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The Two-Tiered Education System

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The education system in the US is broken. The need for accountability – which seems to be a politically correct term for ‘blame’ – has pushed us into the open arms of high-stakes testing, teacher evaluations, and school grades.

Recently, I talked with a second grader who changed schools this year. He talked about how much he likes his new school, but then said that he wanted to go back to his old school (which he hated), because his new school is an ‘F school’. Although this little guy loves his school and has absolutely no idea what it meant for a school to have an ‘F’ grade, he knew that he should not be there.

Bureaucratic decisions over the last decade or so have resulted in several unintended consequences, the main one being the creation of a two-tiered education system.

Tier One is comprised of charter, magnet, choice, and private schools. Generally, these schools are recognised as doing a great job of educating their students. They tend to have plenty of resources and consistently earn high ‘grades’.

In contrast, Tier Two is comprised of ‘regular’ public schools who struggle to ‘make the grade’ and are often seen as falling short of expectations. Their students do not perform as well on high stakes testing and present with challenging behavioural issues (as seen by a higher rate of referrals and suspensions).

Simply put, students in the Tier One schools tend to receive a better education.

The differences between the two tiers should not be a surprise. Tier One schools are able to choose their students. Though any student is welcome to apply for enrolment, as soon as that student falls short of the school’s academically or behavioural expectations, he is sent back to his home school. In so doing, Tier One schools are able to retain only those students who meet the school’s academic and behavioural standards, thereby ensuring that their student body is made up of students who will perform well on assessment measures.

Alternatively, Tier Two schools have a zero per cent rejection rate. They must educate all children, regardless of disability, motivation, parent involvement, or spoken language. For comparison’s sake, I recently pulled numbers from the 2015/2016 school year for two schools; one school from Tier One and another from Tier Two.

The Tier One school had 588 students, of which 53.1% were ‘white’; 2.4% were ‘disabled’; and 26.7% were ‘economically disadvantaged’. This school reportedly has a total of 453 computers and received an ‘A’ grade for the 15/16 academic year.

Why can’t all schools be ‘high achieving’ schools?

The Tier Two school, which happens to be an eight-minute drive from the Tier One school, had 621 students, of which 24% were ‘white’; 12.4% were ‘disabled’; and 84.7% were ‘economically disadvantaged’. This school has a total of 327 computers and received a ‘C’ grade for that year.

Regardless of the demographic examined, there is nothing remotely similar between these two schools, despite their close proximity. So, what does this mean for the education of these students?

Simply put, students in the Tier One schools tend to receive a better education. Tier One schools – through various incentive programmes – receive more funds and have more resources than those in Tier Two. Students in Tier One schools tend to come from more affluent and advantaged homes, while those in Tier Two schools tend to come from homes with financial struggles and fewer resources. And sadly, this two-tiered system all but guarantees that this division of knowledge and power will persist. Those with the resources will continue to advance, while those without will struggle. To put it simply, the students in Tier Two schools have a steeper hill to climb, and they do so with less support.

The only way to stop this is for there to be major changes to policy. Why can’t all schools be ‘high achieving’ schools? Why can’t resources be spread such that all schools have access to necessary technology and information?

We are witnessing a 21st-century version of segregation. And much like the changes brought forth from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the system must be shaken at its roots if we have any hope of improving the lives of our children.

Berney Wilkinson earned his PhD in school psychology from the University of South Florida in 2005, specialising in paediatric psychology. He went on to complete a postgraduate programme and is a Diplomate with the American Board of School Neuropsychology. He is a licensed psychologist in the state of Florida and owns a private practice that includes other psychologists and counsellors. He authors a weekly column in his local newspaper, maintains a blog, and co-hosts the Psychreg Podcast. You can follow him on twitter at @drberney.


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