Initiating Critical Conversations on the Discontinuation of Tracking
The tracking of students for instruction in mathematics is a long-standing practice of schooling that segregates students of different backgrounds into separate experiences on pathways leading to different outcomes. The fact that the effects of tracking are consistent and predictable reflect the reality that this practice is built in to the structure of mathematics education. Students segregated into low-track mathematics are routinely exposed to instruction focused primarily on rote skills and procedures that do not stretch their higher order thinking and that give limited attention to developing their conceptual understanding. Students segregated into high-track mathematics typically experience mathematics that cultivates their mathematics identities, conceptual understanding, and critical problem-solving and thinking skills (NCTM, 2018). Tracking is a structural barrier with a large impact on the experiences of students and teachers in mathematics.
As a student and teacher of mathematics in urban and suburban schools in the United States, I have personally experienced and borne witness to the inequitable outcomes in mathematics learning. Tracking prevents students access to a high-quality mathematics curriculum, to effective teaching and learning, to high expectations, and to the necessary supports needed to maximize their learning potential. It is time to recognize and identify tracking as a systemic form of segregation. Tracking leads to the distribution of students in ways that are correlated with the inequities based on race, ethnicity, language status, and socioeconomic status found in our broader society. And it is time to begin the courageous work needed to intentionally and systematically remove the perniciousness of tracking and its associated curricular and instructional practices as we move toward creating pathways for success in mathematics for each and every student.
Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations recommends that high school mathematics discontinue the practice of tracking teachers as well as the practice of tracking students into qualitatively different or dead-end course pathways (NCTM, 2018; p. 15). While Catalyzing Change focuses on high school mathematics, tracking has equally significant implications for early childhood, elementary, and middle grades mathematics. There is a compelling body of research dating back nearly 40 years documenting the consistently inequitable impacts of tracking and the role it plays in perpetuating and exacerbating biases and inequities found in American society. Given the body of research and the negative effects of tracking, we must wonder why many schools continue to engage in tracking. Schools and educators are not immune to the tendency to continue doing things the way they have always been done. If a teacher was tracked in mathematics as a student and teaches in a tracked mathematics situation, the idea of detracking is likely to be foreign.
The discontinuation of tracking is often characterized as an attempt to group students heterogeneously as a means of ensuring that each and every student, regardless of race, ethnicity, language status, socioeconomic status, or academic ability, has access to high-quality instruction, curriculum, teachers, and material resources. Detracking requires far more than simply rearranging instructional group patterns. It requires:
Below are actions teachers, schools, and districts can begin doing to move towards detracking:
As stated earlier, detracking is more than simply grouping students heterogeneously. Detracking is a deep commitment and an investment in people, curricula, and time to reach the goal of supporting and engaging each and every student in learning mathematics and increasing their opportunities. Teachers and leaders must be committed to the actions above when working towards the discontinuation of tracking.
Because tracking is insidious (NCTM, 2018), I encourage you to use the steps outlined above and in Catalyzing Change to begin discussions and take action to intentionally and systematically dismantle the structural barrier of tracking. Please share your successes and challenges on MyNCTM.org
Robert Q. Berry, III