Initiating Critical Conversations on the Discontinuation of Tracking

  • Initiating Critical Conversations on the Discontinuation of Tracking

    June 2018

    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:

    • shifts in beliefs about who is capable of doing and understanding mathematics
    • teaching focused on equitable instructional practices
    • access to rigorous mathematics curricula supportive of students’ demonstrating intellectual, cognitive, and cultural diversities
    • building classroom communities where students and teachers feel safe and supported to engage in meaningful ways and
    • incorporating targeted and effective support for students and teachers. 

    Below are actions teachers, schools, and districts can begin doing to move towards detracking:

    • Identify, analyze and evaluate policies, practices, and procedures to assess the impact of tracking in restricting student access to and success in mathematics.
    • Provide each and every student access to a grade-appropriate, academically rigorous and intellectually challenging curriculum.
    • Provide students with additional targeted instructional time and other instructional supports to support their learning and success with the kind of curriculum in the previous bullet.
    • Analyze teacher assignments to develop balanced and supportive assignments to provide high-quality, engaging learning experiences for all students.
    • Analyze where research-informed equitable instructional practices are implemented and where not and facilitate changes. This includes the use of culturally relevant pedagogy, building on students’ interests and knowledge, incorporating real-life experiences into the curriculum, and using practices that showcase students’ strengths.
    • Provide teachers with access to mathematics coaches/specialists for ongoing real-time professional development and support. Ongoing professional development includes but is not limited to coaching, co-teaching, co-planning, and frequent interactions on teaching and learning.
    • Provide teachers and mathematics coaches/specialists with time and space to collaborate with one another on instructional issues and to continue their own professional learning of both mathematics and mathematics-specific pedagogy. Teachers need opportunities to share strategies, learn new teaching techniques, meet as a department or grade level, and collaborate for improved student learning. (NCTM 2018).

    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

    Robert Q. Berry, III
    NCTM President