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Student Achievement Opinion

When Excellence And Equity Thrive

By Carol Corbett Burris — January 28, 2004 6 min read
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Why do we tolerate the curriculum gap that results from tracking?

I am always puzzled by the arguments of those who contend that excellence and equity are mutually exclusive. The implication, of course, is that one comes at the expense of the other, and school leaders must choose between the two. If equity is chosen, then excellence will plummet—or so the warning goes. I am puzzled because my experiences as both a teacher and a principal have taught me that if a school provides increased access to its best curriculum, both excellence and equity thrive.

By any measure, the racially and socioeconomically diverse suburban high school that I serve is rated as excellent. We are a Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and twice named one of the 100 Best High Schools by Newsweek magazine. We have one of the highest Regents diploma rates in New York state, and the 16th-largest International Baccalaureate program in the world. Our students win awards, our teachers win awards, and our real estate agents are smiling. I mention this not to boast but rather to make a point: Every one of these achievements is a result of the pursuit of equity. Excellence followed.

Our research program that consistently produces Intel finalists is open to all. Its teacher actively recruits disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Our International Baccalaureate classes, which originally began as part of a gifted program, have been open for over a decade to any student who wants to enroll. As classes have become more heterogeneous, scores have risen, not declined. Our students come from a heterogeneously grouped middle school into a heterogeneously grouped 9th grade. Special education students are included. The more we open gates and de-track, the better all students, including high achievers, do. We have worked to close the achievement gap by leveling up instruction for all students, not by placing kids in low-track, remedial classes. The percentage of Latino and African-American students in our high school studying Advanced Placement calculus exceeds the national average for all students. To pursue excellence without equity not only would be ineffective, it would make us feel ashamed.

It has been 18 years since Jeannie Oakes published Keeping Track, exposing both the ineffectiveness of tracking and the racial and socioeconomic stratification that results from it. It has been 10 years since William Schmidt and Edward Kifer, in their analysis of the Second International Mathematics and Science Study, identified tracking in middle school math as a major contributor to the underachievement of American 8th graders. And it is nearly five years since the National Research Council advised against low-track classes because of their low expectations and skill-and-drill focus. Yet, like retention, tracking persists despite the evidence of the harm it creates.

Why is this so? It persists because many educators believe that they can, and should, quantify and categorize learning potential. Schools use cutoff scores on standardized tests and teacher grades to assign track placement. A point to the right, a student is “in honors"; a point to the left and she is placed “in average.” The fact that all teacher grades are subjective and that standardized-test scores have margins of error is rarely taken into account. We feel obliged to measure human learning potential the way we measure the foot to fit a shoe.

In their 1999 essay “Access to Knowledge,” Ms. Oakes and Martin Lipton explain how the labels we construct to categorize so-called academic ability shape our judgments about students, and how students, in turn, internalize the adult beliefs:

Both students and adults mistake labels such as “gifted,” “honors student,” “average,” “remedial,” “LD,” and “MMR” for certification of overall ability or worth. These labels teach students that if the school does not identify them as capable in earlier grades, they should not expect to do well later. Everyone without the “gifted” label has the de facto label of “not gifted.” The resource classroom is a low-status place and students who go there are low-status students. The result of all this is that most students have needlessly low self-concepts and schools have low expectations. Few students or teachers can defy those identities and expectations.

The power of labels and the effects of tracking are not a secret.

The power of labels and the effects of tracking are not a secret. Savvy parents realize the subjectivity involved in track placement, and they pressure schools to place their sons and daughters in high-track, high-status classes. In a world where college-admissions counselors tell parents that the most important entrance criterion is the level of the class studied by the student, is it any wonder that parents “in the know” work the tracking system? The result is well documented in the literature: tracks that are stratified by race and socioeconomic status far beyond what might result from the objective measurement of student achievement. If we are truly committed to “closing the achievement gap,” why do we let the “curriculum gap” that results from tracking exist?

The deeply ingrained beliefs that sustain the tracking of learning do not disappear overnight, and educators who seek to de-track schools often face stiff opposition by staff and community. But our high school’s student- achievement gains have demonstrated that de-tracking, and open-enrollment policies for IB and AP classes, are well worth the effort. For those who undertake this reform, here are some principles to follow:

  • Begin by eliminating the lowest track. Low-track classes depress student achievement, causing students to fall further and further behind.

  • Allow any student who wants the challenge of studying at the Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate level to do so. Achievement will not go down. Our high school has multiyear achievement data to support this contention.

  • De-track in all subjects, including mathematics. When our district accelerated all students in math, with all students taking algebra in the 8th grade in heterogeneously grouped classes, math acceleration was maintained and the enrollment in Advanced Placement calculus increased by 40 percent. Despite increased enrollment and an increase of lower achievers in the AP class, our scores on the AP exam increased by a statistically significant amount.

  • Teach the high-track curriculum in heterogeneous classes and provide support for struggling learners. Experience has taught us that the high achievement associated with high-track classes is a result of the curriculum, not grouping. Too often, teachers attempt to “teach to the middle,” rather than teach a rich curriculum using strategies that differentiate instruction and reach all learners.

  • Don’t fall into the trap of waiting until everyone is on board. A courageous superintendent decided when to begin heterogeneous grouping and accelerated instruction in mathematics in our district. He did not wait until all teachers and all parents agreed.

  • Have faith in teachers, even when they worry. I have found that as classes become more heterogeneous, teachers become more ingenious. Generously praise their efforts and always provide support.

  • Collect, analyze, and communicate data. The collection and dissemination of achievement results moves the discussion from opinion to fact. The data you need is your school data—large studies of tracking that do not control for the effects of curriculum and school type provide mixed results and little guidance.

As we continue to struggle as a nation to provide high standards for all learners and to close the achievement gap that separates groups of our students, school success and high-track curricula can no longer be scarce and guarded commodities. If we truly believe that no child should be left behind, then all children must have access to the best curriculum each school has to offer. Equity and excellence cannot be exclusive when they should be inseparable.

Carol Corbett Burris is the principal of South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. Her doctoral dissertation on this subject for Teachers College, Columbia University, was recently named by the National Association of Secondary School Principals as the middle-level dissertation of the year.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as When Excellence And Equity Thrive

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