Home > Essays > Derailing De-Tracking and Progressive and Experiential Learning by Emphasizing Race, Zero-Sum Thinking

Derailing De-Tracking and Progressive and Experiential Learning by Emphasizing Race, Zero-Sum Thinking

June 10, 2021

The preposterousness of tracking in mathematics became evident to me early in my career as a student. As noted in earlier blog posts, when I moved from the (then) small college town of West Chester, PA to Tulsa OK when I entered fourth grade and back again three years later when I entered 7th grade I witnessed how tracking “works”.  Tulsa’s fourth grade mathematics curriculum was identical to West Chester’s third grade curriculum. Consequently, I did extraordinarily well in math and because of that I was identified as “gifted and talented” and put into an accelerated program when I entered sixth grade. Upon moving back to West Chester, though, I was placed in the second “tier” of classes for mathematics and everything else. There was not only a marked difference in the level of instruction I received, but an even more marked difference in the expectations for our class as a whole. As “gifted and talented” sixth graders in Oklahoma, my classmates and I were inculcated with the idea that our nation’s future was in our hands: we had an obligation to learn as much as possible to compete with the Russians who had launched Sputnik. As a second tier 7th grade student in Pennsylvania, though, the emphasis was on working hard to get a high school degree and doing our assignments neatly, orderly, and on time. Because I liked math and did well in it, I eventually qualified for the first calculus class offered in our high school despite my placement in the second tier in middle school. But in retrospect I did so because my parents assured me I wasn’t a “second tier” student and I had an excellent high school math teacher who was able to find “first tier” students in the “second tier” classrooms. 

The intractability of tracking became evident to me as I worked in and led schools and eventually school districts. In the junior high school where I taught in Philadelphia the students were grouped homogeneously in sections from 8-1 (the “highest” group) to 8-37. In both high schools where I worked as an administrator students were grouped into “College Prep” and “Vocational” sections, a grouping that was presumably based on the choices made by parents and students but reflected the homogeneous grouping in the preceding grades. When I became Superintendent, I worked with Middle Schools in two of the districts I led to abandon homogeneous grouping in Middle Schools. Doing so was a political struggle because both teachers and parents had deeply ingrained notions that it was impossible to change: notions that “ability” was predetermined and immutable and when “high ability” children were mixed with “low ability children” both groups suffered. 

The latest manifestation of that intractability was described in Laura Meckler’s Washington Post article “Can Honors and Regular Students Learn Math Together? A New Approach Argues Yes“. Unlike the debates I had in districts that were almost all White, the latest debates in California have added race to the debate and, in so doing, are engaging voices from the Trump wing of the GOP, voices that add a toxicity to an already contentious debate. Here is Ms. Meckler’s description of the issue:

The California Department of Education is considering a new framework that could affect how millions of students there learn math.

There are two approaches to de-tracking: One advances all students in an “honors-for-all” approach; the other slows the curriculum down for all, arguing this will benefit advanced students by helping them to truly absorb math concepts and build a stronger foundation for advanced work later.

The California framework uses the second approach, but amid intense opposition the recommendations are being revised and softened, recognizing that the tracking is likely to persist.

As is, the framework recommends that all students be mixed into classes together through 10th grade, and that everyone wait until ninth grade to take Algebra 1. Today many advanced students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade or even seventh grade. If adopted, it would be a recommendation, not a mandate. But past recommendations have proved influential.

I would quibble with the idea that having everyone wait to take Algebra 1 until ninth grade is “slowing down” the curriculum for everyone (another long post would be required to explain the rationale for that assertion), particularly since students would have the chance to take advanced mathematics courses in high school if they so desire as Ms. Meckler notes later in her column. I am not at all surprised to read about the pushback the California DOE is getting and how the debate is inevitably entangled with race. 

For me, the notions of “ahead” and “behind” are mental constructs the same way that race is a mental construct. As studies in brain growth are illustrating, neuroplasticity makes it possible for people to change their thinking about deeply ingrained ideas… but only if one is open to new ideas and new possibilities. Studies like those referenced in Ms. Meckler’s article, are only persuasive to those who are willing to believe them.  Old notions, like old paradigms, can only be changed through direct experience and direct experiences like those I had in my formative years as a learner, are hard to replicate at scale. 

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