Off track

By 2011, if the states stick to their policy guns, all eighth graders in California and Minnesota will be required to take algebra. Other states are sure to follow. In recent years, the conventional wisdom of American K-12 education has declared algebra to be a “gatekeeper” to future educational and career success. So onecan scarcely fault policy makers for insisting that every youngster pass through that gate, lest too many find their futures dimmed. It’s also well known that placing students in remedial classes rarely ends up doing them a favor, especially in light of evidence that low-performing students may learn more in heterogeneous classrooms. 

But are all eighth graders truly prepared to succeed in algebra class? Might they--some of them, at least--be better off in ability-grouped math classes? Anybody raising such questions in the education world will be in the minority. Instead, many schools and districts have chosen to abolish low-level tracks and courses. Many have done away with all forms of tracking. But did they really believe that such seemingly simple changes in policy and school organization would magically transform struggling learners into middling or high-achieving ones? And were they oblivious to the effects that such alterations might have on youngsters who were already high-performing? Those were the questions we asked Brookings scholar Tom Loveless to answer in Fordham’s latest study, Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools

The analysis looks at tracking in one of the leading states in “reforming” that traditional practice and scrutinizes the changes that occurred in the Bay State between 1991 and 2009. Of particular interest was how tracked and untracked schools measured up when it came to producing high-achieving students.

The short answer is…tracked schools did better, but there aren’t many of them left. Loveless finds that most middle schools have done away entirely with tracking in English language arts, science, and social studies, though this practice endures in math, albeit with fewer tracks than two decades ago. Further, “detracking”--reducing the number of subject-area courses offered in a given grade in a given school--may adversely affect high-achieving youngsters in math. (That’s not the case in English; history and science achievement were not analyzed.) Massachusetts middle schools with more tracks have significantly more math pupils performing at the advanced and proficient levels and fewer students at the needs improvement and failing levels. What’s more--and this is important--a mirror image appears for detracked schools: They have more failing and needs improvement math students than do schools with two or three tracks. In fact, a declining number of failing math students is linked to each additional track in the school, i.e., schools with just one track have the most failing math students (26 percent) while schools with three or more tracks have many fewer (14 percent).

Nor is that all. Loveless also found that, when schools’ socioeconomic statuses are held constant, each additional track in eighth-grade math (up to three) is associated with a 3 percentage-point rise in students scoring at the advanced level. That means the advantage for a school offering three tracks instead of one is associated with a 6 percentage-point gain in the number of students performing at high levels.

That may not overwhelm you but it could have considerable impact. The average middle school in Massachusetts can boast just 18 percent of its pupils at the advanced level in math--and many schools have no students who reach such altitudes. Increasing the proportion of high achievers by six percentage points--that’s eighteen kids in an eighth-grade class of 300--could have a dramatic impact on other students, as well as on the school’s culture. At a time when the United States needs every academic high-flyer we can find or produce to buttress our domestic and international prospects, that’s certainly cause for concern. 

But as they say, plus ça change…Even as tracking has waned, American education seems to have picked up more politically acceptable alternatives in the form of school choice, individualized learning, and differentiated instruction. In other words, even if schools say they’ve gotten rid of tracking, they haven’t gotten rid of the problems that gave rise to it nor have they abolished the need to solve those problems for the children’s own sakes. Most Americans recognize that children are distinct individuals who bring very different backgrounds, temperaments, cognitive attainments, and earlier academic achievements with them to school. They deserve schools that respect and respond to such differences.

Bottom line number one: American education needs to care more about taking all of its students to the next level and less about how we get them there. Anna Penny, a former teacher in New York City, said as much in the New York Daily News this past summer: “Anyone who has ever taught knows that kids progress at dramatically different speeds in different subjects. When our schools resist tracking even when it's clearly needed, they wind up valuing homogeneous classrooms over effective ones.”

Bottom line number two: In the name of equity, gap closing, political correctness, and leaving no child behind, American education has been a bit too willing to neglect its higher-performing students and the school arrangements that best meet their needs. A recent report by the National Association for Gifted Children finds that eighteen states can’t even tell us how many children have been identified as gifted within their borders. Further, the vast majority of gifted children are placed in regular classrooms (no surprise, given Loveless’s findings), places with teachers not ordinarily trained in gifted education. In fact, thirty-six states don’t require regular teachers to have training in gifted education at any point in their careers, nor do most teacher-preparation programs include coursework on gifted learners. That’s obviously unfortunate for high-achieving youngsters and the ill-equipped teachers who teach them, but it’s also damaging to our long-term national interest. 

Progressive friends, forgive us for borrowing your phrase, but you were right. When it comes to educating children, as when selling shoes, one size does not fit all.

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