“When unintended consequences persist for long enough, you have to assume that they are intended consequences.” – Eliot Asp, Colorado Education Initiative
Recently, I was sitting with a team of high school teacher leaders and their principal, looking at their school data. The data demonstrated that the school was unintentionally segregating students. In this case, students were segregated by poverty more than by race. That is to say: While the school is predominantly white, there is a wide socioeconomic range. After reviewing the data, the teacher leaders and their principal were able to conclude that poor students were not proportionally represented in honors classes, varsity sports, clubs, and elsewhere.
While the percentages, demographics, and opportunities are unique within each school and school system, this story is waiting to be revealed virtually everywhere in America. The group I was sitting with did not have a routine for this kind of data review. One member of the faculty had taken the initiative to create the spreadsheet, and I was available to facilitate their protocol.
Knowing what they now know, what will they do next?
As you listen to my conversation with colleague Katie Thompson, please consider these two ideas:
- Tracking is always inequitable. Tracking segregates children into or away from richer learning opportunities, deeper engagement, and higher achievement. The rationale for tracking may be defensible, even laudable, but the outcomes are not.
- Tracking is an actionable problem. As the lead-in quote from Eliot Asp suggests, our inaction towards tracking’s inequity shades into intentionality. However long-standing your school and communities practices are, those policies, procedures, and traditions are built upon local decisions that can be examined, revised, and improved. To quote Deborah J. Cohan in Inside Higher Ed, “We inhabit bureaucracies that we made, and we can demonstrate the creativity and ethical conviction to make necessary humane changes in them.”
Actors can arise from all corners of a school community: the teacher who generated the spreadsheet I mentioned in my opening paragraph; a school counselor who is aware of inequitable patterns in the placement of students in honors- and college- level courses; a school board that sets an expectation for an annual equity audit; the principal who launches a task force.
We invite you to find your entry point, identify your allies and resources, and plan for your next actions. Here are a few additional resources to get you started:
- Detracked, and Going Strong, by Peter Bavis. Kappan Magazine December/January 2017. This article tells the success story from Evanston High School, in Illinois, where tracks have been reduced, racial inequities narrowed, and where students have been actively recruited into honors level. A salient quote: “Freshman restructuring also put the focus on the work students do in the class as opposed to their placement in a class. Students work toward earning honors credit throughout the semester. They’re becoming honors students rather than just being labeled honors students before the start of the course.”
- A Quick But Important Test for How Your School Perceives Students, by Craig Kesselheim, EdWeek January 21, 2020. This commentary focuses on high schools’ program of study documents as a window into inequitable beliefs and assumptions about students that become embedded into lower-track courses. A salient quote: “American high schools take the liberty of presuming what sort of futures lie ahead for their students and justify offerings with less rigor based on those assumptions. And they commonly create departmental placement procedures and courses that are at odds with their district’s expressed vision of education.”
- Integrating Classrooms and Reducing Academic Tracking, by Halley Potter, The Century Foundation, January 29, 2019. This resource provides a comprehensive rationale combined with explicit strategies, case studies, and a multi-linked content section. As much as any resource we have found, this one demonstrates that this work can and is being done with success in multiple school systems and states.