Backtracking Detracking

Tracking station

There's an interesting article from the Brookings Institution last month, on the perpetual debate over tracking in the U.S. school system -- separating classes at the same grade by skill level. 

Whenever this comes to mind I think about the giant debate that occurred at my high school system right around the time I graduated, which saw a new principal hired with a mandate to detrack all of the school's curriculum. I didn't actually experience that, but my sister, who's two years younger than myself, did. This all being 30 years ago as I write this. (I also had a more recent awareness of a friend's child in junior-high-school, who had special-needs students detracked in the same classroom, who would basically scream incoherently all day long and make any kind of learning impossible.)

As usual with education issues, the rocky shoals upon which all proud ships crash is the mathematics discipline. You can pretty easily get away with a mix of skill levels in arts and social disciplines -- read the same texts (or whatnot), and accept that you'll get different levels of interpretations, and it's possible to grade on a relative "best effort" basis. In the hard sciences (things that are based on math), things get harder -- maybe you can get across some core concepts, but people with math skills will be able to dig deeper and make predictions and verifications in ways that other people cannot. But with our mathematical queen, this is basically impossible -- if someone doesn't have the prerequisite ability to read, write, and think in our language, then absolutely nothing will make sense, and they won't be able to interface with it in any way, producing nothing but raw gobbledygook (as I've seen hundreds or thousands of times). A number of times on this blog I've called this the "brutal honesty" of mathematics. That said: it never stops a legion of arts & social-science people from dictating supposed solutions for the mathematics professors, as crazy as that sounds. 

So in the recent article, Tom Loveless of Brookings notes that the "tracking" argument goes back even farther than my 30-year experience:

Research on tracking extends over a century. Hundreds upon hundreds of studies have not settled the debate. The literature is usually described as “mixed,” but with a clear warning that tracking can exacerbate gaps between high and low achievers.[1] Research is more plentiful on tracking as a problem, as a source of inequality, rather than detracking as a solution. Reformers have been hampered by a lack of empirical evidence that abolishing tracking would reduce inequities. Evaluations of untracked schools tend to be based on a small number of schools or on samples that were not scientifically selected to support generalizable findings...

These case studies indicate that detracking may work under certain conditions, but they are less persuasive evidence that abolishing tracking in favor of classes with students heterogeneous in ability, all studying the same curriculum, will work everywhere or even in most schools. A study that forcefully raises that question was conducted by David N. Figlio and Marianne E. Page. They analyzed data from the National Education Longitudinal Survey of 1988 (NELS:88), which followed a random sample of several thousand students from eighth grade through high school and into post-secondary education and work. Using several methods of identifying whether schools were tracked or untracked, Figlio and Page uncovered neutral to positive effects of tracking. The most surprising finding of the analysis was that students from disadvantaged backgrounds appeared to benefit from tracking. Figlio and Page concluded, “We can find no evidence that detracking America’s schools, as is currently in vogue, will improve outcomes among disadvantaged students. This trend may instead harm the very students that detracking is intended to help”.

Ironically, the data that Figlio/Page analyzed was current to the year right before I graduated high school; but the article they published about it wasn't until 14 years later. I wonder if it would have made any difference at the time?

At least as interesting is what prompted the Brookings article at this time: back in May of this year the Washington Post had an article about a contentious push in the state of Virginia for detracking. After parental outcry, the state superintendent was forced to release a statement backtracking from the idea:

Under the VMPI plan, [parent] Fox said, “every student would be required to take the same math class through 10th grade of high school. There would be no classes for struggling students needing remedial help or for advanced students seeking accelerated math.”

When I called Virginia State Superintendent of Public Instruction James F. Lane to ask about this, he insisted that the state has no plans to eliminate tracking (separate classes for students at different levels) from kindergarten through 10th grade, even though the VMPI website strongly suggests that ending tracking is key to the suggested reforms...

Lane, the Virginia state superintendent, is an experienced administrator, having led three school districts. He seems to understand how politically poisonous it would be to tell parents that every child is going to be on the same math track through 10th grade...

Lane’s spokesman later told me “he does unequivocally denounce the idea that every student should be forced to take the exact same math courses at the same time without options for acceleration.”

Will this detracking debate go on ad infinitum?

Brookings: Does detracking promote educational equity?

Washington Post: Virginia allies with, then backs away from, controversial math anti-tracking movement