Rethinking Tracking in Middle School

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About 3 years ago, I walked into a new school as a 7th grade math teacher.  I was set to teach two separate sections of math.  The first class was the advanced math class which was said to be made up of the most brilliant mathematicians in the grade.  The second two classes, were fitted with those who didn’t make the cut for reasons that that I did not yet understand but would come to know over the course of the next two years.IMG_3366

The advanced math class was a very homogenous grouping of students, a sea of mostly white faces in what was and still is a diverse school.  These were the students who had excelled at a faster rate than the other students in the grade.  The personalities, interests and talents were as far reaching as you would expect to find in any middle school classroom.  The other two classes were fitted with a cornucopia of personalities, interests, talents, and a range of mathematical abilities that were as far-stretching as the spectrum itself.

If you’re like me, you continually reflect on what is going on in the classroom and in the school.  My mind began to wonder:  what was the common tie between all of the students who were sitting in the advanced course?  Were these students just inherently better at mathematical reasoning than the other students in the grade?  As the year progressed, the commonalities that separated those who made the cut and those who didn’t became clear.  The students in the advanced math course had developed the habits of scholarship necessary for their brilliance to show up using traditional measures.  Homework assignments were turned in on time, notes were taken accordingly, organizational systems were established, and questions were asked as needed.  The students in this classroom were not necessarily any more brilliant than the students who sat in the other courses, but they had taken the right steps and learned the habits of scholarship that would allow their brilliance shine.

After two years of existing in a system of advancement through course hopping, I had grown tired of the continued dance where the primary way of advancing your math skills as a student was to switch classes.  I began to advocate for a move away from tracking into a model of heterogeneous groupings in which all students would be provided the same opportunity to grow and advance not only in their mathematics education but in all avenues of their growth as a learner.  I, and others, advocated for a system that allowed the brilliance of all learners to shine through: a model that valued the whole child.  

Justification for this move had to be strong and the reasoning had to be clear.  Here are some of the most compelling reasons for the need to rethink the tracking model of education at the middle school level:

Valuing Diverse Perspectives in the Classroom

In the modern education system, we all speak the language of valuing the diverse perspectives that learners bring to the classroom.  We all advocate for diversity in schools whether it be in the diversity of the student body or the diversity of the experiences that our learners have.  If we speak the language of IMG_5211valuing diversity, shouldn’t we have systems that are set up to honor the diversity of learners that enter our classrooms?  We must ask ourselves if the systems that we teach in are actually set up to the value the diverse perspectives of all learners in the classroom space.

After taking a hard look at my own teaching experiences in a quasi-tracking model, I came to the conclusion that we were missing the diversity of student thought that comes with heterogeneous groupings of students.  This never showed up more clearly than when it came time to complete projects.  In our system, the advanced math class would complete a project and months or even a year later, the students in the ‘other’ math class were then able to complete the same project.  As a teacher in the classroom, my job was generally to act as the facilitator.

One project after another, I watched the same phenomenon take place.  The classes took two very different approaches to completing the project.  The advanced math class was very focused on getting the math done and checking the points off of the rubric.  There was not much time taken to be creative.  The scene was very different in the other classes.  Students split the work between students and groups were very focused on where each student’s talent lay.  Creativity and appeal were very heavy focuses in these classes.  Although both classes had solid end products and each had their high and low points, it was very interesting to see how different the final products were.  What would happen if we could create a space where all students with a variety of different abilities of talents were together?  What would the final product look like then?

I am happy to say that my students now exist in a system that no longer has tracking as a part of it.  The result is a plethora of ideas that allow students to display their diverse talents, therefore making a stronger math community and grade-level community.  I will not pretend that the transition was easy.  The students had a lot to learn about collaboration before we could really provide value to the diverse perspectives of learners within the classroom.  However, when we provide students the proper tools for collaboration, the diversity of perspectives in a classroom takes hold and what is created cannot be seen to the same degree in a system where tracking persists.

Valuing Learning Communities in the School

Valuing the community fits very closely with the ideals of valuing diversity within a school.  Every teacher knows the effects that having a positive classroom community can have on the learning of the children in the classroom.  But how often do teachers take the time to think about the impact of having a strong grade-level community on the overall learning within a classroom?IMG_3350

In my school, we have 78 students in each grade level.  This can create a very tight knit community in which all learners have the opportunity to interact with one another.  Throughout the years, they come to know what each of the other person’s strengths and needs are.  They begin to learn how they can interact with each other when necessary.  Having this small of a student body also means that if only 1 of the 3 primary classes they have each day tracks, then the effects of tracking is felt in all classes.

When all of the students who attend advanced math are in one class, there are two other classes going on that are left without the perspectives of the learners who are in advanced math and vice versa.  No matter how we scheduled, there were certain students who would not get the opportunity to interact with each other in a formal setting.  Some of our students would likely take this as a good thing.  But I would hope that we as a the adult leaders in the classroom realize that everyone has something to teach us.

We can only build the strongest school community if every learner knows they are a part of it.  Tracking can be another way that we send the message: “You don’t belong.”  Of course this is not the message that we as educators intend to send to our students, but not all messages that the schooling system sends are intended.  So many of our students have the message sent that they are not a part of the community because of structures in place that are both institutional and social.  Do we really want one more system in place to confirm the student belief that they don’t belong?

Reducing Politics in Education  

I feel that I would be remiss if I did not at least mention my own experience in a system of tracking.  Throughout my middle school experience, I was often looked over and placed into mid-low math classes.  The reason that I was looked over still eludes me.  I can remember sitting at home at the kitchen table doing homework and realizing my brother who was two years younger doing more difficult math than me.  I felt like I was dumb.  That crept into my psyche and I met that expectation usually earning only average grades.  I began to talk to my parents about this and they went to bat for me allowing me to advance into the Geometry course in 9th grade.

This move took a lot of hard work on my part, but it was work that I was willing to do.  I enjoyed finally being challenged.  Hard work was something that was and still is in my nature.  I am still left to wonder: what would have happened if my parents had not gone to the school and forced my advancement?  I likely would not be where I am at today.  I almost certainly would not have become a math teacher, but here I am.  As a teacher, this leads me to ask different questions.  Why do we punish students whose parents do not advocate for them in the manner that mine did?

IMG_3209I am working off of the premise that all parents care deeply about their children.  However, not all parents have the skill or comfort with the education system to advocate for children in the way mine had.  Some have distaste for schools and see them as failing their children in the same way that the institution had failed them.  Others simply do not have the time to pay the school a visit during the normal hours due to transportation or long hours at work.  Whatever the reason, I do not believe it fair for our students to be punished through the means of the traditional tracking model in an educational system where we know that politics and parental influence are heavily at play.

What brilliance are we missing in the students who are being left to boredom in the less advanced classes?  We must operate off the belief system that all students at their core are brilliant and have unique talents.  It is true that not all students will want to advance to a higher math class or take the honors english course, but shouldn’t they all be provided the opportunity to do so and make that decision themselves?  I would argue that if we know that parental advocacy and politics are at least one of the factors that influences the tracking model, can we not wait until all students have ability to advocate for themselves before we start accelerating and decelerating their courses?

Increasing the Growth Mindset in Students

One too many times, I have heard a student say: “how come we don’t do what that class (advanced math) is doing? It’s because we’re in the stupid class right?”  As many different times as the students said IMG_6146this, I explained that this wasn’t the case.  Students can see right through what we are saying.  None of us believe that our students are stupid and it is likely that the student saying this doesn’t either, but the difficulty of explaining the difference can be a slippery slope.  Middle schoolers are blessed with a gift of sniffing out when we aren’t being genuine or only telling them half truths.  They can’t be duped in the same way that you would trick your dog into coming inside because they think they are going to get a treat.

Students will live up to the expectations that we have for them even if these expectations are simply those that are implicit in the system.  Not long ago, I read an article that detailed what happened when average students were placed in an advanced setting and vice versa.  Most of us can guess the outcome without even reading the article.  The average students began to perform at a higher level while the formerly advanced students began doing more poorly.  If we know that this phenomenon exist, why do we continue to implement a system that creates these results?

When we place students in different classes based on ability, we are sending messages to them.  Sometimes that message reads: “You’re not good enough.”  If this is the message that we are sending to our students, we are already starting the battle from behind.  We want students to be able to persevere in problem solving.  When our students already have the message of not being good enough floating around in the back of their mind, how can we expect them to develop the inner belief that they can solve the problem if they work hard enough and use the right resources?

If you work in a school where tracking is the norm, be mindful of the messages that are inherent in this system.  At the very least, we need to speak the truth to our students when they say: “We’re in this class because we’re stupid.”  Remember: middle schoolers can sense a half truth or a lie long before you’ve even completed your sentence.

Final Thoughts

Tracking has long been a model that has been widely used in education.  I can only speculate that its origins were to separate those students who were moving through school to get a job and those who were moving toward furthering their education by attending college.  We speak a lot about the need for our students to get a 21st century education.  To this I ask the question: does tracking really belong in this century?

Although I am not against tracking in its premise to meet students where they are at and place them in a classroom that moves at their proper pace, there are better ways to meet this end.  When we realize the messages and the implications that are embattled with the words that we speak and the things that we value, we must question the reasons for the system in the first place.

I am not naive in thinking that this is a system that is easily moved or swayed as it is so ingrained in the educational system in which we work.  I am fortunate enough to work in a school that allows me to have these conversations and make a push for these changes.  I realize that many who are reading this article are not afforded this luxury.  I only hope that we can all take a look at the system that we teach in, and be mindful of the messages that are implicit in that system.  Through this, we can all better learn our system’s truth and change what is in our power to change.

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2 thoughts on “Rethinking Tracking in Middle School

  1. ben

    So in the old tracking world did the classes cover the same curriculum? If so I can always see the case for detracking assuming you still hit all the content over the year. However, most middle schools still allow an accelerated that reaches algebra in eight grade. If you detrack you then either push everyone to the faster pace (This has generally shown to be unworkable see California) or you delay Algebra for everyone until H.S. Also what do you do about outliers? Most of your logic assumes kids are generally at the same place in content and skills or close enough they can be well served in a heterogeneous classroom. There can be significant numbers on either side of the curve.

    Reply
    1. Nick Tutolo

      Ben,

      Thank you for your thoughtful response. In this entry, I made reference to the fact that my learners are at a variety of different levels. My student’s mathematical abilities are as far reaching as what might be expected from the majority of middle schools. Detracting doesn’t have to mean that we necessarily need to shift the content that is being taught throughout the course of the year. There are a lot of ways that we can teach to the diverse set of needs that our learners have while maintaining heterogeneous groupings. Arguably, my ability to do this is far greater because of the co-teaching model that is utilized at my school. Additionally, 1-to-1 technology and 75 minute blocks have also helped in implementing instruction at a variety of paces while allowing for acceleration and remediation within the same class and ultimately hitting the goals that are set out by the Common Core standards.

      Our state also allows the students to take the Algebra I Keystone as a matter of choice at the end of the 8th grade year. All of our students will have the ability to do so at the end of the 8th grade year. This will be a choice that sits with the students and families as to whether or not they would like to pursue this route. I am confident that our students will have covered enough of the Algebra I content in order to allow those who want to take the test to pass it and move to Geometry or Advanced Geometry in their 9th grade year. After all, a class doesn’t have to be titled Algebra I in order to allow our students to acquire the skills that are utilized in Algebraic Thinking.

      Arguably, the choice to de-track is one that isn’t the easiest route. Tracking students can be far easier for planning. However, just because something is easier doesn’t always make it better. When we look at the implicit messages that are sent by tracking, some of our students have conceded the game before it even starts. As with any institutional decision, the solutions are not clean, clear nor straight-forward. With some innovative thinking and a strong desire to shift failing models, I know that we can do better. We can not only do better, but we need to do better. Our students deserve it.

      Best,

      Nick

      Reply

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