Feb 11Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

One moment from high school I think about frequently. I was generally in honors classes in my large and diverse suburban high school. Yet, I was the kid who was sneaking by with the bare minimum work, and didn't cause trouble. I was happy to just be in classes with my friends! And from my observations, the better teachers taught honors classes, the work was more interesting and way less time was spent on behavior management.

I remember sitting in art class (which was an elective, not tracked, so they had a really different mix of kids in them.) and the announcements came on. The announcements listed the same 5-10 students winning multiple awards over the weekend for sports, academics, music, etc. A girl sitting next to me scoffed, "geez, give someone else a chance!" and I remember being SO SHOCKED by her opinion that only certain kids "had the chance" to do whatever. To my knowledge every single team and activity was desperate for more participation. I may have even engaged her more about this, I don't remember.

This comment, that pointed out a basic truth about my high school: a small percentage of high-acieving students had the privilege to participate in extra curricular activities AND then were publicly celebrated and awarded for doing so. This was widely known, but what I didn't realize at the time is that sports, music, etc. were not equal-opportunity options for all students. For some students, extra-curriculars were lame. But I think a lot of students had to watch younger siblings and have jobs outside of high school. Or they at least needed cars or friends with cars or parents to shuttle them around town to various events and practices. I didn't realize this barrier to entry until I was an adult.... Is the path to "just join!" actually open or is it full of obstacles I couldn't imagine?

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I think an essential question is does detracking within a school increase tracking between schools. By this I mean that parents with resources (money, human capital) opt out of the detracked public school and send their children to either private or charter schools that continue to track students. This seems likely to exacerbate racial and class inequality despite the best intentions of educators.

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Feb 11·edited Feb 11Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

I’m so glad to see this topic in this space. I am a teacher, curriculum designer, and former beneficiary of things like G&T programming and Honors/AP classes. I would never go back to tracking.*

The benefits of differentiated instruction, inclusion and co-teaching environments, and curriculum done with the tenets of Universal Design in mind have so many benefits — for me as a teacher and for students — from improved social skills to better behavior to more engagement. (There’s also an enormous amount of data on how teacher expectations shape student outcomes, so even if I didn’t have those positive experiences I still wouldn’t consider tracking — which is a way of conveying expectations ahead of time about who can succeed in a given class environment — to be ethically tenable, and would be motivated to explore different solutions.)

The way my colleagues and I think about Universal Design is like this: you make a buffet. In English, this means you pick a topic or a book, with many ways in: reading, watching videos, listening to audio, etc. You set up many ways to show your thinking: art, raps, presentations. Students choose what they need. (They’re usually very good at this.) Highly-skilled kids may still prefer learning with audio materials; struggling students may prefer the structure of a presentation to art; but everyone gets to experience and express themselves in ways that are rigorous and culturally responsive. It’s far preferable than saying to one batch of kids, “You are all getting burgers,” and to another, “You are all getting sushi.” Either way you’re likely not serving something that everyone likes, wants or needs. Offering “voice and choice” in every classroom makes it more likely that you will.

I would imagine that this way of approaching differentiation is explored in the book and something many teachers are already familiar with. But it’s something I think the general public should know more about as well. If you “take something away,” it’s always better to offer a clear and positive vision of what can replace it. This is something that’s already happening across K-12, and while nothing in K-12 is perfect, I think “the buffet” still works very well, for more people, than the alternatives.

*eta: I think we can still offer access to course types like AP (which can help all students better afford college) while still engaging in these best practices, and offering these opportunities to the majority of students vs a minority. But there’s nuance here and I’m open to other POVs on this as well, since I may share some of the same positive biases toward AP specifically as the folks above.

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I’m really conflicted about this. My kids attended a Catholic elementary school and then a suburban public high school with a reputation for good academics. The detracking movement was just getting going and it was the height of the “college for all” fad. The high school made the decision to allow anybody to enroll in honors classes, which made sense, but didn’t materially change the demographics in the honors/AP track. The counselors and teachers genuinely cared and worked hard to get kids with potential to try honors, but after a couple of years of that the new administration tried to just get rid of the honors track altogether. Hoooo boy…you want to see ugliness? Try taking advanced classes away from parents who are doctors, attorneys, and academics. I’m surprised that guy isn’t buried under the goalposts on the football field.

If schools want to offer rigorous academics and make those classes the norm, then I’m fine with detracking, but the idea that you take away things like 8th grade algebra or HS calculus in order to reduce inequity is a terrible idea. Kids whose parents don’t have clout or resources will suffer, where wealthy parents will just hire tutors or put their kids in private school so that they can have advanced academics.

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Feb 11·edited Feb 11Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

I deeply appreciate that Dr. Thornton is a former classroom teacher (you're never really a former classroom teacher). Too many people making decisions about education have never had to sit across from a parent to deliver news that will disappoint their dreams for their child or navigated the exhaustion of a school year.

Like you, AHP, I have painfully mixed feelings about detracking. My once a week Gifted class was a social haven where I wasn't bullied and I didn't have to worry about being bored. I could just be me. I always resented being asked to be a mini-teacher's assistant. My classmates hated it, too. It occurs to me, however, that none of that is about academics. It's all about culture and community. It is possible to build a different world.

As a 1st /2nd grade teacher at a VERY Fancy Pants Independent School in Seattle (if you live in Seattle & have kids you know which one I'm talking about), my colleagues and I were tasked with creating individualized curriculum for each of our students. We designed lessons as a team of six. It was a lot of work but it wasn't impossible. What I loved about that approach was that no one was "behind" or "ahead". It was okay to nail multiplication and need more support with subtraction. It was okay to have a day where you showed up as your inner six year old even though you were almost eight. Part of what made that possible is that we focused on competencies rather than learning objectives. We had detailed rubrics. We didn't use textbooks. It was an inquiry based approach. (Racism still existed in the school- it just became behavior based. I lasted one year.)

I think detracking is much more possible if you don't try to shove it into the existing learning model. As a skills-based hiring champion now, I want schools to rethink how education happens. The workplace isn't tracked. And there are no quizzes or final exams. If we start the competency conversation from the beginning, this all gets easier.

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Feb 11·edited Feb 11Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

Oh this is interesting! I had no idea what this was called, but experienced it vividly - and not positively - as a kid. (Edit to note: this experience was 1970s through the 80s, for comparative reference to other's experiences.)

Apparently my sister and I were "tracked". Interestingly enough, we ended up in entirely different situations. We were both bright, reading a lot, with parents who could and did take us to museums and libraries, etc. all the time. Even so, my sister was tracked into "Gifted and Talented" as the track was called and I was tracked into "Regular". Note throughout this that I present more with more of my father's South Asian appearance than my sister who presents more with the white appearance of our Nordic mother.

I found most of school unchallenging to the point that I'd daydream, flip through my books and skip homework. I took refuge in the school library in the morning (god bless librarians) and adored my science and art teachers who gave me interesting things to work on. But for the most part, school was where I helped my fellow students understand what the teacher was saying, or how to write a paper, and where I tried to make myself invisible from the mean or bullying students while still visible to the teacher. I got daily reminders that my sister's classes were more interesting and covered subjects in more depth and breadth, that her assignments involved some creativity and less rote memorization, and that her teachers didn't seem burned out, would learn her name and even would speak to my parents about things to keep her engaged.

And then came along Standardized Testing. And suddenly I was yanked out of "Regular" and placed in an "Advanced" English class, a Creative Writing class and introduced to pre-algebra. Overnight school became fun and I went from Bs and Cs to straight As. The difference in how I was taught was SHOCKING and obvious to me, even as a 7th grader.

And then our school district made some significant efforts to integrate a bit better at the high school level. Everyone from my poor-area junior high school, whether white, black or hispanic, regardless of what level classes they were in at the junior high, ended up in "Regular" or "Basic" classes at the rich-white-area high school we were integrated into. I was so very much NOT going back to that situation and fought for a year to get placed back into Advanced classes. I did, even ending up in some classes where there were GT students. Apparently I wrote better and got better grades than they did and one of my English teachers used a A I got on a test to shame the other students into doing better.

I utterly, utterly despised the system. I can't even put into words how much I hated it. It was enough that I gave serious thought to never putting my own children (if I would have had kids; I never did) through public school. Honestly, I feel like I eventually graduated in the upper 20% of my high school despite it and because I actively struggled against it. But I never knew what it was called.

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One thing that I think warrants further exploration is the meeting the needs of the actual gifted students. Kids that are two standard deviations ahead of the norm really should be considered special education just like kids two standard deviations below are. Specialized instruction for both groups likely would lead to the best gains. I know that in some states gifted is special education, but it's not everywhere.

As a classroom teacher who admittedly is teaching only AP classes this year, I worry that class size alone makes detracking extremely difficult. It's hard enough to meet varied needs in a more homogenous class than one that in high school could span reading levels from elementary to college ready. Classes of 30 do not lend themselves well to anything but teaching to the middle due to the number of hours required to prep lessons. My students have commented on how much more laid back their honors and AP classes are in terms of behavior and that most people are ready to do the work in those classes in comparison to the non-honors version. I don't know if there is a great solution for engagement, but I'm always willing to explore other options to raise the tide for all boats.

Philosophically I like the idea of detracking, but the practicalities of it at the high school level concern me in terms of making an already difficult job almost impossible. I think it's something we would need to start at an elementary level and move up rather than disband it k-12 all at once. Without smaller classes though I'm not sure it's feasible on a large scale.

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I would be really interested to know more details about the new system at Johnson HS -- because from this brief discussion, it sounds like they eliminated tracking and replaced it with...different tracking. So they have life-skills classes, as they should, but then it sounds very much to me like they've pulled students with lesser but still significant special needs into a "small track that doesn’t include IB for students who don’t need the life skills program but don’t feel prepared for the IB program." (What does "don't feel prepared" mean? Does the student make that determination? The teachers? The parents? Are they "unprepared" -- i.e. have insufficient preparation, maybe because they entered the district later and didn't participate in pre-IB, in which case maybe prepare them?? -- or does the school consider them "unable" to be successful? Those are really different.)

So sure, they "don't have tracking" anymore, but they also don't have inclusion. What percentage of IEP students are "untracked" vs. placed in the "small track"?

(I don't have a better solution, to be clear; I taught for ten years and then bailed like more and more teachers are doing. But reading an article where the one example of detracking *is still tracking* makes me fairly skeptical.)

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So it sounds like tracking is where kids are placed according to where their test scores/grades (even from years before) put them, i.e. you scored well enough on a standardized test in elementary school to be labeled “gifted” and then you’re tracked into higher level classes unless you opt out (this was my experience, though by the time my sister—3 years younger—was at my HS they’d created the IB program, which had more rigorous requirements but was also more encompassing of high performing students who had not been placed in “gifted” classes). So is detracking where there is more individual choice for higher level classes or where the higher level classes are just the regular classes?

My kids’ educational experiences have been split between two schools: a private, college prep Episcopal school and a suburban public school. In the private school, tracking started in seventh grade with math class. It eventually became as stratified in HS as my experience in the 90s was—essentially, you have the same people in every core class for 4 years. I think there is some choice when it comes to AP classes, but non-AP, more “advanced” classes were entirely dependent upon performance and teacher recommendation. When my daughter—now a junior—was in 8th grade, they brought the honors English teacher in to her classroom to talk about the class and how great it was, but then it turned out you could only be in the class if your 8th grade teacher thought you should be in it. She didn’t make whatever the cut was and was disappointed. We moved in the interim and she started at the public school for ninth grade.

The experience here has been wholly different. Here kids choose a pathway, which funnels them into classes related to what they think they may want to do. There are dozens of pathways ranging from things like construction to health to culinary to a kind of pre-law. Those are your elective classes and then for core, kids can choose from whatever is offered—typically regular, honors, or AP if there is one. In addition to that, every kid takes an AP class their freshman and sophomore years. This is to introduce kids who may be unfamiliar with it to AP, and, I think, to help show kids and their parents who may be less inclined, or in a different system less selected, that they have the capability to do well in a class that is rigorous and challenging.

I’ve been really so much more encouraged by the way this school is set up: my daughter is able to choose classes that challenge her and has teachers who recognize her potential and push her to meet it, which wasn’t the case at the private, tracked school. I don’t know if this is an example of de-tracking, but it’s been so refreshing to feel like the tyranny of the labeling a kid through placing them in certain classes has been removed.

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So many thoughts about this! In elementary school in the 70s, I was in a very early version of gifted programming and loved it. I was tracked in high school in the 80s. First quarter of junior year there was a scheduling issue and I took "regular" English. While the advanced class was reading Macbeth, the regular class was...studying commas. I looked around at my classmates, and knew that they could also handle Macbeth, and was pissed on their behalf. I have a dear friend who was in these regular classes, and she says she felt dumb because of that.

I'm in year 26 of teaching, and have seen a big push to eliminate barriers to AP or advanced or whatever-you-call-the-high-track classes. My biggest personal experience with detracking is when I was teaching reading workshop at the middle school. For two years I had classes of students who tested 2-4 years below grade level in reading but did not have an identified learning disability and who were not currently in the ELD classes. I liked it. Then I managed to convince someone to let kids who love reading also be in the class, and WOW. The difference in mood, engagement, and even community was huge. I did that for another five years, give or take a pandemic, then when my school decided to go back to only having "low" readers, and putting them in a canned program instead of letting me teach a love of reading, I quit. (Well, I managed to find another job first, because my need to eat overshadows my need to make a point.)

I see the pendulum that EVERYTHING in education subscribes to affecting this as well. People identify a problem: tracking is clearly and obviously racist, classist, and is also not the best way to serve students with varying needs. But in the rush to de-track, many schools dump kids who aren't prepared into classes with teachers who don't have the time to plan differentiated lessons that will reach all kids, and everyone does worse, so now we have a new problem. Detracking as explained by Dr. Thornton and supporters of Universal Design does sound like a better solution to me, but too many districts adopt things half-heartedly, without sufficient planning or training, and then throw their hands up when it "doesn't work."

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Feb 11Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

Thank you for this. I have a lot of childhood baggage associated with tracking—surrounded by smart siblings and smart friends, I was the dumb one who the teachers didn’t think was smart enough for gifted and talented. My mom had to make a bit of a fuss to get me into AP classes in high school, and I did just fine when given the chance, though was never able to catch up in math. Which is its own can of worms...what about all the capable children without a feisty parent advocating for them?

When it came time for my own kids to get into these programs in elementary school I refused to have them tested, the unfairness of the whole system and the way I saw privileged parents around me gaming the system truly makes my blood boil. I do have some doubts about the wisdom of this decision-sometimes you just have to play the game-but they are all doing fine, though there were a few bumps along the way. My oldest graduated last year with an IB diploma, my middle is set to graduate at the end of the year, also with an IB diploma (one of her teachers recently told her she wished she could use her as an example of a “regular” kid being able to do the IB program. I think she meant it as a compliment and yet…). My youngest just started high school and is going to have the easiest time because when she started kindergarten the school did away with the “smart kids” class and integrated everyone. Students just swapped around for separate math classes based on ability.

I believe our high school has integrated both the IB and honors classes in the last year or so. There are for sure complaints about having to put up with kids who don’t care, but overall am so glad to see things going in this direction.

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One issue I don’t see addressed in the tracking conversation is age-level grouping. If we get rid of aptitude-based tracking, we are still left with another kind of tracking in our schools: everyone sitting in a ninth grade English class is there simply because they’re all born in the same year. Shouldn’t we challenge that too?

We don’t do that in other learning scenarios: imagine putting absolute beginners in the same swimming class as Olympic hopefuls, just because they are all 15 years old.

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I can't wait to read this book and all the comments.

I can only speak to my experience as parent of elementary schoolers in the most diverse school in a diverse city - and our school has both extreme racial and socioeconomic diversity. Our school and district does not track, and I have been amazed by the way they have attempted to support my children who test several grades above his grade level. In some ways I think it is wonderful that he is in the same classroom and he is able to support his classmates and I used to be a big supporter of tracking.

Post-pandemic, however, I am less sure about detracking. My kids are bored, but much more importantly, learning loss is profound for so many students. It's asking so much of teachers to accommodate so many levels, and at the same time for students that are struggling, does it really help them to be in a class with kids that they will never be able to keep up with? How must that make them feel? Furthermore, as middle school approaches, as our district is a lottery district, families are already splitting (much more along socio-economic lines than racial lines) to pursue more challenging paths for the advanced students, and the kids furthest from opportunity end up at the schools with the fewest resources. I really don't know what the solution is, but my biggest takeaway is the structural issues trump everything; it's so much bigger than schools, and I am skeptical that schools can be the thing that makes the world more equitable.

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I was tracked as a kid, also in G&T. It was complicated and I was grateful to be in classes where it was okay to be smart. This was suburban CT in late 80s, early 90s.

Fast forward to being a parent in Metrowest Boston with 2 boys on an IEP and one daughter who is brilliant but bored at school and does the bare minimum and gets good grades.

I am surprised that the gender differences in tracking and achievement have not been addressed. There is some good scholarship on this. My boys aggressively min-max their characters...they test at the top and bottom of their neuropsych evals. I don't look at their standardized testing because I think that stuff is pretty bunk. No school has ever known what to do with them.

Teachers look at my oldest who has a 140 IQ but can literally barely hold a pencil to write, and judge him on his written work. The end. He has felt dumb for his entire school career and it has had SERIOUS practically hospitalization level mental health consequences. This kid is going to join the Navy next year and become a welder. Judging him on written work he can't produce is just such a disservice to kids like him.

Same with my middle boy...didn't get his autism diagnosis till 14 because he is smart enough to get by in school. Now that he has it...they STILL don't know what to do with him because again...brilliant...but processing speed of a sloth.

I guess I am saying that I AM that parent with the kids on the IEPs. These conversations all seem to have my kids as an afterthought.

I agree with the other posters in that it just sounds like we de-track into other tracks. Public schooling is just really complex. There probably isn't one right answer and a lot of the answers seem to pit one kid's need against another kid.

I also think that the emphasis on de-centralizing individual experiences is pretty unhelpful. The brains of the kids going through the public education process literally don't have the neurons to decentralize their experiences. It is okay to say this is what my experience was. You can only talk of your own anyway.

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Currently: my own first-grader has a kid in her class who is moving to second grade on Monday. She is sad her friend is leaving but is also new to this possibility of skipping a grade because you are smart enough. SO she has spent the weekend teaching her pre-K sister everything she knows so that younger sister can skip right to Kindergarten. I'm going to ride the high of my kids practicing their handwriting instead of begging for screen time before I tell them that their plan, though adorable, is futile.

"[Little sister] is learning so much!!! I'm teaching her diagraphs, which she keeps forgetting so we will have to review them another day." -Big Sister

Little sister just got an F+ in writing her numbers. 🥹

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In the Netherlands we select children at the age of 11-12 into tracks that are then largely offered by different schools based on whether they are more practical or theoretically. Sometimes a school will offer both practical and theoretical once, but then the practical and theoretical tracks are often offered in separate buildings.

The decision which track a student will go to is based on an advice given by their teacher the last year of elementary school. That advice in its turn is based on a bunch of standardized test they took throughout their school years, but also for a large part on the feelings the teacher has for the student. As you can imagine, study after study shows that a lot of biases are present in the process, just like the ones mentioned in the interview. There is one last standardized tests that corrects for that to make sure kids are not placed "too low", but this year is the first year that placements will actually be corrected based on that.

All in all 11 or 12 is way too young to select a track for students, given how much kids that age are still developing. More and more that view is also finding political support and I hope that the proposal to postpone our selection moment by two years will make it into law soon.

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