instruction deserves a specious response.
MarleenLee June 07, 2012 at 06:56 PM
It's hard to discern the argument this column is trying to make. Presumably, the point is tracking is bad in academic subjects, and would be bad in P.E. as well. If that is not the point, then the column is even more incoherent than I first thought. I went to a heavily tracked school and if I hadn't, I wouldn't have received the excellent education I did. I had no interest in being in the same room with a bunch of thugs and lazybones with no interest in learning. They would have only held me back. I wouldn't be opposed to tracking in P.E., but I agree that varsity and JV athletics is a way that high schools already do track these kids. The fact that it is not "for credit" is irrelevant, at least from the "self esteem" perspective. Also, the stereotype that those good at academics are not also good at sports is just naive and offensive.
Leah Hall June 07, 2012 at 07:18 PM
Ooh, ooh! I know this one, Tom! David pulls his English out of his butt, that's why he can still shop at Forever 21 for jeans. ;-)
Leah Hall June 07, 2012 at 07:33 PM
This might change your life - a song dedication out to all San Leandro Patch readers and our children. :) "Garden of Your Mind" - Fred Rogers remix http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OFzXaFbxDcM&feature=player_embedded#!
Leah Hall June 08, 2012 at 07:57 PM
This video went viral. It was at "700" views yesterday. Today it's at over 700,000 views. Mr. Rogers was soooo square but his message is timeless. Forgive him his canvas tennies, sweaters and longevity on TV. An icon with lasting vision.
Elisabeth Huffmaster June 19, 2012 at 07:00 AM
I love that remix. Watch this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXEuEUQIP3Q Fred Rogers in his straight-forward focus was the right man at the right time in his era. T.V. is a scary influence on our children. And watching two men (or women) working out their feelings of anger is far more dramatic than to watch them whale on each other or shoot each other. That idea was my favorite part of this segment, but perhaps that is a learned perspective. I hope to teach it to many.
Elisabeth Huffmaster June 19, 2012 at 08:36 AM
It is hard to discern the purpose of this article. I will take it literally. American schools have embraced voluntary athletics. School schedules are decided based on sporting events ending at a reasonable time (some varsity sports start as late as 8PM on school nights due to shared facilities) AND keeping students in class as much as possible. Communities abroad tend to keep their serious sports club-based or in magnet schools designed around sport. Most U.S. school systems do not take REQUIRED physical education seriously enough to track students in focused spatial and kinesthetic learning. There are the exceptions. Some schools have many levels of dance or martial arts or weight training; swimming is tracked at the few U.S. schools that provide this life-saving skill to the public; a number of high schools provide "athletic P.E." as an elective to those who officially compete in a school sport. I used athletic P.E. to train in the off-season and as study hall or nap-time. It was humane to allow high-achieving teens a long drive from home to sleep for an hour during the school day. Appreciation of movement and friendly competition are the main reasons some students stay in school. Without public programs, some children might not have the opportunity to vent the energy and physical intelligence that in another generation might have made them a warrior and in this generation might make them a physically fit American. We need more of those last I read.
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