what’s in a name? – labels and tracking

Yesterday, I discussed the issue of whether work-related language is appropriate for describing learning. Here’s another language in education controversy that has made it into the news lately:

‘At hope’ kids better than ‘at risk’?: Washington state lawmaker wants to banish negative labels

The bill is motivated by the good-hearted desire for disadvantaged children to see themselves more positively, and for their teachers and others to focus on the children’s potential instead of on their deficits. This change would probably have not merely symbolic importance: psychological experiments provide some reason to believe that the labels we use to describe people actually have effects on their behavior. From a recent Psychology Today blog post:

The long-term consequences of labeling a child like Hannah “smart” or “slow” are profound. In another classic study, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson told teachers at an elementary school that some of their students had scored in the top 20% of a test designed to identify “academic bloomers”–students who were expected to enter a period of intense intellectual development over the following year. In fact, the students were selected randomly, and they performed no differently from their unselected peers on a genuine academic test. A year after convincing the teachers that some of their students were due to bloom, Rosenthal and Jacobson returned to the school and administered the same test. The results were astonishing among the younger children: the “bloomers,” who were no different from their peers a year ago, now outperformed their unselected peers by 10-15 IQ points. The teachers fostered the intellectual development of the “bloomers,” producing a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the students who were baselessly expected to bloom actually outperformed their peers.

Opponents to the bill object to spending money and time changing just the language of education policy. Rather, they stress the importance of actual reforms, expenditures, programs, etc. for the benefit of these children, whatever we call them. There is also the predictable charge of this being a manifestation of excessive “political correctness.”

I think that everyone’s sort of correct. The “at hope” language could really prevent children from thinking as badly of themselves as the  “at risk” label might. However, it would almost certainly fail to bring about the “paradigm shift” in education that its proposer has in mind. So the bill’s opponents are right that the label change in itself won’t revolutionize the treatment of the children, and they’re also right that there might be more important places to spend money than on passing the bill and changing the label. But, at the same time, it would cost relatively so little to make the change that it may well be worth it – such a small amount of money would be unlikely to do as much good elsewhere in the education budget.

At the end of the day, though, this raises what is essentially a question about the “tracking” of students, which is just what it sounds like – placing them on different academic paths based on their abilities or apparent potential. There are plenty of problems with tracking, and this case gets at an important one: even when implemented with the best of intentions, dividing up student in this way may have negative social and academic consequences, possibly even to the point of outweighing the advantages. Part of the negative social and academic consequences could arise on account of the particular label used, such as “at risk.” But it seems to me that many of the negative consequences are inherent to the practice of tracking, and cannot be eradicated by renaming the groups. Kids aren’t stupid – they will very quickly figure out who are the smart or privileged ones among them, and begin behaving accordingly. And teachers will, of course, still know who the smart and/or privileged kids are. This will tend to affect their behavior towards the groups students (if subconsciously), which can very easily lead to self-fulfilling prophecies about the “at risk” or “at hope” children doing poorly.

Therefore, the apparently benevolent legislators behind programs for “at risk” or “at hope” children are fighting against powerful human psychological tendencies. They need for children to be separated into groups so that some of them can be given special attention, instruction and resources. Maybe that is theoretically just and good. But, in forming the requisite groups, one also nearly unavoidably forms a hierarchy and opens the door for the marginalization of groups with low status.  It will be difficult to decide in advance whether any particular educational enrichment program’s actual effects will further the goals that its crafters had in mind.


  • Here’s why I think this would be pointless: words are just words. If everyone knows what they really mean, it doesn’t matter how much nicer they sounded to begin with.

    Example: what do you think of when I say someone is “special”? Kids know that “special” means slow now, just like they would know that “at hope” means slow. “At hope” would become as much a joke, and an insult, as “special”.

  • But I would say that literally “pointless” is too strong in any case, bc of the psych evidence regarding labels.

  • As you say, though, the key factor isn’t the language but the differentiation.

  • That’s probably true to some extent. Apparently they are using the “at hope” in another organization, and it’s working in some way. But my guess is that it only works when there’s no differentiation. If all kids are “at hope,” then maybe the label’s inspiring or at least benign. But the tracking seems always to create a hierarchy, as long as only *some* kids are “at hope.”

    But there’s some reason to change the label just out of respect, even if it doesn’t really change anything. But not an extremely strong reason. However, like I said, if it only costs peanuts in the scheme of things and it’s nicer, maybe worth it?

  • And I think I posted this in the wrong place. I always mess up “reply”ing to comments. I’ll learn someday.

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