Hi Rabbi Ross. My wife and I are a bit confused because our son is being tracked in middle school. The Yeshiva puts boys in 6th grade into one of two classes, one of them stronger and one of them weaker. Until 6th grade, the classes are pretty much even. Our son was put in the weaker class even though we think he’s a strong learner, and the Yeshiva said there were specific reasons. We’re monitoring this situation, and it seems that they’re not learning as much and rather spend more time doing Chesed and other Mitzvos. Are we right for being aggravated? Do you have any advice? M.G. Brooklyn
Tracking children is a huge discussion, and it’s not only limited to Jewish children. Should stronger children be pushed harder? There are so many variables that it’s difficult to answer a question like this. Nevertheless, you asked for my opinion, so I’ll share it with you. Please keep in mind that there are MANY Yeshivos and Mechanchim that strongly disagree with me.
Before sharing my thoughts, I want to clarify one important point. This response will tackle the issue of tracking students based on their learning. I’m not discussing behavioral concerns in this article. Although the behavior of a student is typically factored into tracking decision, nevertheless we’re going to focus strictly on the level of learning.
For arguments sake, let’s pretend that there is a Yeshiva where the students are being tracked after 5th grade, and there are 3 classes per grade. Assuming each class has 24 students, you’ll have 3 types of children. There will be children at the top, children in the middle and children that aren’t as strong in learning. Let’s see how each group is functioning in 5th grade before they’re tracked.
The strongest students might be a bit bored. They know the learning very well and understand it after hearing it one time. Many Rebbeim and teachers are on top of this and give these kids advanced extra credit to keep them occupied. The middle children are working hard and accomplishing. They look up to the top kids, and really push themselves to succeed. Even the kids that can’t keep up with the class gain in many ways. They’re surrounded by well-behaved and mature kids in a structured environment.
Here’s a case in point. A few years ago, one of the weakest students I’ve ever taught was on cloud nine during our Siyum on Mishnayos Brachos. “We finished it!” he was telling everyone. Did he understand the learning? Probably not. But he was a part of something amazing. All the students in the class are supposed to be involved at some level. Maybe they aren’t learning as much since it’s geared towards a stronger student, but, at least they’re in a mainstream class. The boys are cohesive and work together. They might not be gaining skills, but they feel like a part of something special.
Now, that last sentence was scary. How is it ok if they’re not gaining skills? In order to answer that, we need to try and understand the goal of Yeshiva. It seems to me that there are three primary goals. I am not listing them in any particular order.
It’s a difficult question to answer. The reason we send our kids to a Yeshiva, is to learn Torah. Even if the kids are not gaining skills, there’s a Mitzvah to learn Torah. I personally believe that even if the child doesn’t look like he’s gaining when learning Torah, it’s seeping in. Now, if the student in question is so weak that he’s not learning anything, obviously he either needs to be pulled out for one on one, or possibly switch to a Yeshiva more geared to his level.
Gaining skills? That’s so important. Without skills, it’s so difficult for kids to grow. The famous line is “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” If we give our precious children skills, they will have the ability to learn on their own as they grow older. There’s no denying skills are crucial. The question that needs answering is, if a student isn’t gaining skills, should he be removed from the class? If he’s just sitting and listening, and not getting great grades, is that enough? Are we helping or hurting a child like this?
That brings us to the last goal, which is helping kids develop confidence and feel accomplished. Personally, I think this is the most important of the three. I have seen the excitement with kids that aren’t amongst the stronger ones. I have watched them learn things that I never thought they would. Most importantly, I have observed these “weaker” students look up to, and yes, even respect the stronger students. They become their role models.
Then they get tracked. Now, this happens in many Yeshivos. There is a top class, and a medium class, and a weaker class. The smarter Yeshivos have an advanced class, and the other classes are equal, which ensures that there are no “weak” classes. Here’s where the problems begin in my opinion.
I’ve always felt that every class has similar personalities. There are the top students that strive to succeed. There are the super sensitive ones, the immature ones, and the weak ones and a few others. Sometimes you’ll have a fun mix of a strong and sensitive student, and other times you’ll have a weak and immature student. In the past 23 years, I’ve always had a random mixture. Some classes are stronger, and some are more mature. No matter what, each class in unique and diverse, yet somewhat predictable.
Once these students are tracked, you have a strong class with 24 “Top” kids. I don’t think this works. Indubitably, some of them are going to sink. These students that are sinking would’ve been top kids in a typical class, but when they’re surrounded with other top students, they begin to sink. To be fair, I haven’t done any official studies on this, but I have met with many students that were put in this situation from many different schools. Their parents always bring them to me and say “I don’t know why he’s having issues! He’s always been a top kid!”
The lower tracks have more serious problems. Even if they have a dynamite Rebbe or teacher, it’s very hard to convince a class that they’re a wonderful group, when they’re already, at the very least, in second place. Now, the Rebbe has a class of kids that aren’t as strong in learning. What’s the easy solution? Make the year fun!
*Warning* I’m generalizing.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The Rebbe, (who’s an amazing Rebbe), has to convince these kids that they’re awesome. The funny thing is, they ARE awesome. The issue is, in order to make the kids happier, they spend time in class doing exciting things. Playing games. Watching Jewish videos. Hearing stories. How much time is spent learning? Wasn’t the reason we tracked them so that the weaker students have a chance to shine? If the point is to give them a stronger foundation, we might be failing miserably.
Therefore, if some of the advanced kids aren’t doing as well as they should, and the medium and weaker students aren’t gaining skills, why are we doing this?
Here are a few thoughts.
A) Many people would respond that the strong students should learn on a higher level. That’s true. However, there’s no reason that they can’t have an accelerated session once a day. It doesn’t have to be a class. Any boys that have for example an average higher than 95%, can join.
B) To those that think that I’m generalizing, well I am. However, I speak to many children and parents, and I think I’ve encapsulated what they tell me. Are there exceptions? I’m sure there are. I still think it’s not worth it.
C) Yes, your son is in a lower track and his Rebbe is amazing. I’m not Chas V’Shalom insulting any Rebbeim. It’s the opposite. I think this Rebbe will do accomplish more with a diverse class. Let all the kids feel like they are the best. I used to teach a 7th grade lower track for many years. Rabbi Herzberg zt’l told me on day one, “If you learn with them, they will respond”. I learned and they responded.
D) One last thought. I understand that this isn’t a topic that can be debated on an online blog (or in a newspaper for that matter). It’s been discussed by many people, and I’m sure that it will be debated for many more years.
To answer your original question, yes, you should be aggravated. I agree that you’re sending him to succeed in his learning. You should insist that your son be put in the advanced Shiur and arrange for someone to help him catch up to the class.
Have a good Shabbos,
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.