Tracking: When Kids Get Put into the “Dumb” Class
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.
When Kids Get Put into the Dumb Class: 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:
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.
When Kids Get Put into the Dumb Class: 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 education 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 continues to eradicate programs which have tracked student by ability.
When Kids Get Put into the Dumb Class: 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