What happens when the systems in which we teach no longer work for the students we serve? Do we hunker down and just teach? Or do we speak up publicly about the structures that perpetually hold students back?
A few years ago, I recognized a problem at my school: Tracking in our school’s math courses was holding back students of color who were enrolled in less-rigorous math classes than their white peers. I quickly recognized that the tracking system at my school had little to do with students’ innate mathematical abilities, and everything to do with their parents’ engagement in traditional school structures. Parents who lobbied for their children to be enrolled in our school’s advanced math classes were successful, and as a result, their children were exposed to more-challenging content.
Once I understood the system, I began to make changes within my sphere of influence. I started by opening the door to the advanced math class to anyone who wanted to be there. I educated both parents and students about how the system worked. I conferenced with students who were serious about getting into the advanced math class and asked them to have their parents call me. From there, I encouraged parents to call the administration and request advanced math for their children. I knew administrators would come to me with these requests, and I would open my door to the students. In this manner, I changed the demographics of the advanced math class.
I started recruiting students in the middle of 7th grade and continued through early in 8th grade. The advanced math class started with 23 students, and it grew to 30 students by the end of the fall semester. Six of the new students were students of color, and the other new student had an individualized education program.
It took a while before the school’s administration began to realize what I was doing. When over half of the grade was enrolled in the advanced math class, heads started to turn. This didn’t bother me. In fact, it encouraged conversations with administrators and colleagues about creating a more equitable system that I was excited to have.
If we truly want excellent education for all students, then we must allow all students the opportunity to engage with challenging content. Although tracking may be more appropriate for high school, far too often students of color and other marginalized populations are placed in lower-level courses before they have learned how to advocate for themselves. These are the skills we need to teach our students throughout their middle school years.
During their 8th grade year, when my advanced math students took the Keystone Algebra I exam, all but one passed. The student who did not pass was the last to join the class, and she was able to bypass Algebra I her freshman year of high school and pass the test in the fall of that year. The passing rate for the state of Pennsylvania on this test is 65 percent.
When Push Comes to Shove: Overcoming Challenges
Throughout the two years I spent teaching the tracked math class (including my recruited students), I engaged in conversations with coaches, principals, and other teachers at my school. I described the inequities that tracking had created in our school. With the help of data and support from parents and colleagues, I made a strong case for heterogeneous groupings. By the time my first students graduated, the administration and I had already come to an agreement that the following class of students would not be tracked.
If we truly want excellent education for all students, then we must allow all students the opportunity to engage with challenging content."
Before the next school year even started, multiple parents approached me through email and in person. Parents of students who would likely have ended up in the advanced math course were concerned about their children not being appropriately challenged. I met with these parents multiple times in the first months of school and promised that if they just gave it time, they would see how effective the new model could be.
As a safeguard for me as a teacher, I requested that the administration make a statement that the school no longer supported tracking in any classes. When we took a deep dive into content, parents’ concerns began to ebb, and the parent who had been the most vocal even remarked, “Now that we have seen the assignments [my son] is doing in class, we know that he’s being thoroughly challenged.”
During this process, I had expected that parents would need the most convincing, but I was wrong. It was my fellow math teachers who began to panic at the idea of having to teach a heterogeneous class. Some of our regular middle-school meetings became heated, and I often felt as though I was on my own island fighting to keep afloat.
Things did get better. I can’t quite pinpoint what caused the change or when it happened, but eventually I started hearing other teachers using my ideas as if they were their own. For example, I heard teachers discussing a shift from a full class marching at the same pace all the time toward fully differentiated, self-selected groupings that focused on the same topic and required varying levels of support. Sometimes debates are won without the other side even knowing it. As teachers advocating for better education policy, it’s not about us. It’s about making school a better place for our students.
Is There Really an End Game?
Three years later, the first class of students who spent their entire educational career in heterogeneous groupings has graduated. After evaluating data collected using the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment, we have seen an increased rate of growth in both the middle and lower third of the students, while maintaining a consistent rate of growth for students in the upper third. Historically, students who were in the lower third of classes at our school rarely saw any growth. Now, these students are moving closer and closer to grade level each year. The change has come with growing pains— we’ve had an ongoing need for professional development around heterogeneous classrooms, and the introduction of a new standardized test in Pennsylvania has caused a recent shift in our curriculum.
But no matter what challenges we face in our schools, we must always lead with our students’ best interests in mind. Most policy decisions are made with good intentions, but those who created the system are the least likely to want to change it. As teachers, we must remember that we have a unique understanding of what our students need. When we see an inequity in the system, we must not sit idly by and watch. We must act. Even if the steps we take are small at first—they matter.