WHEN ERIC WITHERSPOON became superintendent of Evanston Township High School near Chicago in 2006, he walked into a math class where all the students were black. “A young man leaned over to me and said, ‘This is the dummy class.’”
The kids at Evanston who took honors classes were primarily white; those in the less demanding classes were minority—a pattern repeated, still, almost 60 years after integration, across the nation. All of the Evanston kids had been tracked into their classes based on how they’d performed on a test they took in eighth grade.
Last September, for the first time, most incoming freshmen, ranging from those reading at grade level to those reading far above it, were sitting together in rigorous humanities classes. When I visited, students of all abilities and backgrounds met in small groups to discuss one of the required readings, which include A Raisin in the Sun and The Odyssey. This September, most freshmen will sit side-by-side in biology classes.
Of the 2,974 students at Evanston Township High, 41 percent are low income, 30 percent are black, 16 percent are Hispanic, and 45 percent are white. Whether they’re eating lunch in the cafeteria or high-fiving each other in the bright, striped halls, students of all races intermingle. Yet until the switch, only 19 percent of the students in freshman honors’ humanities classes were minorities. Now minority students represent 39 percent of those taking humanities, and they all have the opportunity to earn honors credit.
Witherspoon’s goal is to establish honors classes across the curriculum because he believes that the achievement levels of minority students will remain low if they aren’t placed in more rigorous classes.
Proposals for “detracking,” sometimes called heterogeneous or mixed-ability grouping, have been around for decades, but the idea has attracted increasing interest in the hope that it would make education more equitable and boost student achievement levels. Schools all over the country—in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, in Alexandria, Virginia, in Townshend, Vermont—started taking steps toward detracking their students over the past year.
TRACKING BEGAN at the turn of the 20th century as a response to a surge in immigration—and therefore a surge in immigrant children. Following a model based on business efficiency and social Darwinism, educators decided that most poor immigrant children were headed straight to a factory after graduation and so would be best served by vocational training. Better-off students, who could expect to go to college, would receive a more rigorous academic education. Over the years, tracking systems were expanded. Today many high schools have several tiers designed for students of varying abilities, from children in the very top of the class to those who require remedial services.
In 1988, the National Education Association adopted a resolution (upheld again in 2005) that advocated the elimination in all public school settings of “discriminatory academic tracking” based on economic status, ethnicity, race, or gender. In 1993, the National Council of Teachers of English passed a resolution opposing tracking as well. That year, a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, “Curricular Differentiation in Public High Schools,” indicated that more than half of the 900 schools sampled had begun shifting away from tracking. Only 15 percent reported that they were still using traditional tracking mechanisms.
It’s difficult to determine the extent to which many schools have made the shift, especially since the definition of tracking varies so widely. Some schools have completely eliminated tracking. Others still track for one or more subjects. In a 2008 Thomas B. Fordham Institute survey of about 900 teachers, 59 percent said students in none or few of the core subject classes were, essentially, tracked. But the National Center for Education Statistics survey found that 86 percent of schools were still offering core courses, often including math, tailored to students’ abilities.
(Illustration by Sébastien Thibault)
STILL, THERE ARE people both for and against the practice: the dialogue pits those who believe that tracking relegates low-income and minority students to the lowest tracks, where they have no incentive to excel academically, against those who maintain that placing children of all abilities in one classroom drags down the higher-achieving students.
“Once we put students in groups, we give them very different opportunities to learn—with strong patterns of inequality across teachers, experience, and competence,” says Jeannie Oakes, presidential professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose 1985 book, Keeping Track, helped spark the detracking movement. A former teacher, Oakes saw not only that minority and low-income children were likely to be placed in lower tracks but also that they were given the teachers who expected the least of them. “There was this pervasive view that Latino and African American kids can’t measure up in a way that more affluent or white kids can and we can’t do anything about it,” she says. The prophecy was self-fulfilling: with little motive to succeed academically, the children didn’t get high grades or score well on standardized tests. In other words, they performed exactly as the teachers predicted, in response to the climate of low expectations.
Carol Corbett Burris, a detracking pioneer and the principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, New York, notes that her school has no tracking in the ninth or tenth grades. Educators from hundreds of schools have visited South Side, she tells me, to observe how high-level, mixed-ability classes can work. She points out that in 1996, three years before detracking began at South Side, just 32 percent of African American and Hispanic students earned their Regents diplomas (a higher-level achievement that requires students to pass a series of state end-of-course exams). By 2009, that number had risen to 95 percent, and during the 2011-2012 academic year, 96 percent of African American and Latino students started college (38 percent of them at four-year institutions).
Burris says raising the bar has created an atmosphere where students want to succeed. When kids who struggle in school and tend not to like it are grouped together in low-tracked classes, she says, the result is a very antiacademic culture in the low-tracked class. But when classes become integrated, “the classroom culture starts to change,” and high-achieving students become role models. Also, teachers have to work harder to reach a child who is having difficulty with a course, she adds, and that has improved the quality of their instruction for all students.
South Side also offers support classes to help struggling students keep up with the demanding curriculum—something Burris says is essential for any detracking program. “We have kids who live in subsidized housing and kids who live in million-dollar homes. We run the gamut, and yet we’ve managed to make this work,” she says. The cost hasn’t been tremendous, she adds, entailing some minor staff reallocations and some adjustments in the school day. And some of the extra cost has been offset by the need for fewer classes overall.
Detracking has led to similar successes at a charter school on the campus of the University of California, San Diego: The Preuss School UCSD (where all the students are low income). Hugh “Bud” Mehan, an emeritus professor of sociology and founding director of the university’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Access, and Teaching Excellence, says Preuss was intended to serve as a model for other schools. Its rigorous curriculum, extra tutoring, and high expectations, he says, have made its students “very successful.” Since the school started 10 years ago, 84 percent of the students have gone on to college. In both 2009 and 2010, Preuss scored second among San Diego schools in meeting the state’s academic performance index.
“The fact that they outscore schools with kids who are from middle- and upper-income backgrounds is a testament to the detracking,” Mehan says.
Kevin Welner, a professor and director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says the debate has shifted from discussing the problems of tracking to focusing on how to successfully move to mixed-ability classrooms that challenge all students and narrow the gap between high- and low-achieving students. Welner points out that while well-executed detracking reforms have benefited both high achievers and low achievers, the more typical pattern is to see no effect on high-achieving students but to see significant results for low-achievers.
Detracking does require commitment. Evanston Township High has sent teachers to seminars, and every morning educators and administrators meet in what’s called “the huddle” to address setbacks and offer suggestions. “It’s like looking at the planets differently. It’s a big change in mind-sets for teachers,” says Jennifer Fisher, department chair for history and social science and a member of the huddle. “Our job not only is to lead the change but to support them every step of the way.”
Evanston students who score lower than 49 percent on a standardized test are required to take an additional support class. Teachers are available to meet with students before and after school, even on Saturdays. On a recent weekday, after their humanities class, several freshmen walked across the hall to the English and history study center, a cozy blue room decorated with brightly painted flowers. Teachers were helping several students—of all races—with writing assignments. Last September alone, more than 1,200 students passed through the center’s doors. Nicole Parker, a freshman humanities teacher, says even high-achieving students take advantage of the support. “We’ve taken away the notion that only some kids need help,” she says.
BUT DETRACKING still has foes. In December 2009, Tom Loveless published a report for the Fordham Institute called “Tracking and Detracking: High Achievers in Massachusetts Middle Schools,” in which he noted that as schools have sought to narrow the achievement gap, they’ve neglected the higher-performing and most-talented kids—the students who have the potential to contribute the most to the nation’s future. The study found that detracked schools have fewer advanced students in mathematics than tracked schools do. Loveless, a former teacher and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that since advanced students’ “needs are beyond what a heterogeneous class can deliver, they’re relearning what they already know.” He agrees that tracking can be detrimental for children in the lowest tracks, but he’d rather find better ways to teach them in those classes than abolish tracking. Susan Dulong Langley, a teacher of gifted and talented students in Framingham, Massachusetts, and a member of the National Association for Gifted Children’s board of directors, says that it’s a challenge to prepare lessons that can reach all levels of students and that budget cuts have made it even harder to pay for the resources teachers need to make detracking work. It’s easier and more effective to teach students grouped by ability, which leads to “advanced gains in growth for all levels,” she says.
Mindy Wallis, the mother of a sophomore at Evanston Township High, agrees. She opposed the decision to detrack, and spearheaded a petition that advocated waiting for the results of a three-year evaluation before making changes that so substantively affected the freshman class. Angela Allyn, whose 14-year-old son just took a freshman humanities class, says her son was hungry to read more than two-thirds of The Odyssey, which was all the class required. He was encouraged by his teachers to read the entire book, but Allyn says the teachers didn’t help him navigate difficult portions during class, so she had to work with him into the late hours of the night. Her son was teased by classmates, she says, for “showing off and using big words,” something she believes wouldn’t have occurred if he’d been grouped with a similar cohort. Detracking, she contends, focuses “on bringing the bottom up—and there’s an assumption that our bright children will take care of themselves.” She acknowledges that because she’s seen as having “white privilege,” despite the fact that she put herself through school and even occasionally had to use soup kitchens to get by, she’s perceived as racist by merely making such a comment.
Adam Gamoran, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, also believes that race is part of the debate: “People who support tracking are more interested in productivity and less concerned about inequality, and people who are critics tend to focus on inequality and don’t spend too much time thinking about productivity.” Gamoran argues that schools that want to keep ability-grouping need to do a better job with the students in the lowest tracks, but he also believes that the most capable students may not always be sufficiently challenged in mixed-ability classes. “There’s no single solution,” he says. “The point is to try to address the limitations of whatever approach is selected.”
Julie Mallory, a freshman humanities teacher at Evanston Township High, says detracking can have a positive effect on both the “standard-class” kids and the “honors” students. In her class, reading the work Antigone led to a complex discussion, organized as a Socratic seminar in which students of all levels participated extensively and were able to make a specific connection to the text to support their reasoning. “It is often thought that ‘lower’-level students would be unable to comprehend a text like Antigone, and that students of ‘higher’ levels would be brought down by the presence of ‘lower’-level students in the class,” she says. “This was not the case.” The depth of discussion, she adds, was much richer with a variety of voices and perspectives, benefiting all students.