In Chapter 3 of Noguera and Blankstein’s new book Excellence Through Equity, contributor Carol Corbett Burris details the much-lauded detracking effort that was enacted across the Rockville Centre School District and virtually eliminated achievement gaps.
Detracking by getting rid of the lowest track was the strategy used at South Side Middle School. The principal, Larry Vandewater, phased out the lower track with students leveling up to the higher track classes. Larry placed the reform within the context of middle school philosophy. He reminded parents that the former junior high school was a middle school, not a mini high school. He talked about the importance of developing the social and emotional needs of middle-school children. Vandewater made it clear that Grades 6 through 8 were the time to open up opportunities and help students believe in their capacity to learn, not the time to close the door to high expectations, while labeling some young learners as less capable than others.
In 5 years’ time, the tracks in all subjects with the exception of math and science, had been eliminated. Those two courses had two tracks, beginning in Grade 6, from which students could choose. From 1992 until 1995, between 33% and 42% of students choose to accelerate and take high-track mathematics and science—and while that was good improvement, there was still work to be done. Although acceleration in math was now available to all students, in practice, White, Black, Asian, and Latino students were not choosing to accelerate at the same rates. For example, during the 1996 to 1997 school year, only 11% of Black students and 15% of Latino students opted into accelerated eighth-grade math, when compared with a 50% acceleration rate for white and Asian students. This stratification was not in the best interest of students—especially those in the low-track class. The nonaccelerated, eighth-grade math classes began to assume the classic characteristics of low-track classes. Minority students, poor students, and special education students were overrepresented in the classes, and the failure rate for the lower track was much higher than in the accelerated classes. Clearly, choice was not the solution to bring equity and excellence to the school given that accelerated math is the key to taking advanced math courses, like Calculus, later on. There was only one strategy that would work to truly bring equitable learning experiences to all students and close the achievement gap—every student had to be accelerated1 in math and all student tracking in science had to be eliminated as well.
Cognizant of the importance of preparing all students, the middle school and the superintendent developed a multiyear plan to accelerate all students in detracked classes. In 1995, all sixth-grade math classes were detracked, and all students started down the road to math acceleration. Detracking is never an easy reform to accomplish. Scholars, such as Jeannie Oakes, Kevin Welner, and Amy Stuart Wells have extensively documented the politically treacherous environment that surrounds detracking efforts (Oakes, Wells, Jones, & Datnow, 1997; Welner, 2001).
There are also real challenges that must be addressed to make sure that all students are successful. When math acceleration for all began, parents and teachers worried that there would not be enough support for struggling math students. Parents of high achievers worried that their children would be shortchanged by the presence of students who were less adept at math in the class. These concerns cannot be dismissed. The district needed a plan to make sure that this initiative worked for all students.
Every other day math classes, called “workshops” were added to the schedules of students who needed or wanted extra help. The typical math teacher’s schedule changed so that they taught four accelerated classes and two math workshops that met every other day. The school established a common planning period so that teachers could dialogue and create common plans and assessments. It also gave teachers time to discuss how to meet the needs of struggling learners. As noted above, the parents of students who traditionally would have been accelerated were concerned that the level of challenged might be diminished. The administration assured them that the curriculum would not be watered down, and teachers provided voluntary enrichment activities, such as Mathletes, both during and after school. The assistant principal, Delia Garrity, who supervised math in the middle school and four of the five Board of Education members had high-achieving children in the first cohort of students who were detracked in mathematics. Their presence in the class sent a message of confidence in the more equitable math program to the community at large.
Professional development was also an important part of the process. The teachers and the assistant principal directed the staff development and regularly met to evaluate and tweak the program. Teachers wrote curriculum, developed lessons, chose materials, and evaluated student progress.
Assistant principal, Delia Garrity, who was a former math teacher, was key to implementation success. Garrity analyzed the pass/fail rate of the students each quarter and made a point of sharing that information with the teachers, especially those who were resistant to the change. This ensured that those who were opposed could not dominate discussions with impressions, rather than facts. Whenever the discussion moved to subjective discussions of problems, she skillfully steered the conversation back “to the data.” Although it was assumed that failure rates would increase, that was not the case. Low-achieving students were more successful in heterogeneously grouped, accelerated classes with a more demanding curriculum. Despite these results, a few teachers continued to doubt that all students could do the accelerated work.
Vandewater and Garrity carefully listened to faculty members who were critical of the new math program. They would respond to complaints by asking, “What more do you need for student success?” With this question they moved the discussion from “is this reform working?” to “what do we need to make it work?”
When schools detrack, it is not unusual for dissenting teachers to align themselves with dissenting parents in whispering campaigns. That is what occurred at South Side Middle School, just prior to the Regents exam. All of a sudden, the passing rate dropped. The Board of Education told the superintendent that parents had informed them that more students were failing the course and that large numbers of students would fail the Regents examination. The superintendent told the middle school administration that he would like to speak directly with the teachers.
After complimenting the math faculty on their work with students, he told them of the rumor his Board had heard. He asked the teachers what resources or help they needed to make sure that students would be successful. The teacher who started the rumors was never directly confronted—she did not need to be. Needless to say, the rumors stopped. She received the message that her efforts to undermine were known.
When it came time to take the test, the students did well. The eighth-grade passing rate on the Regents was higher than the teacher-assigned passing rates for the marking periods. Over 84% of students passed the exam, and 52% were at the mastery level with a score of 85% or above (Burris, Heubert, & Levin, 2008). The passing rate continued to improve, even as state algebra curriculum changed, with the passing rate increasing. In June of 2014, 97% of all eighth graders passed this high school course, which is a New York State graduation standard. It is now commonplace that over 60% of all of the district’s students take AP Calculus prior to graduation each year.
After detracking math, the middle school moved to science—first giving all students a life science course, and then accelerating science study even further. For the past 6 years, all eighth-grade students have taken Earth Science, a high-school science course that ends with a New York State exam. This has also been a great success. Not only do students enter the high school with a high school credit in science, the challenge of taking a laboratory-based state course has resulted in improved results in high school biology, a course known as The Living Environment.
Alan Blankstein served for 25 years as President of the HOPE Foundation, which he founded and whose honorary chair is Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He worked for Phi Delta Kappa, March of Dimes, and Solution Tree, which he founded in 1987 and directed for 12 years while launching Professional Learning Communities beginning in the late 1980s. He is the author of the best-selling book Failure Is Not an Option®: Six Principles That Guide Student Achievement in High-Performing Schools, which received the Book of the Year award from Learning Forward. Alan is Senior Editor, lead contributor, and/or author of 18 books, including Excellence Through Equity with Pedro Noguera.
Pedro Noguera is the Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at New York University. He holds tenured faculty appointments in the departments of Teaching and Learning and Humanities and Social Sciences at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Development and in the Department of Sociology at New York University. He is also the Executive Director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education and the co-Director of the Institute for the Study of Globalization and Education in Metropolitan Settings (IGEMS).