Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Whatever Happened to Detracking?

About one-third of 8th graders now take algebra. Thirty years ago, about 16 percent took algebra in the 8th grade. Why the jump in enrollment?

Promoters of algebra for everyone give such reasons as: U.S. student math scores on international tests were well below Japan, Korea, and other countries. Fewer U.S. students were taking advanced math courses in high school and were unprepared for college.

Policymakers, educators and parents saw algebra as the gatekeeper course to higher math. You take algebra in the 8th grade and you then could take calculus in your high school senior year. And you were then ready for university courses in math. This is the classic example of detracking. Regardless of ability and performance, making hard courses open to all students is a curriculum change driven by a strong belief in equal opportunity–everyone goes to college–and producing higher student scores on international tests.

Detracking basically means that secondary schools move away from the traditional system of separating students by ability and performance in various subjects that began in the early 20th century. A century ago, elementary and secondary schools enrolled hundreds, even thousands of students. Some students were very able and high performers in academic subjects and others were middling performers and some needed more time to grasp the required content and skills. At that time, students were grouped by age and everyone studied the same content and skills. In classrooms, teachers faced “heterogenous” groups of students with a huge range of abilities, knowledge, skills, and experiences. Many students failed. Dissatisfied parents complained.

By the 1920s, policymakers came up with a system for organizing secondary school students by grouping them “homogenously,” that is by their ability–group IQ tests were used to measure individual intelligence–and previous performance in similar subjects, that is, test scores and teacher grades. Supported by teachers and parents, district policymakers across the nation in these years constructed high school curricula dividing all students into at least three “tracks” leading to different future paths: College preparatory, general, and vocational. Occasionally a student would move from “general” to “college prep” or the other way around but such mobility was limited. Once placed in a track, students took all academic subjects geared for that course of study and remained there for their high school career (see herehere, and here).

That system has largely disappeared. Instead, most high schools track by academic subject to achieve greater homogeneity in classes. High achieving 10th or 11th graders, for example, take Advanced Placement biology or physics while middling or low performers take General Science. In social studies, there is “regular” U.S. history for many students while some take “honors” or Advanced Placement U.S. history. In such tracked academic subjects, teachers still face a range of student abilities and performance but the band of such differences is narrower.

 When did detracking begin?

Beginning in the 1960s activists filed federal suits again school systems that tracked minority students. Such cases as (Hobsen v. Hansen, 1967) that banned tracking in the Washington, D.C. schools and growing concerns over poor academic performance of minority students slowly gained support among policymakers and educators. Reformers, leaning on studies done by researchers, worried about school groupings reinforcing inequalities in society by excluding low income students from advanced courses and thereby entry into college. These policymakers (and parents) pressed states and districts to open up Advanced Placement courses, gifted and talented programs, and the like–including Algebra in the 8th grade–to all students.

By the 1980s with U.S. students posting low scores on international tests, another generation of reformers, prodded by corporate leaders worried about workforce demographics, that is, future employees who would be mostly minority and uneducated to handle the demands of an information-driven workplace. Business and civic  coalitions of reformers pushed for higher graduation standards and broad access of all students to a tough academic curriculum. Since the Nation at Risk report (1983), enrollments in academic subjects taken for four years such as math and science (rather than two or three years) increased.

In the late-1980s and early 1990s, policymakers and reformers, relying on a new generation of research that showed major academic  disadvantages for poor and minority children and youth–as measured by test scores, graduating high school, and admission to college–began pushing for detracking and equal access to all advanced academic subjects (e.g., Algebra for all). Major organizations such as the National Education Association, National Governors Association, National Council of Teachers of English, and others came out in favor of detracking. The states of Massachusetts and California mandated detracking in middle schools. this curriculum reform became a favored strategy since the 1990s (see Ngrams here and here).

What problems did detracking aim to solve?

Reformers seeking detracking have sought to solve problems of low achievement among minority and poor students and persistent unequal access to tough academic courses. Detracking reformers assert that schools that track students perpetuate societal inequalities and sustain the achievement gap between white and minority students. They promise that permitting all students to take courses together regardless of ability and performance will solve inequitable access and at the same time increase the academic achievement of heretofore under-achieving students (see here and here)

Does detracking work?

Yes and no. Studies have shown that detracking has not harmed achievement of high performing students and at the same time has raised performance of previously low-achieving minority and poor students (see here and here, p.90). Moreover, detracking has increased equal access to high school knowledge (see here and here , p.90).

Yet efforts to detrack have had repercussions on teachers and students as these classes have been reorganized (see herehere and here). The evidence at best is mixed which to me means that making organizational decisions on detracking–a complex decision affecting students, teachers, and parents–are more value- than research-driven.

What has happened to detracking?

While the reform of detracking occurred in the late-20th and early 21st century, 60 percent of elementary and 80 percent of secondary schools continue to organize students into homeogenous groups or “tracks.” This is especially so in math courses while mixed grouping of students in high school English, science, and social studies still remain. So while detracking has become a popular reform slogan and has made inroads to how schools organize students for the “what” and”how” of teaching and learning, modified tracking by academic subject remains a mainstream strategy for U.S. schools.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...