Self Set-Up for Failure: The Truth About Self-Selection
and The Saga of Wolfgang
By Jane Weinkrantz
The thinking behind our high school self-selection policy which permits students to register for honors and advanced placement courses goes something like this: students, whose true potential, is somehow not recognized by their teachers may enroll in honors and college level courses and "stretch" themselves, thereby reaching their true potential and giftedness and, in a happy coincidence, improving the district’s statistics on the New York State school report card and the Newsweek school reports, (the latter only reporting how many kids sit for the A.P. test, not how many pass it.) Self-selection proponents also argue that by permitting self-selection, we avoid segregating our honors and A.P. courses by race, an argument that is pretty irrelevant in a district where nearly every face is white and where the non-white (read Asian) faces can be found at all ability levels.
Last year, I suggested to three of the students from my Regents level English class that they move up to A.P. That
was three out of a class of 26 or slightly more than 10%. Is it really likely that that class was teeming with other gifted
kids I was too dumb to recognize and who were therefore not given their fair shot at the pros? Somehow, I doubt it. I
didn’t recommend the others because they couldn’t have done the work. That does not mean they were bad,
unworthy people; it just means I had my doubts about their ability to read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
The way the self-selection policy is playing out has had little to do with unrealized potential and much more to do
with frustration, low self-esteem, larger class size and poor parent-teacher relations. It works something like this: Little
Wolfgang has an 80 average in English. However, administrators have told him and his mom that his chances of getting
into the college of his choice will be greatly reduced unless he enrolls in some A.P. courses. Furthermore, his A.P.
grade will be weighted as an added incentive. Wolfgang determines that he has always been good at English, (He
usually gets 100s on his vocabulary quizzes.), so he signs up for A.P. English. His guidance counselor realizes this is
more than a little ambitious, but she must adhere to the school’s policy of self-selection, so she places him in the
class. A lot of other parents and children have had the same idea so the class, which requires a lot of writing, has an
enrollment of 28 students, even though the A.P authorities in Princeton advise that maximum enrollment be much lower.
Now Wolfgang is in this big English class and he is finding the literature nearly incomprehensible, his fine vocabulary
aside. He and the other self-selectors ask questions in class and his teacher tries to answer them, but sometimes he
notices other, smarter kids rolling their eyes when he opens his mouth. Perhaps a couple of them even approach the
teacher because of Wolfgang and his ilk and say, "I thought we would have wonderful conversations in this class, but it
seems like you’re just going over the plot." His teacher feels as though she is failing both Wolfgang and his more gifted
peers. She assigns an essay which Wolfgang does his best on, but he receives a C-. His teacher says his writing is all
plot summary, it is not nearly analytical enough and he still succumbs to the occasional run-on. Wolfgang asks his
teacher for help, and she tries to help him, but with 28 kids in a class, she really can’t offer the extensive skills
reinforcement Wolfie requires, and, anyway, he’s supposed to be an A.P. student. Perhaps Wolfgang even stays for
remedial a couple of times. But he realizes remedial will have to become a lifestyle if he is to get anywhere in this class
and he is not ready for that kind of commitment.
Wolfgang comes home with his C- English essay and his mom asks what’s wrong. He explains that he is trying as
hard as he can and he is still getting crummy grades. This A.P. class will ruin his average, he fears, and this teacher, she
is very tough. He shows his mom his essay, his reading assignments, and his lengthy homework assignments and asks,
"What can she possibly expect?"
Of course what his teacher is supposed to expect is college-level work for which college credit will ultimately be
awarded. But Wolfgang’s mother, like most mothers, doesn’t see that. She sees her son feeling frustrated and bad
about himself and she wants that to stop.
Wolfgang’s mother swings into action. A victim of the A.P. "halo effect," she believes Wolfgang can do this work.
After all, would the school have placed him in an A.P. class if he didn’t belong there? She will need to address the
cause of his distress. So she calls the teacher. The teacher is not surprised by her call; in fact, since self-selection was
instituted she has been fielding several phone calls like this per week. Wolfgang’s mother questions the curriculum,
asks the teacher to defend her standards, demands that Wolfgang be permitted to re-write his essay. The teacher says
the curriculum is typical for the course, her expectations are not unreasonable, and that Wolfgang may not re-write his
paper. An angry confrontation follows.
Possibly the discussion escalates. Wolfgang’s mother goes to the chairperson or the building principal. Either
choice would require the teacher to explain and defend her assignments and policies once again. Meanwhile, Wolfgang
remains in the class where he has not developed any more talent for English than he had to begin with. His teacher
treats him fairly, but he still doesn’t understand the work and the marking period’s end is drawing closer. Wolfgang
makes the decision to downtrack out of A.P. This way, his average will not be ruined because his A.P. grade won’t
count if he drops to a lower level course.
Which he does---except that now his guidance counselor must re-configure his entire schedule. His Italian class must
be moved as well as his art class and the English class he is placed in is in the middle of a book he will have to catch
up on. Wolfgang must get used to a new schedule, new teachers and do double the reading to be placed in the class
he should have been in in the first place.
What has Wolfgang learned from this experience? That he is not as smart as he thought, that he has disappointed his
mother as well as the administrators of his school and that he probably will not get into the college of his choice. None
of this was good for self-esteem or for his academic accomplishments. Instead of stretching Wolfgang, self-selection
broke him. It is a policy that will continue to damage children, put teachers on the defensive and wreak havoc with
scheduling unless it is stopped. There are plenty of Wolfgangs out there. Are the Newsweek statistics worth it?
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