Twenty-six of our strongest sophomores from last year have been given to me as juniors, to take algebra 2 and pre-calculus in one year. About twenty are serious and ready to work. About six are boisterous and unable to hold their attention on listening to one person for more than about 90 seconds—but they do quality work when they work. All twenty-six would clearly (to me) be bored in our regular algebra 2 class. The knee-jerk reaction: the ones who know how to stay focused can stay, the other six have to go. But that’s the reaction that has put thousands of students, primarily low-income students of color, in courses below their ability level for decades. So the right thing to do is keep them all, and work explicitly on classroom behavior skills. And the only time that doesn’t feel good is when the first twenty students keep telling me they can’t concentrate, that the six don’t belong there, that I should get rid of them.

And there you have it: the single most influential tension in the US education system. It’s why we have private schools and charter schools and parochial schools and good schools and bad schools.

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