Lots of talk on tracking in the math world right now, and I’ve enjoyed following along with the comments on this recent NCTM President’s Message from Robert Berry and this blog post by Michael Pershan, as well as the conversation on Twitter (for instance, here).
In the comments linked above, many people make an argument along the lines of, “but what about the gifted/smart/advanced students?” Tracking is the status quo, and these are the students who many perceive would be affected by a change. They argue that ending tracking will reduce opportunity for a certain group of students, labeled as more able than others. They argue that these students will be less challenged, will love math less, and will struggle to be engaged in the typical heterogeneous class. For more detail, check out the comments and conversation in the links above — there are many compelling arguments, from the perspectives of educators, parents, and former students.
Here’s a thought experiment. What if, instead of a world where tracking is the norm and NCTM is advocating to end it, we imagine a world where there is no tracking, and someone is advocating to institute grouping students into classes by perceived ability? What might people say if heterogeneous classes were the status quo, and we argued to change that?
Here’s an argument I might make:
What about the students who won’t be selected for a higher track? They’ll be pushed into low-level classes taught by less qualified teachers, they’ll interpret tracking as a message that they are less “smart” (likely based on standardized tests), and they’ll be segregated based on those messages, undermining community as entire classes come to believe they’re not mathematically capable. Given the way that academic ability is currently assessed, tracking will create a system of de facto segregation based on race and class, exacerbating differential access to the type of education that young people need to be full citizens in their country. And as tracking spreads, opportunity will be hoarded by families who know how to manipulate the system and buy advantages for their children, whether through private tutoring or pressure on their schools. All of this will limit the mathematical trajectories of many students, often before they’ve hit puberty.
In this alternate world, where tracking is a change to the status quo, what would you advocate for to better support all students?