I recently read an article with a student perspective on the academic pressures of high school. It was very powerful hearing from a student voice. Reading it reinforced my belief that grouping student into separate classes by ability is not only harmful to students tracked into the lower-performing classes. It’s harmful for all our students and for our system at large. It has reinforced for me why we cannot support the “Accelerated Algebra in Middle School” track that some Lowell teachers and parents are proposing.

Ability tracking is never good; even in “Paly”.

Carolyn Walworth, a Palo Alto (aka “Paly) high school student and representative to the school board wrote about tracking by ability and how it harms students who are not tracked into the “smart” class:

Paly school board rep: ‘The sorrows of young Palo Altans’

Palo Alto High School’s school board representative, junior Carolyn Walworth. Photo courtesy Carolyn Walworth.

“At the end of sixth grade, we were placed into either Pre-Algebra or Pre-Algebra Advanced, though nobody referred to the classes as such. Any math class without the word advanced in it was referred to as the “dumb” math lane (a label that has followed into high school math courses as well). I like to think of this as the reason I lost my enthusiasm and confidence for math so early — how could I possibly feel intelligent when the class I was in was considered dumb?”

If tracking by ability is has negative impacts on white students in Palo Alto, it gets even worse when tracking plays out in an ethnically and socio-economically diverse urban district such as ours.

In 2008, I was an education consultant on a “College and Career for All” project as the district liaison between the Chief Academic Officer and Education Trust West (a highly respected education non-profit). I got to see district wide data showing how kids were moving (or not moving) through the system to understand why certain groups of kids weren’t graduating, much less meeting requirements for college application.

We saw many structures throughout the system that made it extremely difficult for certain groups of kids to access college preparatory classes. For instance, we discovered there were two schools within a school at Skyline High School. Kids that had met the “prerequisite” of taking Algebra in 8th grade were eligible to enter the Engineering Academy (a track) at Skyline. Those who did not were, not even eligible to apply. So basically at 14 years of age, a student’s high school future was already limited. (?!) When you looked at the numbers by subgroups, you saw that there were very few Black and Latino kids gaining entrance into “higher performing” tracks.

When I participated as a parent volunteer on our own district’s A-G Committee in 2009, we saw the same disparities. Kids were getting tracked into and out of classes and when you looked at the ethnic breakdowns, you saw huge patterns of inequity.

Adults may claim they don’t “see race” but teenagers sure do.

My father, a psychological researcher always taught me “correlation is not causation”. Nonetheless, it is natural to look for relationships and patterns and then draw conclusion. Unfortunately, these conclusions can often be biased or incorrect. Parents who are proponents of honors classes and tracking by ability argue that these programs are fair because they are based on performance or “merit”. Whether the system is fair or not, we know that visibly grouping kids can reinforce social biases already present in our society. If the kids in lower ability classes are predominantly Black or Latino or English Learner students, and the kids in the high performing classes are majority Asian and White, students are more likely to attribute a relationship between race or home language and academic ability.

This is why our district has also reorganized to increase “mainstreaming” of students in need of special eduction services. In the past, these students were put in separate classes (or “the bungalows” as they did at my high school). This highly visible separation caused many students to be are socially labeled. Kids in the “normal” the group saw themselves as superior, and kids in the “SPED” group were socially stigmatized as “inferior”. Social stigmas can often becomes a self fulfilling prophesies, and it’s precisely why the district is continues to eradicate programs which have tracked student by ability.

Don’t be fooled. “Acceleration” is just another name for “tracking”.

Under the old system of tracking (which the acceleration plan will certainly continue) high achieving kids of color HAVE BEEN PREVENTED from being in the “smart classes” in our middle and high schools.

How many kids are we talking about? Here are the actual numbers from our district (Richard Carranza’s remarks at the March 10 Board of Education Meeting*):

“Of the 928 students who took Advanced Placement calculus or statistics exams the last two years at one high performing high school [meaning Lowell], just 21 were Latino and seven were African American.

“Not 21 percent and 7 percent; 21 and 7,” he said. “Now either black kids and brown kids cannot do math — they are biologically, physiologically, genetically not prepared to do math or something else is wrong. And I would suggest to you that something else is wrong.”

I agree with the Superintendent and the over 300 teachers across the district who with district math experts, and researchers crafted the math plan and curriculum over the past few years.

It simply doesn’t make sense to go back to an old (failed) system, which harms students (e.g. Black, Brown, low-income and English Learner students) because a very small percentage of students may wish to take math in a different progression.

How many kids are we talking about? Here are some more facts from the district based on the number of kids at Lowell who participated in AP Calculus under the old math sequence*:

  • In 2012/13, 281 students took AP Calculus (Either AB or BC) and only 2 were juniors. The other 279 were seniors
  • In 2013/2014, 369 students took AP Calculus. 9 were juniors and 360 were seniors. The 11 students who took Calculus before their senior year would easily be accommodated within the current policy.

It simply doesn’t make sense to harm students by creating tracks so less than 1% of students can take math in a different sequence. Especially when their needs can be accomodated in the new plan.

*Read more of the Superintendent’s remarks here: http://www.sfusdmath.org/richard-carranzas-remarks-to-board.html

Does any of this make sense to you? What questions do you have? Please write them in the comments below.

Related reads: Algebra Tracking or Not… Communication and Accountability Could Use Some ImprovementIntellectual Apartheid: Dependent vs. Independent LearnersWhy We Can’t Talk About Honors Programs without Talking About Race

Join the conversation! 4 Comments

  1. You are assuming effort is not at play. Cuban Americans (Latino) and Nigerian Americans (black/AA) outperform whites. In California, Asian students study 13.8 hours a week from 11-18 and whites 5.6, and 60% of Asian American kids are taught to read before starting Kindergarten vs. only 16% of whites In San Francisco the white percentages are higher as many are Russian and immigrants, or Jewish American, or in general highly educated. The average California kid watches over 40 hours a week of TV but those making it to a UC about 10, on average. Why not convince all parents to stay together if at all possible or at least live close, teach their kids the alphabet and reading and math before Kindergarten, prioritize tutoring or supplemental education over vacations, fancy clothes, etc. and convince their kids to put in long hours? The reason we are seeing these numbers isn’t racism. My kids are black and Latino and they will thrive and do. It’s habits, and we need to convince parents to push education from a young age, before it’s too late. The 21 and 7 figures we see are more about home lives and effort. Black and Latino kids can be brilliant, but it isn’t the classroom treating them differently, it isn’t expectations, it’s effort. It takes what Asians do to reach a high level of education. These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

    • “It isn’t the classroom treating them differently” Well, actually, I’m sorry to say you are wrong. I know from personal experience in “underperforming schools” that kids DO actually get treated differently. I’ve seen way too many high performing kids, who were begging for more challenge getting put into remedial classes.

      And, my experience is also proven in research. Here’s just one article. I could write about this one until the cows come home. But just for a start, here’s something I wrote about it in my post “Why We Can’t Talk About Honors Programs without Talking About Race” here: http://sfpsmom.com/?p=2070

      I reference research I cited in an article: “Even Well-Integrated Schools Treat Black Students Differently, Sixty years after Brown v. Board from the New Republic America’s classrooms may not be separate, but they’re still not equal” By Arit John

      “A 2012 study from the American Sociological Association found, “Substantial scholarly evidence indicates that teachers—especially white teachers—evaluate black students’ behavior and academic potential more negatively than those of white students.” The study analyzed the results from the Education Longitudinal Study, a national survey of 15,362 high school sophomores, as well as their parents and teachers. Again, the evidence showed a bias among white teachers that favored white students.”

      There is also stereotype threat, and imbalances in equitable access due to tracking. Add to that societal inequity such as poverty, parent education level and disparities in funding for schools that serve low-income kids.

      And, yes, if you want to talk about personal effort, you can Google Jeannie Oaks on her work showing how being put in the “dumb” class makes students want to quit and drop out altogether.

      It’s time to stop blaming kids and families (and whole cultures as you seem to be doing) for the racial disparities we see in our gate and honors classes and look at the institutional factors that are keeping the “status quo” in place.

  2. Ali, Asians are students of color too and outperform whites, as do Nigerians, Persians, Cubans, Lebanese, other African Groups, East Indians, Chinese, Koreans and many others. Jews were victims of racism and half of Jews in the world were murdered over 6 years and Jews outperformed other Americans significantly in academics. There may be a factor of stereotypes, but divorce and lack of studying is the key. I don’t hold whites up as an example, as whites are far behind Asians in the U.S. Obama said, you are never so poor all you can do is watch TV and it’s impossible to study during that time. We need more tutoring and support from a young age. We don’t need to make Asians be held back because they are ahead, we need to get all Americans to follow their shining example. I’ve been in SF a long time and most teachers are very liberal but a far disproportionate amount of willfull defiance, violence and skipping class and loud disruptions are from African Americans, so after a while teachers expect that, but if they come across an African American child who is raised to focus, with two parents, taught to read before Kindergarten, encouraged to study weekends, evenings, Summers, given tutors, they are delighted. I have an African American daughter and she is treated very well by her teachers as are my Latino children. Race is not a factor. May Latino kids have made it to Lowell. Race is not a factor. Effort is. I do not feel any of my children have done worse because teachers had low expectations based on race. I had one teacher who disliked my daughter for wearing makeup and heels and high fashion at a young age in 7th grade and was unfair to her, but she was unfair to many kids and it was about personality, not race. I ask my kids if they feel they’ve ever been treated unfairly by teachers based on race and they say no. We need to hold out Asian American parenting as an example and convince all families to raise their kids that way, with education as far more important than popularity, diversions, or anything else, and an honor towards family, a focus towards academic attainment, pride in one’s family name, and an undying academic work ethic. If you do that you will see the results. You are totally ignoring this point. I’m sorry but the average Latino and Asian family in SF do not put the same emphasis on academics nor the same time in, as parents or as children, and the same is true of black and white. You completely ignore this factor. Even if you control for income, this is true. Asians are getting so many academic awards, along with Jews, and Asians and Jews were long victims of racism in the U.S. Asians were excluded, interned, treated as coolies and slaves, given dangerous work in the mines, it once took 6 Asians to testify against one white in San Francisco and until the Teddy Roosevelt Administration we had segregated schools against Asian Americans in SF, and Teddy was racist and killed many Filipinos and only convinced San Francisco to integrate it’s schools in 1906 because he wanted to complete a treaty with Japan. Jewish Americans were artificially limited in Ivy League Admissions, prohibited from many law firms, and discriminated against extensively until the ’60s and ’70s. You can talk about racism all you want but without some intense work, the gap won’t be closed, which is why whites are far behind Asians, under a third as likely to qualify for a UC. Whites don’t want to work as hard as Asians despite more privilege in many cases. These are the facts, and they are undisputed.

    • Wow! So let’s see, to restate: “Asians are better parents”, “black parents let their kids watch too much TV” and “whites are lazy”…. Thanks for proving my point that racial bias underpins this whole debate.


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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.


Academics, Equity


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