Special Report

Stop Giving Inexperienced Teachers All the Lower-Level Math Classes, Reformers Argue

By Mark Lieberman — May 05, 2020 8 min read
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All the classes Lauren Baucom was assigned to cover during her first year as a high school math teacher were freshman-level—the department leaders’ choice, not hers. When she started asking why, the answer was a little dismaying.

“They told me it was probably going to be several years of teaching freshmen classes,” said Baucom, who taught at Forest Hills High School in Marshville, N.C., and is now a graduate research assistant and doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s School of Education. “They didn’t know if they could trust my teaching. I remember that conversation really well.”

That was Baucom’s first brush with the phenomenon known as “math-teacher tracking,” likely familiar to many of her colleagues nationwide.

Here’s how it works: Older, more-experienced teachers often get first pick for which courses they want to teach, a kind of informal seniority privilege. Many tend to select higher-level and Advanced Placement courses, because they’re perceived as the most prestigious and because they’re typically associated with academically gifted students who behave well.

That leads to a status quo of younger and less-experienced teachers working with lower-level classes, which tend to enroll students with lower grade point averages, as well as more students of color and English-language learners. Critics of math-teacher tracking say those students might benefit most from teachers with at least several years of classroom experience, but they have the least access to them.

“Math-teacher tracking” isn’t a new phenomenon, but it’s been more openly discussed among educators in recent years. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics called for reform of math-teacher tracking in its 2018 “Catalyzing Change” report. “Detracking” efforts are already underway in some school districts, with teachers rotating through classes in their department and reaching students at all levels over several years. Advocates are trying to spread the word about the value of making such changes.

Detracking isn’t easy, though. Many teachers resist upending their routines or challenging an informal hierarchy. Some teachers lack formal certifications from organizations like the College Board that are necessary to teach upper-level math courses.

What’s more, shortages of math teachers and the subsequent turnover in staff mean schools have little time to devote to professional development for new initiatives like detracking. And when schools or programs downsize, provisions of some teachers’ union contracts allow senior teachers to replace junior ones in the same school or a different one, creating even more faculty churn.

Traditions of seniority and typical notions of prestige seem particularly ripe for undercutting during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced educators to abandon preconceived notions of how education is supposed to work. It’s unclear at this point how different classrooms will look when the virus threat has passed and students can safely return to school. But the experimentation that’s playing out in remote classrooms all across the country could foreshadow further re-consideration of conventions.

How Detracking Could Help

Proponents of detracking math teachers point to the value of educators who have a bird’s-eye view of their entire department’s curriculum. If teachers know what students will be learning in the math course that follows theirs, they can avoid duplicating lessons or skipping over crucial material that won’t be covered elsewhere, and they can better prepare students for what to expect in future classes.

Spreading the responsibilities can also prevent teachers in the lower-level classes, which are often larger and have students who require more attention, from getting burned out. Just as important, it helps ensure that students who need catch-up in math get experienced teachers no less often than students prepared to forge ahead.

Finally, rotating courses can bring fresh approaches. A teacher who has been teaching the same course for decades might be unwilling to try new types of assignments or refresh the curriculum, said Angela Torres, a high school math-content specialist for the San Francisco Unified school district.

Torres has been suggesting that her district’s math-department leaders rethink teacher assignments and shift more-experienced teachers through classes with 9th and 10th graders as part of a long-term rotation schedule. But change doesn’t happen overnight. At first, she said, some departments simply shifted more-experienced teachers to lower-level classes on a permanent basis. That can put more pressure on less-experienced teachers to get up to speed on the most complicated parts of the curriculum, she said.

The norms of teacher tracking can also fall along racial lines. Travis Bristol, currently an assistant professor of education at the University of California, Berkeley, previously taught high school English in New York City. He was never asked to teach AP English, which was taught exclusively by one of his white colleagues, he said.

Bristol says he believes administrators kept him in a lower-level course because those classes had a higher proportion of students of color, some of whom lived in neighborhoods Bristol was familiar with. It was true, he said, that in some cases, he was able to help those students succeed using his experience as a guide.

But that also meant visitors to the school rarely came to his classroom and that he seldom received praise for the merits of his teaching. Similar patterns have emerged in Bristol’s research on the experiences of black male teachers across the country.

“The success that these teachers were having in their schools, their white colleagues believed it was solely based on their ability to connect to [those struggling students] and not that these teachers were teachers who knew how to create scaffolds to allow students to access high-quality content,” Bristol said.

Educators who don’t get to teach AP courses also lack access to AP training and other professional-development opportunities that could help strengthen their teaching, Bristol said.

Barriers on Multiple Fronts

The advantages of detracking don’t automatically remove barriers to it, of course, and the barriers range from labor-market issues to attitudinal ones. Math-teacher shortages remain a challenge nationwide, said Robert Q. Berry, the immediate past president of NCTM.

Teacher turnover is a related issue that both prevents detracking from taking place and provides a reason it might be necessary. If math positions at a school are constantly filled by new people, it’s harder for a department to be nimble and prepare for assigning teachers to a variety of courses, according to Berry. But teachers who get locked into a particular track, like only teaching Algebra 1, experience isolation that might make them more likely to leave their positions, he said.

The perception among some upper-level teachers that students in lower-level classes tend to be less well-behaved is also a problem, and the notion needs to be interrogated, said Torres of the San Francisco schools. “Oftentimes, low self-confidence in math will look like behavior problems,” Torres said. “Usually, that’s avoiding actually trying to do the work.”

Struggling students need teachers who can productively manage their anxieties—and those skills come with experience.

Baucom, the North Carolina teacher, sympathizes with people who don’t want to move away from the parts of math they most like teaching. She wasn’t necessarily keen on teaching AP Calculus or Statistics, and she loves teaching freshmen. But any teacher who covers the same material year after year will be stuck in ways that could harm students, she said.

“You get into these ruts, where you really created something you were proud of and you want to keep teaching that thing. I don’t think that’s a wrong feeling,” she said. “I think the problem is when we become identified” with just that one course.

‘Valuable for Students’

Individual teachers might need help from administrators to see how tracking is affecting their work, said Kelsey Anselmi, who’s taught math at schools in Texas and North Carolina. “If leaders aren’t having that conversation, those conversations don’t happen.”

Advocates of detracking underscore that student success is at issue. Less-than-accomplished teaching can set 9th graders—particularly those in the most vulnerable demographic groups—on a challenging path for the rest of their academic careers, Torres said. Indeed, a 2008 literature review by the Education Trust concludes that “9th graders—actually the most vulnerable of students—are more likely to be taught by out-of-field and inexperienced teachers than are 12th graders,” and the gap is even more pronounced for low-achieving 9th graders.

It takes a “tremendous amount of experience to set up that environment for students to make sense of math together with rich discourse,” Torres said. And it is that kind of environment, she added, that will give students a great 9th grade year in math, with rigor and high expectations.

Baucom has seen tangible evidence that detracking can happen. She and her colleagues undertook rigorous self-evaluations and had meetings over several years to get to a point where teachers now regularly cycle through Algebra 1, geometry, and Algebra 2 sections over the course of a couple school years.

“For some teachers that was really intimidating,” Baucom admits. But they’ve gotten more comfortable over time, and she’s hopeful that the new paradigm will prove to be valuable for students.

“We moved from being content-area specialists to having pedagogy knowledge” that can be applied across several different math-class levels, she said. “That’s still evolving.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 06, 2020 edition of Education Week as Time to ‘Detrack’ Math Teachers, Reformers Say


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