Is tracking a form of segregation and oppression?

There’s talk in our building of eliminating the academic math classes. My initial reaction was: This is a terrible idea. Students need these classes. We need to meet them where they are. Maybe I should go on the record and send an email to admin. I shared my frustration with a trusted colleague who held a very different opinion. She basically said, “You’re going to the wrong person if you think I agree with you.” She believes the academic level students need positive role models. Eliminating that track and placing them in an at-grade level math class is a good thing. I respect her opinion, but I still disagreed. I felt we would be doing the students a disservice.

I couldn’t let it go so this morning I spent some time re-reading portions of Linda Darling-Hammond’s book The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future. In part, her position on tracking is that it denies equity and access. It caused me to begin reassessing my position. I was still uncertain because I teach in an upper middle class community. I’m thinking Darling-Hammond is talking primarily about poverty. That doesn’t apply to my district.
Then one of Diane Ravitch’s posts caught my attention: Rothstein: Cannot Close Achievement Gap without Ending Segregation. The article struck me and I began to think…

Could tracking be considered a form of segregation in that a tracked curriculum denies students access or equitable access? Could tracking be considered a form of oppression?

I never before thought of tracking in those terms. I learn so much by reading Ravitch’s blog that I posed the two questions in that thread.

Here’s part of the discussion.

Ponderosa says:

February 23, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Mary –I was thinking the same thing. Tracking is segregation within the school. And I think tracking is GOOD because it allows me as a history teacher to tailor my instruction to meet kids in their “zone of proximal development”; that is, to give them knowledge that makes them stretch but is not beyond their reach. Tracking is differentiated instruction, but without the pretense that all kids of the same age are getting the same education. Can’t we live without this pretense? Or will we continue to lie to ourselves about the real state of the content of our kids’ minds? Will we continue to preserve the pretty-looking heterogeneous classrooms that frequently bore the top kids and bewilder the low kids? (And will we divert this argument from one about substance to one about semantics [“He said, ‘top’ and ‘low’ kids!”]?)     

teachingeconomist says:

February 23, 2013 at 6:19 pm

It is widely held here that poverty is the greatest disadvantage that poor and disadvantaged students face. It is the explanation for poor assesment scores and can not be overcome by what happens in the school. It seems perfectly reasonable that poverty would also have a significant impact on learning in the classroom.

This is an important and very interesting thread, tying together discussions on tracking within schools, “skimming” between schools, the relationship between poverty, test scores, and student performance, and the role of traditional zoned school in SES segregation in the country. I look forward to seeing more comments.

I wonder how the grades taught influence perceptions about the issues here. Would an elementary teacher have the same intuition and experience as a high school teacher?

DNAmartin says:

February 23, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Rothstein argues, “When disadvantaged students are grouped together in schools, their challenges are compounded and build upon each other.” The knowledge deficits that you speak about in this post are compounded when students are place in segregated or tracked school environments. Disadvantages students need to interact in classrooms with many speakers and readers who have this powerful general knowledge that you describe. Research shows that they make greater progress in achievement when they have access to peers with the general knowledge. When they interact and talk with students with the same deficits as their own then these deficits are compounded. Disadvantaged students can bring great assets of creativity, problem solving, compassion, unique and valuable cultural experiences, perseverance, empathy, morality, patience, story-telling, and funds of knowledge in areas of nature or music to their more advantaged peers. Their assets are many and diverse when we look.

I do agree with you that we need to give these kids what upper class parents have been giving their kids. However, I don’t see upper class parents assigning their kids the KIPP boot-camp style school discipline that you mention. Kids do need the daily one-on-one annotation and thinking about daily life events that you describe.

I’m beginning think tracking is a form of segregation and oppression. Have I been a party to academic apartheid?


Getting students caught up

Julie’s prompt this week is…How do you help students in your class that are behind in math? What a great question.

Here are some reasons I thought of as to why students fall behind:


  •  lack of investment in their own learning
  •  insufficient self-advocacy skills
  •  inability to set goals and monitor their own progress
  •  inattention, social-emotional, or learning disability
  •  absences


  • infrequent formative assessments
  • pacing is too fast for the student
  • lack of differentiation during class or homework
  • insufficient monitored and/or independent practice

BEFORE they fall too far behind

Let me share what happened on Friday. I returned an equivalent ratios formative assessment to one of my classes and six students absolutely bombed it. Fifteen students earned a 2.5 or better (3 is the target, 4 is exceeds the target in my standards based grading grade book). The six who struggled demonstrated a level of proficiency of 1.5 or less. So as a class, they are either “getting it” or they “are not getting it at all”. There is no middle.

This was the first formative assessment so the group hasn’t fallen too far behind. But if I don’t do my job they’ll fall even farther behind.

After we discussed the assessment, I regrouped the class so I could meet with the six students. I assigned a Thinking Blocks online ratio activity to most of the class while I met with the struggling group. We had a conversation and this is what I learned…we were both at fault.

Let’s start with me.

It turns out that my pace was too fast and I didn’t give them enough monitored and independent practice. The short of it is I should have better differentiated this lesson to accommodate their needs. It also turns out that I need to help them develop self-advocacy skills. Students already set goals and monitor their progress (Student Goal Setting 6 RP1), but they need to take it more seriously.

Now them.

I want students to tell me to slow down. I also want them to ask questions. A few are not as invested in their learning as much as I am. I get it; they’re kids. But that also means they’re not old enough to choose not to learn. I intervene by insisting they either attend math lab or schedule a date with me after school.

WHEN they’ve fallen behind

When I pull students for math lab (fourth period) I reteach and monitor their practice problems. If it’s not busy, a student can receive one-to-one attention.  Other times it’s a bit busier where students drop in for help with one problem. Or it can be chaotic where I’m re-teaching two different classes at the same time while students drop in with a quick question.

Math lab fills a need but it is a horrible substitute for when a student misses class. On Thursday, two students who were previously absent thought they could make up an 84 minute lesson on one step equations in 30 minutes. It was disastrous.

In those situations perhaps I should insist students come before or after school. It adds to my day however it also forces the student to have “skin in the game”. I’m well aware there is life beyond school. Kids have after school activities and responsibilities. Those are important yet so is learning. It’s a dilemma.

Providing extra monitored practice, or some re-teaching to get a student caught up is one thing. I can handle that in class, in math lab, or after school. What I haven’t been able to do well is getting students caught up when they’ve been absent. That requires a heck of a lot more dexterity, juggling, and time.

Math lesson plan for observation

I’m going to enjoy reading other teachers’ contributions to this week’s MS Sunday Funday topic, Post Your “Official” Lessons Plans. I want to see different approaches and learn from others. My district promised to provide teachers exemplar lesson plans (to coincide with our new teacher evaluation system) but it has yet to do so. I’m not dissing them–everyone is overextended–but what the district has done is provide a lesson plan template to follow.

For my observation I used the district template to create this lesson plan on a sixth grade shaded rectangle task  I previously wrote about. The mastery objective was: Students will be able to discover through investigation the base, height, and area of triangles. I modified the lesson, found in the  Sept. 2012 issue of Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, to include resource cards for differentiation.

Draw a rectangle based on the following information

  • Divide the height into 3 congruent line segments by placing points on the line segment.
  • Divide the base into 4 congruent line segments by placing points on the base.

Construct triangles and determine the area

  • From the point just below the top-left corner, draw a line segment to each point on the rectangle.
  • Shade the triangle at the upper-left corner and then shade every other triangular region.
  • What is the total area of the shaded region?

I got hammered* in the post-observation and rightfully so. I should have added a second objective–students will utilize various reading strategies to complete a mathematical task–because several groups did not comprehend the directions. As I mentioned in the previous post

It’s the only geometry task I have ever given where a geometric shape, or visual, is not provided. Students must construct a specific rectangle and 11 triangles within it, shade the alternating triangles, then determine the area of the shaded region–all from written directions. Way cool!!!

Looking back I was an idiot for not including the reading objective. I knew the task was based on written directions but I only focused on a math objective.  I updated the lesson plan so you won’t make the same mistake.

*not as in drunk. As in a hyperbolic form of critique!

Help wanted: differentiating math homework while implementing the Common Core

I hope I’m not the only one out there who is having trouble differentiating math homework during this Common Core transition period, especially when it comes to the content.

New content + closing gaps  + a wide range of student abilities = Yikes! I need to differentiate, but how?

Even if your middle school tracks math like mine does (in sixth grade we have five levels)  it is the at-grade level math class where student ability has the widest range. In my standard (at-grade level) classes I have students ranging from the 25 to the 90 percentile in MAP scores.

B.C. (before the Common Core)–It wasn’t perfect but I was handling it

In the past I daily differentiated homework by offering students a choice between two tiers of practice problems. Lower ability students chose A or B level worksheets (provided by the textbook publisher) and the rest chose B or C level worksheets. I admit, I did not offer the high ability students a choice; they were assigned the Level C problems.

Reviewing the homework the following class period was tricky. Students formed groups according to their assignment, discussed the problems, and checked their answers with the answer keys. But my classroom was far from perfect. If we reviewed any problems as a whole class I was certain to lose some students because that problem was not on their homework. Another related challenge: some groups took longer than others and I should have been prepared with extensions or additional practice for the groups who were waiting.

A.D. (during this Common Core transition)–Holey Moley

This year I’m not differentiating as well as I’d like. Our geometry unit was created late last year and over the summer so we were able to gather adequate resources to differentiate. But our other units are being crafted as we go. We’ve been busy pulling resources just to address the standards.

If you are familiar with the Common Core you know the emphasis is on the eight mathematical practices. Our textbook only supports the computational processes, not the deep levels of understanding. And from what I understand the textbook publishers have only been able to “align” (frankly I think that means rearrange) their current problems. It takes time to create rigorous tasks that address the practices, so we’re waiting for the publishers to truly offer a Common Core textbook with resources.

And those textbook differentiated worksheets? I use them but less often. I’d be fool to think I was truly differentiating to meet the Common Core. I’m just doing the best I can with what I’ve got.

I know this is a transition period. I hope when the dust settles I’ll be able to do a better job differentiating.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Guest Post by Gary Rubinstein

‘Rigor’ is in, and the common core standards promise to raise the achievement in this country by raising expectations which students always rise to meet.

As a staunch “status-quo defender,” it might surprise ‘reformers’ that I have some pretty radical ideas about how I’d change the math curriculum in this country if I could. While they tinker around with teacher evaluation formulas which could, at best, raise test scores by a little, I would like to see a complete overhaul of what we teach in math.

When I heard that the common core was going to address the problem that the math we teach is “a mile wide and an inch deep” and that we need to teach fewer things, but better, I thought that this was an excellent idea. It was something I was thinking about for a while. It is not possible…

View original post 880 more words

Math practice websites: a stormy relationship

I have a rocky relationship with math practice websites. Until there’s artificial intelligence,teacher inside

And I don’t know of any math teacher who has accepted that job. The working conditions are really confining.

But if you are looking to differentiate math practice using Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) scores, check out the collection of sites gathered by Royal Oaks Elementary School in Woodbury, MN. Nancy McGuiness has taken the time organize practice sites by topic which are then sorted by RIT score.

Math MAPMath MAP algebra
Some RIT bands have as many as 15 websites to choose from, others have as few as five. Some are game based, others are the equivalent of taking a paper-pencil, multiple choice test. There are links to NCTM’s Virtual Manipulatives, BBC, Shodor, Pearson, and Nelson Education. It’s convenient, one stop shopping.

Math MAP dorkMath MAP decimal

The categories listed on the Royal Oaks site do not reflect the latest MAP topics of Algebra & Functions, Real & Complex Number Systems, Geometry, and Statistics & Probability, but that’s minor complaint.
Occasionally I use these math practice websites in class and some students really put forth the effort. The reluctant learners however tend to either click on anything just to get through the exercise or they are not independent enough to work alone.

Based on my experience this is a learning activity that requires monitoring and guidance. That is, of course, until Intel gets that teacher inside.