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Opinion: ‘Superman’ sells Woodside–and tracking–short

[Written for San Jose Mercury News]

It’s easy to agree with Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman.” The film poses a powerful message: that our public schools are failing, and charter schools are the answer. However, I found many of Guggenheim’s criticisms to be exaggerated, his comparisons of different schools to be false, and some of his conclusions entirely unfounded.

Guggenheim chastises Woodside High School for its perpetuation of an allegedly antiquated tracking system, a practice that organizes students into different groups depending on their academic abilities. While those on the revered honors track go on to college, the lower track kids receive only neglect from the system — or so the movie says.

I believe this to be one of the most fundamental fallacies in Guggenheim’s criticism.

Woodside is a part of the Sequoia Union High School District — a district which also includes my high school, Menlo-Atherton (M-A).

Nonhonors classes at M-A are both instructive and appropriate. And, at Woodside as well as M-A, typically the lower level classes have significantly fewer students. Because support classes (also considered lower track) can be half the size of an honors class, the students who need help receive far more individual attention.

I’ll concede that many schools have flawed tracking systems, so Guggenheim’s disdain for them is not completely unfounded. Still, it is borderline absurd that he chose to exemplify a flawed tracking system with one of the few schools that actually does it right. Anyone affiliated with Woodside High School would agree that, had Guggenheim actually spent any time at Woodside, the school would not have been so falsely portrayed.

Contrary to Guggenheim’s depiction, tracking is hardly a rigid system. While there are those who firmly adhere to one track, most students at my school take a variety of classes within different tracks. If you have proved yourself able to keep up with the material, then you can change tracks with ease. According to Woodside’s head counselor, Francisco Negri, Woodside is no different.

“We call them tracks,” says Negri, “But that’s not necessarily correct because you can literally jump from one to the other in subject area per semester or per year.”

Woodside High School Principal David Reilly experienced the same frustration at the movie’s interpretation of tracking.

“They made it seem like kids come in, and we play the Supreme Being and designate their destinies,” he says.

Reilly states his case simply: “In order to meet the needs of all our students,” he says, “we have to diversify and track to some degree.”

“But,” he adds, “we are constantly combing our regular college prep classes for students to move to advanced tracks.”

Woodside has 25 middle schools feeding into it. With such a range of schools, it is a guarantee that each year Woodside will receive students on both ends of the spectrum in terms of academic ability. In many ways, it would be irresponsible to attempt to conform such a range of students to the same level classes.

However, “Superman” praises charter schools for just that — for requiring all students to take the same classes. A current M-A student, senior Michael Dickey, attended Summit Preparatory High School, a charter school, before transferring to M-A.

Dickey says, “The courses were slow in my opinion. Because they were working so hard to keep everyone at the same level, I felt like I was being dropped down a bit.”

To attend a charter school is to be on one all-encompassing track. And, unlike schools like Woodside and M-A, there are no other options if you find yourself unsuitable for a particular class.

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