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End Tracking to Put Math Education Back on Track

Tracking in mathematics has been a practice in U.S. schools for decades, but it hasn’t always been the subject of candid conversation. Along with increased attention to systemic racism in our public discourse, the perils of tracking and its racialized outcomes are growing more visible—and the appeals for its eradication more vocal. The educational disruptions and disparities of the pandemic make the issue all the more urgent. 

In the past several years, leading math organizations have called for an end to tracking, beginning with a 2016 social justice statement by TODOS: Mathematics for All, NCTM (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics), and NCSM (National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics). The statement called on the math community to “eliminate tracking systems that sort children based on perceived ability and demographic profile.” 

Two years later, NCTM included the goal of ending tracking in its influential report, Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations. “Tracking is insidious,” the report noted, “because it places some students into qualitatively different or lower levels of a mathematics course.” The report went on to label tracking a form of “educide … that severely limits, and all too often ends, students’ opportunities in mathematics and mathematics-related careers.”

And last year, NCSM weighed in with its own position, calling for “detracked, heterogeneous mathematics instruction through early high school.” 

Yet, few districts have attempted to end tracking, perhaps because it’s such a formidable task. Just ask Lizzy Hull Barnes, Mathematics and Computer Science Supervisor for the San Francisco Unified School District. This February, she spoke at Just Equations’ Third Annual Mathematics of Opportunity conference, about the district’s work to de-track middle school and high school math classes. 

Under the district’s new policy, students can no longer take Algebra 1 in eighth grade. Instead, all students are in the same courses through tenth grade. However, parents—especially from more privileged families—initially worried that their kids were being prevented from advancing in math. 

“We did receive a lot of resistance early on. We’ve had many petitions, lots of accusations on listservs that we were holding back our high-performing kids,” she recalled. The issue even came up in the school board election and the mayoral race. 

What helped calm the concerns, Hull Barnes noted, was sharing information that highlighted the harmful effects of tracking as well as the benefits of the new policy: Not only were fewer African American and Latinx students failing Algebra 1, it turned out that fewer Asian and White students were failing Algebra 1 as well. And, after the change, more students of all races ended up taking advanced math courses (including AP courses, because students were able to pursue accelerated pathways after their sophomore year).

“You become a community organizer when you’re taking a stance this strong,” remarked Hull Barnes. “Now is the time to stand up and interrupt these harmful practices.”

What helped ensure success in San Francisco was pairing the curricular changes with serious professional development and an anti-racist orientation. And though San Francisco is now a national model for de-tracking, Hull Barnes acknowledged that the work has only just begun. The policies helped San Francisco students across race and ethnicity, but disparate outcomes remain, most likely because of experiences the students had before getting to middle school. 

As NCTM’s Catalyzing Change notes, as many as two-thirds of elementary classrooms use “ability grouping.” Similar to tracking, this practice can remove students from grade-level lessons for the purpose of “remediating” them, causing them to fall farther behind. The effects can snowball by the time students get to high school. 

San Francisco is not the first district to attempt to de-track its courses. In New York state, the Ithaca City School District is pursuing a similar strategy. Yet, success won’t guarantee that they survive. Even some prior efforts that had successful outcomes were derailed by what the TODOS statement calls “systemic forces.” 

Underlying tracking are deeply-rooted assumptions that some students are naturally better in math than others. To disrupt tracking requires challenging those assumptions.  We cannot have an equitable society without equitable education. And we cannot have equitable education if tracking in mathematics persists. 

On the panel with Hull Barnes, my colleague Elisha Smith Arrillaga of Education Trust-West (and incoming managing director of the Charles A. Dana Center) summed it up well: “That students of color and low-income students have much less access to advanced math courses is not by accident. It happens because of the way we have designed the system. There are things that we can do to change that to ensure that every student has access to high-level mathematics where they can go on to learn and thrive and go into the careers of their choosing.” 

We can’t afford to waste any more time in finding and implementing strategies that ensure equitable math opportunity for all students. 

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