Four lessons on helping teachers to rethink their views on tracking

The definition of tracking has become increasingly muddled as schools have moved to make educational opportunities more equitable, according to a recent study in Teachers College Record, which examined teachers’ perceptions of tracking.

For genuine detracking and educational equity to occur, teachers need to explore their deeply rooted notions about ability and intelligence, writes Maika Watanabe. While schools may aspire to give all students access to a challenging curriculum, the reality is that detracking reforms often meet with resistance, not only from parents but also from teachers, she says.

Rethinking ability and intelligence

Unless teachers are convinced to rethink their notions of ability and intelligence, teachers will simply teach to traditional ‘ability’ levels within heterogeneous classrooms and will not be willing to try new teaching methods for all students in classrooms,” she writes.

Watanabe reports on a year-long teacher inquiry into detracking, ability and intelligence with six teachers from a college-preparatory urban high school that has historically disavowed tracking. The teachers met once or twice a month for a school year, were each interviewed twice by the researcher and were paid a stipend of $2,500. Such an inquiry could be a model for a professional development program for teachers on detracking, which typically takes the form of one-day workshops, Watanabe writes.

“A key finding of this research is that the definition of tracking has become muddled since the unremarked revolution, when the nature of the grouping changed from overarching program to subject area,” the researcher writes. (The change is referred to as an “unremarked revolution,” she explains, because it was not recorded in the literature that much tracking had become focused on courses and subjects.)

Currently, in the 9th and 10th grades, Meredith High School offers only one level of English, science, and history. In math, students take a sequence of courses that progress from algebra to calculus and are enrolled in classes based on the previous courses taken in middle school. In the 11th and 12th grades, the school offers various levels of courses including honors and AP classes. Those enrollment decisions are based on a combination of scheduling considerations, teacher recommendations, student and parent preference, previous academic performance and standardized test scores, previous courses taken and pre-tests.

From this inquiry, Watanabe says administrators can learn four lessons about working with teachers on advancing detracking reforms:

1. Unpack definitions of tracking

The group met for seven months before everyone realized that they all had different conceptions of what tracking is and isn’t, Watanabe says. A simple question to ask to get to these differing notions is, “Is this school a tracked school? If yes, in what ways? If not, why not?” Although Meredith High School disavowed tracking, some of the teachers thought of it as tracked and others thought of it as untracked, the researcher reports. A few said that while the 9th and 10th grades were not tracked, the 11th and 12th grades were tracked. One teacher believed the high school was tracked based on the homogeneity by race and ability she saw in her classes as well as by the number of levels of a course offered by the school.

2. Examine student choice in courses.

The issue of student choice in courses was at the source of teacher disagreement about whether the school was tracked. To some teachers, the opportunity for student choice in taking courses meant the school was not tracked.

“Here, if a kid wants to take an honors class, they let the kid take an honors class,” one teacher said. “They don’t deny them because their test scores are low, or whatever.” That teacher acknowledged that that was not the case in math because students had to have a basic understanding of math before taking algebra. She also noted that there were other factors that limited a student’s range of academic choices.

“Maybe that’s all that they expect in themselves, maybe that’s what they’re used to their whole lives, maybe they don’t know to speak up for themselves and take the harder class, maybe they want to be lazy.” Another teacher found the choices to be artificial and saw the school as tracked.. “I guess the other thing is that, even though you can choose what you want to take, how much choice do you really have if your math skills are at a certain place?” 

3. Develop mature professional community

The researcher says the group went beyond the “poker model” of discussion, where participants throw ideas, much like poker chips, into the center and left untouched by discussion. While the group did not avoid conflict, it did not embrace it, and neither reached a consensus on a definition of tracking nor achieved a mature “communal responsibility for individual growth.”

4. Support professional development

One chemistry teacher in the group became more committed to detracking and to opening up science “for all instead of just science for the elite.” She was particularly interested in providing greater access and support to girls and minority students. Her goal, she told the group, was to merge conceptual and regular chemistry. As science department chair two years after the group met, she reduced the number of levels in chemistry from three to two levels. “Each year I can get my {conceptual chemistry}further up along doing regular stuff,” she told the researcher. “This year, I had conceptual chemistry kids, a few, for extra credit, doing the basic stoichiometry questions from the regular chemistry book. So if you can do that, then what can’t you do?”

Participants welcomed the opportunity to examine issues of ability, intelligence and tracking, but thought the work should be scheduled during the work day rather than after school on teachers’ personal time.

“Lessons from a Teacher Inquiry Group about Tracking: Perceived Student Choice in Course-Taking and its Implications for Detracking Reform,” by Maika Watanabe, Teachers College Record, Volume 109, Number 9, September 2007, pp. 2136-2170.

Published in ERN February 2008 Volume 21 Number 2

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