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by Carol Corbett Burris and Delia T. Garrity
Table of Contents
By the time the Rockville Centre School District began to examine its levels of courses, rigid educational systems—ones that formally assigned students to college prep, general, or vocational curricular paths or schools—had been largely dismantled in the United States and replaced with somewhat less rigid tracking systems characterized by curriculum differentiation. In modern tracking systems, students are assigned to different levels of the same course, or to a course with a different curriculum that is either more or less rigorous (Lucas, 1999; Oakes, 2005).
In some schools, tracking begins with kindergarten screening. IQ and early achievement tests designed to measure so-called "ability" determine track placement in the elementary years, thus setting in place an educational trajectory for 12 years of schooling. In other schools, tracking is a meritocracy that relies on teacher recommendations, grades, and student motivation to determine placement. In still others, students and their parents are allowed to choose a track, with certain conditions attached to the placement. A common example is allowing students to take an honors class provided that they maintain an average of 90 or above. Standards for track placement are uniform in some schools; in others, each department determines the number of tracks and track placement. For example, in the high school where one of the coauthors taught prior to coming to Rockville Centre, any student was allowed to take AP English, but entrance to AP courses in foreign languages was determined by previous enrollment in the honors track and final averages in prior language courses.
Some tracking systems, referred to as ability-grouping systems, assign students to different classes based on their perceived ability in that subject. Still other tracking systems are called leveling systems—students, at least ostensibly, study the same curriculum, but they may need to first pass prerequisite courses (e.g., pre-algebra, pre-biology) or take the same course for a longer period. In a leveling system, a course might be taught to both high-achieving 8th graders and lower-achieving 10th graders. Or a course offered to most students in one period per day might be offered to students deemed "lower achievers" for two periods a day. Whatever the course's title or structure, grouping some students together and requiring them to take that course apart from other students is a form of tracking (Oakes, 2005).
Schools that want to dismantle their tracking system should begin by analyzing grouping practices in their school and district, regardless of the label used by the district. This analysis should focus on the long-term effects of the school's grouping practices. When South Side Middle School began the process of dismantling tracking in mathematics, it was because the school leaders recognized the deleterious effect that tracking in mathematics had on a student's ability to earn a Regents or International Baccalaureate diploma. It became apparent that the effects of tracking in the middle school extended far beyond 8th grade.
An examination of the present system in a school or district begins with asking and answering these questions:
The conversations spawned by these questions will help colleagues reflect on and communicate their beliefs about intelligence and the purpose of schooling. Some faculty members will question whether tracking allows all students an equal opportunity to take the school's best courses; others will believe that placing students in courses matched to their ability is an important obligation of schooling. Some teachers will believe that their instructional skills and manner of delivery play an important role in student achievement; others will see instructional issues as tangential and secondary to innate ability or student motivation.
During the detracking process in our school district, we listened carefully to the language that teachers used in those conversations to learn which of our colleagues would be on board and which would be resistant. Helping teachers (and parents) explore their beliefs is an ongoing and important process. Often we discover that our assumptions may not be supported by data, or that there are long-term ramifications to tracking that we had not previously understood. There is an additional benefit to these conversations. As with any other school reform, a detracking initiative can't be put on hold until everyone believes in it. There will always be some who will object to a new way of doing things. Early conversations can identify a cadre of teachers who are open to the idea of teaching heterogeneous classes. In addition, such conversations can help a faculty understand the belief systems that influence teachers' day-to-day interactions with students.
Language can be very revealing. Teachers talk about their "low" kids, their "advanced" kids, their "regular" kids, and their "overachievers." On an online message board for New York State chemistry teachers, one member had this to say:
The Regents kids of today are just a touch above our general level kids of a decade ago. Then I have the other kids who are nice kids and get decent grades, but are WAY behind the top kids. Gads, I love my period 1 and 4 honors chem classes!!!! They are some of the best kids I have ever had the honor of teaching. (ChemBond Listserv, April 2006)
Notice all the labels this teacher assigns to students: Regents kids, general kids, top kids, honors kids, best kids. If your child attended this teacher's school, which designation would you want him or her to receive? How might the teacher's labeling constructs affect day-to-day interactions with students? For which class is this teacher probably putting forth the greatest teaching effort?
As our school district began its detracking reform, we began to pay attention to our language. Language shapes our thinking and our beliefs. We began with the word "ability" and made a conscious effort to replace it with "achievement." Thus, we write about, study, and talk about students who are lower achievers or higher achievers. Achievement is a measurable construct that describes what a student knows at a given point in time; ability implies an innate quality that cannot change and that limits success. As we made this commitment personally, we shared it with our faculty. Our language began to change, and so did the way we viewed students. Discussions about the labels placed on students and the beliefs they represent can help a faculty that is embarking on a detracking reform question constructs and practices that they have taken for granted. Being conscious of our own language can help us understand how deeply ingrained the culture of student sorting is. Language awareness is also likely to help uncover other justifications for tracking.
Perhaps the most accurate description of the belief systems that sustain tracking comes from Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton. In their 1999 essay "Access to Knowledge: Challenging the Techniques, Norms, and Politics of Schooling," Oakes and Lipton discuss how the categories that human beings create to explain differences in children change from school-created labels of differences to reified "realities" that limit opportunities for learning:
Those who promote ability grouping, special education, gifted programs, and the myriad other homogeneous instructional groups in schools claim that these classifications are objective and color blind, rather than, as Goodlad suggests, reflecting myths and prejudices. Advocates of grouping explain the disproportionate classification of white students as gifted or advanced and of students of color as slow or basic as the unfortunate consequence of different backgrounds and abilities. They base their claims of objectivity on century-old (and older) explanations of differences that are neither scientific nor bias-free.
Both students and adults mistake labels such as "gifted," "honors student," "average," "remedial," "LD" and "MMR" for certification of overall ability or worth. These labels teach students that if the school does not identify them as capable in earlier grades, they should not expect to do well later. Everyone without the "gifted" label has the de facto label of "not gifted." The resource classroom is a low status place and students who go there are low status students. The result of all this is that most students have needlessly low self-concepts and schools have low expectations. Few students or teachers can defy those identities and expectations. These labeling effects permeate the entire school and social culture. (p. 171)
Do students differ in talents and achievement? They do. But when those observed differences are reinforced by track placement and grouping practices, and children then internalize those differences, learning opportunities become limited for all but the elite student. The talents of late bloomers go undiscovered, and the rewards of hard work and diligent study are never realized.
Here are some key questions about belief systems to discuss with colleagues:
The process of reassessing one's beliefs is a difficult one. It's even more difficult to persuade others to reassess their beliefs and, together, come to consensus on a new course of action. Too often educators find themselves stuck in intractable positions, unable to make progress on important issues due to disagreements.
Using data as a focal point for pedagogical discussion is a powerful way to help a school faculty and community begin to understand the deleterious effects of tracking. Focusing on data may result in the cognitive dissonance that will set doubters on the path to changing their beliefs. It also grounds early conversations in fact rather than opinion. Everyone has an opinion about tracking based on personal beliefs about human learning capacity and intelligence. These beliefs are often peppered by one's own experiences, vested interests, and at times, prejudices. In our district, whenever we focused discussions on data, participants began to be able to look at tracking in a more objective manner. Although a focus on data will not inoculate against controversy, it can help open discussions and minds.
One way to begin to assess the effects of tracking is to examine student transcripts. After carefully blocking any identifiable student information, such as names and addresses, transcripts can be used to compare the grades, standardized test scores, and course-taking patterns of students in high-track and low-track classes. When we examined transcripts from our schools, we noticed patterns that told us a lot about the trajectories that students were placed on by tracking; for instance, we learned about Ronnie and Peter, whom you met in the Introduction. Although we had been telling parents and students that it was possible for students to move to higher track classes after beginning in the lower tracks, we found no evidence that this upward movement was in fact taking place. Instead, the opposite was happening—it was not uncommon for students to move from the middle track to the lowest track.
The propensity for middle-track students to move to lower tracks rather than higher tracks during their high school years is not unique to our district. In his book Tracking Inequality, Samuel Lucas (1999) uses national test data to demonstrate that track movement occurs in a downward direction far more frequently than it does in an upward direction. Often, when faculty and parents see how dramatically different educational experiences can be from the high track to the low track, a healthy sense of social justice enters the conversation. In addition, it is always interesting to look at grades after the downward movement has occurred. Grades often fail to improve, even though the curriculum is easier.
Proponents of tracking assume that tracking is fair. They believe that when school personnel decide to place students in different classes, there is wisdom, based on objective data, supporting these decisions. This is a very important assumption to verify, because the decision to deny students access to high-track courses, such as AP or IB courses, will affect their candidacy to competitive colleges.
When coauthor Carol Corbett Burris (2003) studied the effects of detracking mathematics in the middle school as the focus of her doctoral dissertation, she was shocked to discover how many high-achieving minority students did not study accelerated math prior to detracking, and how many majority students with far lower achievement test scores did so successfully. Again, these findings are not unique. The inequity and inefficiency associated with track placement are well documented in both national and international studies.
The Second International Mathematics Study (SIMS) was a comprehensive survey of mathematics taught and learned around the world. Twenty-two nations participated in this broad and longitudinal study that took place from 1976 to 1989. SIMS researchers Kifer, Wolfe, and Schmidt (1993) identified four levels of 8th grade math study typically found in most American middle or junior high schools, which they termed remedial, regular, enriched, and algebra.*
For the SIMS study, 8th graders in all four tracks completed a pretest of pre-algebra arithmetic skills at the beginning of the year. Researchers examined the distribution of scores on the test by student and by math track. Although it was expected that class-type performance would be different, Kifer and colleagues' (1993) analysis of student and classroom performance found considerable score overlap among tracks.
Only half of the students who achieved the top 10 scores on the pretest and one-third of the students in the top 25 had actually been placed in the algebra-level classes. Inequities existed on the other end of the proficiency spectrum as well: Nearly 50 percent of the students assigned to remedial classes had scores that were better than 25 percent of the students in general math. In addition, Kifer and colleagues found that 5 of the 23 remedial classes had higher mean scores than 75 percent of the students in general math, 50 percent of the students in pre-algebra, and 25 percent of the students in algebra.
Welner (2001) found a similar pattern in his extensive study of San Jose, California, schools in the process of detracking: There was a vast overlap in prior achievement across all tracks in all of the schools studied. During Welner's study, he discovered that tracked classes were far from homogeneous in either ability or skill. Although mean scores were different, the overlap in the range of scores was remarkable.
These examples illustrate that the basic objective of tracking—the formation of homogenous classes with relation to skill and prior achievement—is rarely realized. Tracking does not create classes in which students are alike. The studies also illustrate that students of lower achievement are often placed in high-track classes, either accidentally or by design. What is of greatest interest is that when this happens, the formerly lower-achieving students are often more successful. For example, one study of the effects of tracking in mathematics found that if lower-achieving students were mistakenly placed in the high-track mathematics class, their chances of successfully completing a college prep course of math study dramatically increased (White, Gamoran, Porter, & Smithson, 1996). This phenomenon has certainly been borne out in our own experience with accelerating all students (Burris et al., 2006).
Once you've made the decision to begin the detracking process in your school or district, you'll need to make a plan. The strategies that follow will assist in creating a blueprint for successful curriculum integration for all students.
Detracking needs to begin with a conversation that questions the status quo. Sometimes this conversation takes place among school leaders; at other times it is a conversation among teachers or other stakeholders. We once gave information and guidance to a group of parents in Montgomery County, Maryland, who were anxious to begin a detracking reform. Although the educational roles of those who challenge tracking may differ from school to school, advocates of detracking share a common belief that the status quo is not serving the needs of all students, and thus they are anxious to advocate for change. Once the conversation begins, however, supporters of tracking are highly likely to become defensive. We recommend that those who want to create more equitable schools become familiar with facts that will help them focus emotionally charged conversations on data rather than opinion.
A good place to start is with studies such as those discussed in the previous section, along with others that identify the factors that influence track placement, from class size to parent pressure (see Hallinan, 1992; Useem, 1992a, 1992b). Summarize and discuss these studies and their implications with your colleagues. When Delia Garrity began talking about detracking middle-school mathematics, she grounded her statements in the results of the TIMSS study, which showed that 8th graders around the globe were successfully taking algebra. Next, take a look at your school data. We suggest that you analyze data in a manner similar to the studies described above. Use objective data from a standardized test as your measure of prior student achievement, and then record which track students were placed in both initially and later in their schooling. When our district analyzed middle-school track placement data, we used scores on an elementary standardized assessment, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. If you are analyzing high school data, 10th grade PSAT scores are a good source of objective achievement data that correlate strongly with measures of general intelligence (Frey & Detterman, 2004). You will be surprised by how heterogeneous each of your courses already is. To capture the effect, be sure to look at the range of scores (see Welner, 2001), not just mean scores.
This hidden heterogeneity can become a powerful argument in favor of the elimination or reduction of tracking. If some lower achievers are already doing well in high-track classes, why can't more students have the same access? And if some higher achievers are assigned to low-track classes, what does that say about the efficacy and equity of the system?
Now go one step further by disaggregating data by ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and special education designation. This process will reveal how your school's achievement gaps correlate with tracks. Once you combine the data you've compiled with the answers to the questions in the previous section, you are prepared to engage in serious discussions about how to improve your school or district.
Using administrative fiat to completely remove all tracks in one fell swoop will fail to adequately prepare students, faculty, or parents for this complex reform. On the other hand, it is easy to fall into the trap of "getting ready to get ready to get ready," thereby delaying implementation until far into the future. Steps must be taken to move the process along. The next three strategies are the ones that we used simultaneously over the course of several years to implement and expand the reform in our district.
Detracking should begin where tracking begins. If your elementary school tracks, that is the place to start. If tracking is delayed until the middle school years, begin there.
In our district, we encountered some resistant teachers who wanted to start by changing the curriculum in the elementary schools, even though there was no grouping for instruction at the elementary level. However, Superintendent Johnson wisely recognized that the true agenda of delay was overall resistance to the reform. He identified the critical beginning of mathematics tracking in grade 6 and determined that was the place to begin detracking. Therefore, we implemented accelerated math in heterogeneous classes in 6th grade, and then followed that with the next year's 7th and then 8th grade programs, moving with the student cohort.
We carefully collected, analyzed, and communicated data each step of the way in order to provide continued impetus to move forward. Comparing the passing rates and grades of the students in the detracked cohorts with students in tracked cohorts made it clear that the students were doing better in the heterogeneously grouped classes than tracked students had done in past years. These data provided an objective counterbalance to those teachers who felt that the acceleration of all students was not working.
It is not an accident that our detracking began in both the district's middle and high school with the English and social studies departments. In both cases, these departments were the most open to the idea of heterogeneous grouping and the most able to envision all students learning the high-track curriculum. When we began special education inclusion in the middle and high school, we began with volunteers. This is not to say that all
teachers in these departments were wholeheartedly on board, or that this reform would have come spontaneously from these departments. In both cases, however, there was a core group of teachers who were willing to embrace the reform and had a natural understanding of the disadvantages of tracking. For those teachers who taught both high and low tracks, the disadvantages of tracking were easier to see.
Similarly, interested teachers led a detracking reform at East High School in Denver, Colorado. The school began detracking using a voluntary system created by two English teachers who were appalled by the nonacademic culture of their low-track classes (Yettick, 2006). They were supported in their efforts by their principal and University of Colorado at Boulder professors Kevin Welner and Ed Wiley. Grade 9 students at East High were placed in either a heterogeneously grouped English class, which studied an accelerated (high-track) curriculum, or a traditional tracked class. Parents were allowed to remove their child from the detracked class if they wished. Despite initial worries, none chose to do so. The experiment was a success, both academically and socially, for the students in the heterogeneous, accelerated classes. East High expanded the program the following year and added support classes for struggling students in the detracked sections. The efforts of just a handful of thoughtful, innovative teachers can jumpstart detracking in your school.
Finally, the impetus for detracking can emanate from national policy. Such was the case in Finland. The decision to detrack, and its beneficial effects on student achievement, are described in Figure 2.1.
In 2000, the 15-year-olds of Finland proved themselves to be among the best readers in the world, as measured by their performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an internationally standardized assessment of the learning of 15-year-old students jointly developed by participating countries. In 2003, Finnish teenagers were first not only in reading, but also in mathematical literacy, problem solving, and science when compared with the students of 29 participating industrialized nations, including the United States, Hong Kong, and Korea (BBC News, 2004). In addition, Finland's gap between high and low achievers was the second smallest among the participating industrialized nations in 2000, and the smallest in 2003 (Cavanagh, 2005; Linnakyla & Valijarvi, 2005). Finally, the socioeconomic status (SES) of Finnish families has little impact on the achievement of Finnish students, when compared with the SES impact in other nations (Linnakyla & Valijarvi, 2005). While there are many possible factors that may contribute to the success of Finnish students, one of the most remarkable features of the national school system is its commitment to a unified school system with no tracking until students reach age 16 (Coughlan, 2004).
Other features of Finland's schools include the following:
There is little doubt that tracking does the most harm to students who are consigned to the lowest track. According to the National Research Council (NRC), low-track classes have an especially deleterious effect on learning, since such classes are "typically characterized by an exclusive focus on basic skills, low expectations, and the least qualified teachers" (Heubert & Hauser, 1999, p. 282). Placement in a low-track class is often used as a solution for student misbehavior or inattentiveness. The preponderance of research regarding low-track classes was so overwhelmingly negative that the NRC concluded that students should not be educated in low-track classes as they are currently designed (Heubert & Hauser, 1999). It makes sense, therefore, to begin by eliminating the classes that do the most harm to students. When our high school began the first phase of detracking, the low-track classes were the first to go.
You should be prepared for opposition to phasing out low-track classes. Many have argued that these classes should not be eliminated but
reformed instead: provided with better curriculum, better strategies, and additional time. In our opinion, successful reform of low-track classes is highly unlikely. By way of illustration, we share the following anecdote.
During our first year of middle school math acceleration, it was discovered that some of the special education inclusion students had not been adequately prepared for the Regents exam in the middle school because their teacher felt that the course was "too difficult" for them. These students would need to take the course over again in high school. Rather than fold them into heterogeneously grouped classes with new entrants to the school system who had not taken accelerated mathematics, as 9th graders, the special education inclusion students were assigned to a class of their own: a double-period class with extra resources. The class was small (fewer than 15 students), and three excellent, committed educators—a math teacher, a special education teacher, and a teaching assistant—were assigned to teach it. The class followed the New York State Regents curriculum. Other students, identified by counselors as "low achievers," were assigned to this class as well.
The idea was a serious mistake. The class culture was not academic, the students behaved disruptively, and the double-period schedule proved to be torture for both them and the teachers. In an effort to save the class, the most disruptive students were taken out and placed in the heterogeneously grouped class. This led to better behavior and academic performance from the previously disruptive students, but back in the special low-track class, another student would invariably take on the role as the lead disruptor. Needless to say, we never pursued a tracked solution again. Today, all special education students fully participate in the accelerated course, and teachers do not make their own decisions regarding students' capabilities.
Mary T. Fletcher, one of South Side Middle School's special education teachers, has taught in both self-contained and inclusion settings in elementary and middle school, and she has seen the positive changes heterogeneous classes bring to all students. She believes that providing differentiated instruction in a heterogeneous class enhances each student's academic, social, and emotional learning experience. She shares the story of how one student benefited from a heterogeneous classroom:
Cathy was an 8th grade transfer student who worked diligently at earning and maintaining her "big bad bully" persona. She was so effective that peers and staff alike were frightened of her. Fortunately, Cathy joined a heterogeneous English classroom that implemented differentiated instruction.
During a unit on nonfiction, Cathy chose to create a visual of the destructive power of a forest fire in response to the literary image of a dragon's tongue of devouring flames. This became Cathy's hook. She painstakingly created a beautiful and haunting depiction of a dragon blotting out the sky and reducing a mighty forest to a collection of spindly sticks. The class and teacher were awed by her work. For the first time, Cathy was absorbed in completing an assignment. She worked on it after school, at home, and during free periods. Her peers and teachers saw a new side of Cathy, and she received positive attention for her newly revealed talents. In addition, her poster deepened the class's conversation about the piece, benefiting the high-achieving students in the class. The metaphor was closely examined, and Cathy's work became a conversation with the text, reflecting and contributing to the class's understanding of the essay.
Cathy's story provides some examples of how a heterogeneous classroom can improve the quality of education for all students. According to Mary Fletcher, there are many benefits to expect when instructional staff are conversant with and dedicated to differentiated instruction and detracking:
During the first phase of detracking in our school district, we reduced the number of high school tracks from three to two, phasing out the lowest track. At the same time, the district opened enrollment in honors courses, the higher of the two tracks. Students were allowed to enroll in honors courses in grades 9 and 10, and IB and AP courses (the honors courses) in grades 11 and 12. Teachers and counselors still made placement recommendations, but parents and students made the decision. A similar process was followed in the middle school prior to the mathematics acceleration of all students.
There were several advantages to this approach. First, it allowed parents who were worried about the influx of the former "low-track" students into the middle track to move their children up to the honors track. Although this is a less-than-noble reason for opening access to the high track, it did quell some parent opposition and allowed the reform to proceed politically. More important, this approach demonstrated that far more students could study the school's most challenging curriculum with great success. Students felt more in charge of their educational destiny. Counselors no longer needed to defend teacher recommendations that excluded students from taking the high-track classes in which they were interested. And most important of all, teachers adjusted to greater heterogeneity in honors, IB, and AP classes. Teaching strategies changed so that less time was spent on lecture and more time was spent on activities that engaged students in learning. Alternative ways to present concepts became the norm. Extra help became more important. The academic climate of the school "leveled up." All of the above helped smooth the way for the heterogeneous grouping to come, as the two tracks became a single enriched course for all students.
It is important, however, to stress that this type of two-track open enrollment should never be the final outcome, especially at the middle school and beginning high school levels. Our open enrollment process resulted in some stratification associated with the choice, counteracting the intent of the detracking process. We recommend that if you have a choice system, make the high track the default track and allow parents and students to opt out if they so desire. This approach should alleviate some of the problems we encountered. For a fuller discussion of the limitations of choice, we recommend an excellent research study on the topic: "Choosing Tracks: 'Freedom of Choice' in Detracking Schools" (Yonezawa, Wells, & Serena, 2002).
No matter how and where you begin, however, you cannot achieve long-term success without making a commitment to the development of a strong curriculum that preserves high standards for student learning. Placing all students in the same class and then allowing teachers to "teach to the middle" will result in a short-lived reform that is not in the best interest of all students. Chapter 3 will discuss what we have learned about developing an enriched curriculum that challenges and supports all learners.
A recent study of curriculum based on TIMSS found six levels of study: the four found in SIMS plus enriched math and pre-algebra (Cogan, Schmidt, & Wiley, 2001).
A recent study of curriculum based on TIMSS found six levels of study: the four found in SIMS plus enriched math and pre-algebra (Cogan, Schmidt, & Wiley, 2001).
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