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We Can End Academic Tracking Fast—Or We Can Do It Right (Opinion)

In her 2023 book, Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity, author Laura Meckler presents a number of scenarios that revolve around searching for ways to close the opportunity gap in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Meckler, who hails from Shaker Heights, examines how the practice of separating students by perceived ability level limited equitable opportunity in a district that was a trailblazer for racial integration. In the 1970s, the district voluntarily used busing to integrate its schools. In 2020, working to boost the performance of its students of color, the district detracked 5th through 9th grade. In vignettes Meckler shares, teachers discuss their successes and struggles with detracking and holding all students to the expectation of meeting grade-level content.

Though Shaker Heights has long been considered a pioneer in seeking to improve outcomes for students of color, efforts to close the opportunity gap are rife with complications there as well as in other districts. In a 2018 study entitled “The Opportunity Myth,” the education consulting firm TNTP found that among more than 4,000 students, students of color received a significantly lower percentage of grade-appropriate work than their white peers. Meckler writes that in Shaker Heights with the creation of heterogeneous groupings rather than tracked classes, the hope was that when everyone had access “to a rigorous curriculum in a classroom that included more advanced students, they would think of themselves as learners who could handle more challenging material.” Ultimately, the success of the teachers in the examples Meckler shares is varied, leaving a question hanging in the air that she herself poses: “Has trying been enough?”

Beyond Shaker Heights, detracking has been a complex but necessary first step in combating racism in schools nationwide. Too many students and teachers are familiar with the feeling of walking down hallways and peering into classrooms that from grade to higher grade become more segregated. By high school, primarily white and Asian students sit in honors and Advanced Placement courses, while Black and Latino students make up the majority of on-level or even remedial courses.

Many school systems have begun addressing years of systemic bias in course placement with a “technical” fix, a change in formal structure alone rather than a more in-depth solution. Districts end tracking and put all students in the same content classes. This action expresses the right intent. But it is a Band-Aid fix that is destined to fail unless school districts can create a deeper level of adaptive change that stops shortchanging students of color in their learning. Such a change requires consistent training and a lot more work.

For teachers, the general absence of a clear professional development design around detracking is frustrating. The solution that is most frequently offered to address the highly varied needs of students in one classroom is to apply differentiated instructional practices. In this model, a teacher focuses all students on a learning objective based on a grade-level content standard that everyone in the room must meet. However, because of individual differences, some students need to be scaffolded up toward the standard with extra support, while other students are ready to go beyond the standard by attempting more challenging work.

To get a sense of what differentiation looks like in practice, consider a 6th grade language arts class that is learning about wildlife habitats for background context as they read Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. The teacher has chosen to address the Common Core informational reading standard RI.6.2, which states: “Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.”

In this classroom, many students are able to immediately identify the main idea of a short article about wildlife habitats and summarize the important facts. Some of the students are bored by the exercise because the cognitive load for them is light, so the teacher provides an extension option to compare and contrast wildlife and human habitats. For a few students, finding the central idea proves challenging, so the teacher hands out sentence starters like, “[Insert type of animal here] need a climate that is” or “The most important thing to know about wildlife habitats is that” as a scaffold to get them going.

When teachers struggle to help their students and differentiation is floated as a solution, teachers are understandably dubious. For one thing, adjusting instruction to meet learning needs at varying levels takes time, a commodity that most school-based personnel lack. For another, training teachers how to effectively implement differentiated instruction is not a “one and done” proposition that occurs in a single training session. Instead, such training requires forethought, dedication, and investment from school or district leadership. It’s important not to rob teachers of needed planning and grading time so it might work to, for instance, dedicate a monthly staff meeting to instructional capacity rather than operational items. Otherwise, removing tracking is far less likely to produce the desired equitable results.

The people who provide leadership for the professional development can also determine success or failure. The most important resource in any school building is teaching expertise, but it is too often overlooked. When professional development needs arise, experts are typically called in to provide support, which is not necessarily a misstep. However, bringing in outsiders who have not had the opportunity to build trusting relationships with school staff can backfire if a training experience is either too short-lived to be useful or not applicable to practice. A best-of-both-worlds approach is for consultants to collaborate with teachers who already exhibit strong differentiation strategies in their classrooms. To make that happen, school leaders must visit classrooms often to heighten their awareness of what is working in their schools, which will help them know which teachers are already change agents.

The story of detracking in Shaker Heights is one that so many school districts across the nation share to varying degrees. Removing barriers to student learning is a process that must evolve so that all educators can challenge racist norms in education head-on and create meaningful shifts in practice. In short, that means creating professional learning pathways that draw on the expertise of teachers in the building and are designed for long-term, consistent application of new skills.

Shoring up opportunities that increase teachers’ abilities is necessary if the inequitable status quo of tracking students is to be taken apart once and for all. Only then will schools see the gains in student achievement we know are possible.

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