As I continue reading through the newly revised California Mathematics Framework, I will occasionally post some of my thoughts. In Chapter 9: Structuring School Experiences for Equity and Engagement, they describe methods of teaching that enable all students to be appropriately challenged while also expanding access to rigorous mathematics for all students. Here I will focus on a small part of Chapter 9.
In the realm of education, the way we shape our students’ future can have a profound impact on their lives. It’s a topic that has sparked countless debates, and today, I’m diving into the hot topic of traditional tracking in American schools and why we should bid it farewell.
Traditional tracking is a system that’s been in place in American schools for decades. It’s a practice where students are placed on predetermined educational paths based on their early performance in subjects like math and English. But is this system really doing justice to our students? Let’s take a closer look.
Inequality & Limitations
One glaring issue with traditional tracking is the glaring inequality it perpetuates. Students of color, recent immigrants, and those from low-income families are often “tracked down” into less challenging, rote-oriented coursework. These classes tend to have less experienced teachers, further limiting students’ future opportunities.
Research tells us that early tracking can increase inequality in learning, with lower-achieving students bearing the brunt of the negative impact. What’s more, traditional tracking often leads to rationing access to higher tracks based on criteria that don’t necessarily predict success in advanced courses.
A meta-analysis of 15 studies on tracking, conducted in and outside the US, found that classes that offer a more ambitious curriculum to all students have tended to support improved outcomes for initially lower-achieving students, without negative effects for higher-achieving students (Rui, 2009)
The Power of Inclusive Education
But what if we told you that there’s a better way? Inclusive education that promotes thoughtful grouping of students is the answer. Instead of rigid tracking, this approach focuses on meeting each student’s immediate needs at a given moment, whether they need extra help to catch up or more challenging coursework to excel.
To make this shift effective, teachers must be equipped with the right tools. Professional development and training are essential for educators to adapt their teaching practices, providing multidimensional tasks to a wide range of students. It’s not just about changing the system; it’s about empowering those who make it work.
We need to fully equip teachers with the content expertise, the mathematical content knowledge, and the pedagogical strategies that allow them to teach in a way that empowers all students to access rigorous, grade-level curriculum and learn it at high levels. Some examples of the types of support teachers deserve:
- learning how to represent all math content through Concrete-Representational-Abstract (CRA)
- teaching in a student-centered way through strategies such as Building Thinking Classrooms (BTC)
- how to approach math instruction through an “inquiry first” lense, such as Teaching Through Problem-Solving (TTP)
- Effective lesson planning via the revolutionary 5 Practices
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Numerous high-achieving nations in mathematics, including Japan, Korea, Estonia, and Finland, use non-tracked classes and curricular approaches. It’s a model we can learn from. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) is championing the cause of equitable education. They advocate for dismantling inequitable structures and promoting a common, rigorous curriculum for all students. The call is clear: it’s time to confront the structural inequities of tracking and ability grouping.
The Bottom Line
In the ever-evolving landscape of education, it’s essential to reassess and adapt our practices. Traditional tracking may have been the norm for years, but it’s time for change. We need to put students first, empower our teachers, and create a system that allows every student to reach their full potential. Traditional tracking closes doors, but a more inclusive and flexible approach opens them. It’s time to unlock the full potential of our students and ensure that every child has an equal shot at success. Let’s leave traditional tracking in the past and embrace a brighter future for education.