In the 1990s, the Chicago public school system embarked on an experiment in “detracking” reform, wherein it eliminated advanced math courses in high schools. The schools took an honors-for-all approach, making all students, regardless of aptitude or ability, take algebra or higher-level math beginning in ninth grade and eliminating remedial math courses.
The stated goal of detracking was to encourage more students to take challenging math courses and boost the number of graduates who went on to college.
As a 2014 report in EdWeek summarized, the experiment was a failure. All of the students suffered:
In the wake of that policy change, low-achieving students were more likely to fail 9th grade math and, eventually, less likely to graduate from high school. They were no more likely to attend college. In the meantime, higher-achieving students’ test scores declined, in part, the researchers suggested, because struggling and unsupported lower-achieving peers were slowing down the class. The high achievers were also less likely to go on to take advanced math, which may have helped explain why they were also less likely to attend college.
In other words, detracking didn’t help the students it was intended to help and harmed the students who had previously done well with tracking.
Educational policymakers offered many explanations for the failure, including that teachers weren’t properly trained to deal with the mix of students in their classrooms and didn’t receive enough professional development support. When Chicago reintroduced some elements of tracking, however, including advanced classes for high-performing students and more intensive remedial classes for poorly performing students, all students improved.
“People often think that grouping low-achieving students together is detrimental,” Takako Nomi, an assistant professor of education at St. Louis University in Missouri, said at the time. But in fact, even among the lower-performing students, “scores actually improved despite declines in peer ability” in their tracked classes.
And yet, tracking continued to spark controversy. In 2014, Obama’s Department of Education made tracking an explicitly racial issue when its Office for Civil Rights targeted a New Jersey school district’s tracking program, claiming that it had too few black students in its advanced classes. As The Atlantic noted at the time, “The education department and advocates have said tracking perpetuates a modern system of segregation that favors white students and keeps students of color, many of them black, from long-term equal achievement.”
Ultimately, the school district had to enter a resolution agreement with the Department of Education that required them to hire a consultant to “come up with a plan to increase equity.” Other school districts that wanted to keep tracking programs, such as California’s Elk Grove school district, were required to make the students in the advanced program match the racial makeup of the school district.
The Obama administration’s approach rested heavily on many assumptions about race and performance, many of them consistent with Critical Race Theory’s emphasis on equality of outcome. The use of Critical Race Theory as a lens for understanding educational outcomes has only increased since then, both in volume and hyperbole. A typical CRT argument in the journal Educational Considerations recently posited that any racial disparities in advanced classes are evidence of racism. As one academic argued, citing the work of Derrick Bell, tracking is itself a form of segregation akin to the segregation outlawed by Brown v. Board of Education: “Legal decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954) provide an illusion of racial equality, other structures such as tracking remain in place to maintain the entrenchment of racial segregation and inequality.”
All of which should be understood as context for the revivified debates over tracking and advanced classes in public schools. As the New York Post reported this week, a furor erupted among parents when the Lab Middle School in New York announced that it was planning to eliminate its advanced math courses. This comes after New York announced earlier in the year that it planned to eliminate “gifted and talented” tests for entry to public schools in the city, one of the recommendations of Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group, which previously called for the dissolution of all tracking for advanced students in New York public schools in the name of “equity.”
In Boston, the School Committee “voted to scrap the traditional admissions exam for a system that allocated seats based on a student’s grades and ZIP code, which members thought would give priority to students in lower-income communities.” When parents objected, school committee member Lorna Rivera texted that she was “sick of Westie whites” who were complaining about the admissions change. “Whatever. They’re delusional,” fellow committee member Alexandra Oliver-Davila texted back. Both were forced to resign. Another committee member, Michael Loconto, also resigned after he was “caught on a hot mic before the meeting mocking the names of Asian parents who signed up to speak.”
None of this evidence of racial animus toward white and Asian students changed the Boston Public Schools system’s approach. A spokesman said the school system will “continue our work with our stakeholders as we dismantle systemic barriers to opportunity and open up access for our students.”
As Noah Smith of Bloomberg noted of the New York City changes, “Killing advanced classes does nothing to improve broad-based math education, or to foster the skills necessary to have a broad, highly competent technical workforce—which is what we need if we’re going to keep our high-tech industries.”
He added, “Simply refusing to teach well-prepared kids advanced math will NOT result in less-well-prepared kids learning math more effectively. Math learning is not some kind of resource in fixed supply.”
He’s right, as decades of evidence demonstrates. Yet equity advocates continue to insist that schools are denying opportunities to kids not based on their ability and willingness to work hard, but because of “structural racism.” This allows them to overlook many inconvenient facts. In the Chicago de-tracking experiment, for example, it wasn’t innate ability that determined student success, but motivation and behavior: The study found that “students misbehaved more” in the remedial level classes and “were more likely to be suspended or receive disciplinary infractions,” which made it more challenging for teachers to teach them.
Are tracking efforts and advanced classes and “gifted and talented” programs in need of reform and improvement? Of course. Schools should constantly reevaluate whether these programs serve their student populations. The question is whether those reforms will be driven by practical realities based on evidence or merely by conformity to ideological demands.
Smith argues that the “excellence vs. equity” approach to the tracking debate misses a larger point: The U.S. needs to improve its STEM education overall, and the way to do that is to focus on fostering habits and motivation among all students interested in these areas of study. Smith is surely correct, but he underestimates how determined CRT-inspired “equity” advocates are to eliminate any mechanisms for measuring ability as a signal of their larger ideological commitment; they aren’t eliminating advanced classes so the U.S. will be more competitive with China in the future.
Making advanced classes and tracking all about race simplifies things. According to the CRT formula, any racial disparity is evidence of racism, hence it must be abolished or reconfigured to suit the desired outcome. This allows equity advocates to avoid the real challenge that the lack of representation by black and Hispanic students in advanced math courses reveals: These students did not receive decent math education and support beginning in elementary school and have fallen behind their peers who did.
That is a failure of our public schools. It should be tackled not by punishing other students down the road but by improving the quality of education for all in the early years. The CRT approach also ignores what will be the likely outcome of abolishing advanced courses: Students with the means to leave will abandon public schools for private schools. Either that or their families will pay for outside tutoring to ensure those students perform at levels beyond their less well-off peers, intensifying rather than alleviating broader inequities.
“Equity” advocates who want to abolish all tracking, all selective public high schools, and all advanced courses in subjects like math aren’t interested in thoughtful reform. They demand revolution. If you believe, as equity advocates do, that acknowledging disparities in ability or interest is a gateway to returning to last century’s malign racial segregation in schools, abolition of such standards is the only path forward—and gutting advanced courses and tracking are viewed as a necessary casualty in that larger war.