From the Blog

The Truth About Tracking: It’s Always Inequitable

by Katie Thompson and Craig Kesselheim

craig and katie


Craig: [00:00:01] Hi, Katie.

Katie: [00:00:02] Hi, Greg. How you doing?

Craig: [00:00:04] Good. Hey, you want to talk about tracking?

Katie: [00:00:05] Sure.

Craig: [00:00:10] We have this opportunity to talk a little bit about tracking in addition to the blog post that we are writing. And so let’s take a couple of minutes, perhaps starting with the assumptions that we want to establish as a baseline. You want to take that on?

Katie: [00:00:27] Sure. Yeah. I think the first thing that we’re starting from is a point where we kind of are viewing tracking as one of those non-discussables in school. It’s really become kind of an uncomfortable thing to talk about in school. But we think it’s so consequential in students lives that we need to make it something that’s a priority and that people do talk about in school. Well, really the basis for that is we believe that tracking is a structural inequity that exists in many of our schools and it can be harmful to students futures and to their self-perception. So I was hoping you could talk a little bit about the current structures or processes that create inequities in school.

Craig: [00:01:11] I will. And maybe I’ll build on the structural inequity phrase that you used and say that because it’s a “structural inequity,” it means that we designed it. And so we can design it differently or un-design something that we——if we realize is creating harm. So we agree that it’s important to recognize that tracking begins in the early years when we separate or segregate students for instructional reasons that are defensible and understandable. But often those separated groupings become more and more hardwired into levels and tracks by the time we get to middle school and high school. And quite often the middle school practice of separating or tracking students is predicated both on the ways that they——they take on the students from elementary sending schools and the way that they see themselves as preparing students for a tracked high school. And so it’s kind of embedded across all the years..

Katie:[00:02:20] Where do you see the flaws in our current practice?

Craig: [00:02:23] Oh, well, there’s a lot to say about each of these. But I’m gonna try to keep it really tight. One is that there are some human variables that are inherently human that are different. So teacher judgment is a big one. We ask teachers in middle school to recommend which of their students should be in honors rosters in high school. And we ask high school teachers to recommend which of their students qualifies or should be recommended for going on and do honors sections in years beyond theirs. But this is embedded in our own assumptions about students or assumptions about what the next teacher or department needs. And implicit bias, which we all carry around. And the second part is that it’s tied to grading. Usually grading is used as a gateway into honors. So if you get a B or better, for example. And grading itself is flawed as the literature richly explains. And so there are two sources, the teacher judgment and and grading that are embedded in that. And I also want to point out that we almost always talk about tracking as ability grouping and usability as a kind of an educational rationale for separating kids. But we should be able to admit that students come and go from honors classes or go from a non-honors to an honors section for other reasons like parent advocacy, student self-advocacy, teacher recommendations, and others. And even habits of work. So a student who plays well in school is often recommended for honors because of their behavior, not necessarily their academics. And the final flaw is that low tracks are very frequently low expectations, low rigor, kind of worksheet level, rote recall work without a lot of rigor. So those——as tightly as I can make it——those are some of the flaws in our current practice. So back over to you, Katie. What do you see as some assumptions that we use to cause us to continue with our longstanding tracking habit?

Katie: [00:04:42] Yeah, I’ll build on that last point you made about the low track frequently means low expectation. I think one assumption that kind of causes us to continue tracking is that students who haven’t mastered the basics can’t think abstractly or that not all students are ready for higher order thinking skills or academic rigor. We see that when we have leveled classes, you know, you have the foundational class or, you know, the C-level of class. So thinking that students need to be kind of leveled based on a perceived ability or a lack of ability to think abstractly or think critically. And that kind of builds into assumption two, which is: It’s too difficult to teach to multiple levels within the same class. So sometimes we think it’s pretty difficult to differentiate instruction to a whole class of students. And while it does really require a different lens and kind of reframing your pedagogy, I think overall the benefits of having been in mixed-ability grouping in the same class outweigh the challenges. So to make teaching easier at each level, sometimes we continue with that old structure of grouping students by ability into low, middle, and high tracks. Sometimes that can be as many as five or six tracks within a certain discipline in a school. A third assumption that we work from sometimes when we see a rationale for tracking is that there is this perception that there are college-bound and non-college-bound students, and that these groups of students need different skills and a higher level of academic rigor if they’re supposed to be preparing for college. And so really our take on that is all students need to be equipped with skills and knowledge to be able to be informed thinkers and productive citizens. And so when we think about students as college bound or non-college bound, it really prevents us from seeing how much they can do and how much they are capable of in terms of rigor and critical thinking. And we know, Craig, that de-tracking can be done and is being done in schools. So what are some approaches you’ve seen in the schools that you’Crve been in that could take–you know, a little step. Maybe not full de-tracking, but in an effort to move toward de-tracking.

Craig: [00:07:21] Yeah, yeah. I think the first step is to know your data and the stories are often waiting to be told and to be understood and analyzed. If you look at your data with inequity in mind. So find out who occupies your honors sections. And is that roster proportional to your school’s demographics of both race and poverty. And if not, you have an inequity on your hands. And once you know that information, it’s hard to un-know it. And that’s a gift. That’s a gift of being unsettled, perhaps, or disturbed by the inequity that you now know is in your school. So look at your data for understanding about inequities. You can also look for schools to reduce the number of tracks. We see a wide array of tracks in our schools when you and I go to different districts as coaches. From one track (plus AP) to four or even five tracks in different high schools around America. And there’s no science to it. It’s really local tradition and localized decision-making. So knowing that there isn’t a science that justifies four tracks over two, or three tracks over two, we should do our best to reduce the number of tracks we have. Coupled with looking at all of our classes, every class that we offer to students deserves to be reviewed for rigor, and every teacher deserves to have their course vetted and improved and critiqued in constructive ways by colleagues and curriculum specialists so that we know that we’re offering our kids complex tasks, higher order thinking——even while they are working on remedial fundamental skills. Another step that schools can take is to recruit kids into honors classes rather than hoping that they take honors. There are schools now that are inviting every freshman to take at least one honors course as a way to recruit students into honors. Thinking about myself as an honor student, building my aspirations toward that level of challenge can be a very positive influence on the rest of the four years in high school. And obviously, we have to rethink our pedagogy. To structurally de-track is not to necessarily guarantee better outcomes. A de-tracked class will require a different kind of pedagogy that anticipates and prepares for all of the different students in a room. So professional development, peer observations, learning from case studies, and so on. And thinking about your curriculum and summative assessments and so on all matter. So I think those are the main first steps. None of them——it’s not a sequence. None of them is the, you know, the most prioritized or highest in importance. All of those are–we think of them as entry points. So.

Katie: [00:10:29] Thanks Craig.

Craig: [00:10:30] Yeah, OK. Katie, thanks for the conversation. Let’s just make sure that our colleagues know that we have attached a really valuable resource that includes some of these action steps. Not to mention the rationales, but the action steps, as well as case studies of schools in America that are making these moves toward equity for students.

Katie: [00:10:54] That’s great. Thanks.

Craig: [00:10:55] All right, talk to you later.

“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.