What is tracking?
Tracking used to refer to a rigid system of course placements for students, where students had no choice over their courses and they were locked into a college prep or vocational track. The way schools work has changed, making tracking much more complicated, and so the way we use the term tracking has also changed.
Now, tracks refer to the number of levels of courses offered in a subject and tracking refers to the collection of courses that students take. According to Kelly (2007) tracking is characterized by selectivity (the number of tracks), electivity (the extent to which students can choose their courses), scope (the extent to which students’ courses are all at the same level), and inclusivity (the proportion of students in the highest levels of courses).
Here is a description of tracking at one, made up school: There are three levels of English courses with only a small proportion of students in the highest level. Students wanting to move to a higher level English course might need to get a certain score on a state exam and most students wind up taking most of their courses at the same level.
What does it mean to be “detracked?”
Under the old system, where students had no control over their courses and were locked into a college prep or vocational track, detracking often meant giving students the ability to choose their own courses. Tracking has changed however and we have learned that just saying that courses are open to all doesn’t change the racial and class inequities of tracking (to learn about this research click here).
Now, detracking refers to decreasing the number of levels of courses offered in each subject. If a school went from four levels of freshman English to two levels, we would say that the school was detracking. In theory, a completely detracked school would have only one level of courses offered at each grade level. In reality, when researchers say a school is detracked it is often unclear whether every single student is taking the same classes or if the school has just decreased the amount of tracking at the school.
Academic tracking was created to segregate schools between races and classes (to learn more about the history of tracking click here). Today, tracking continues to create within school segregation. White and wealthy students are over represented in the top levels of courses. Black, Latinx, and low income students under represented in those same courses. By under represented we mean that based on test scores and achievement, many more Black and Latinx students should be taking higher level courses than actually are. In interviews, these students have spoken about being discouraged from taking the higher level courses by their teachers and counselors (to see the research on this click here).
Despite our attempts to “fix” tracking we continue to racially and economically segregate students within our schools. How can we prepare our students for a diverse world if we teach them in segregated rooms? How can we close the achievement gap if we don’t offer all students rigorous instruction? How can we create racial and economic equity if we are segregating our children?
How can I get involved?
Won’t detracking hurt my child?
One of the strongest forces keeping tracking systems in place is the fear of wealthier, Whiter, parents that detracking will harm their child either by reducing the quality of their child’s education or reducing their chance of getting accepted into elite colleges and universities.
If all that detracking consists of is getting rid of academic tracks and suddenly throwing everyone together into one room, than these parents are right to be worried. Creating a massive change in a school system, without supports for teachers or students, rarely ends well.
If the detracking is part of a deep examination of teacher beliefs, extensive professional development and teacher support around heterogeneous instruction, and supports for students than no, detracking will not harm your child. Research on the effects of detracking has shown significant academic impacts for children who had been low achieving previously and no negative impact for previously high achieving students (to see research on this click here). There is no “normal” student any more. Do you still want your child’s teacher to be pretending that she is just a “normal” student who doesn’t need anything special or do you want a teacher who is prepared to work with your child, and all of her classmate’s, where they are and to offer all of them rigorous instruction?
As for college, attending a detracked high school does not seem to impact college enrollment prospects. In part, this is because detracked high schools like South Side High School on Long Island often focus on tracking up. Rather than getting rid of AP courses or IB courses, these schools encourage everyone to take those rigorous courses (to see what some schools have done click here).
What does instruction look like in a detracked class?
The helpful answer is, it depends. Some detracked classes look just like traditional classes. In general however the research has focused on detracked classes that run a bit differently than what we used to. Some teachers of detracked classes rely heavily on group work and have come up with some innovative ways to really make group work effective. Other teachers have focused on using Carol Tomlinson’s work on differentiation to make their classrooms work. Many of the teachers described in the research have worked with colleagues in their departments to improve and revise their curriculum (to learn more about what teachers are doing click here).
Am I the only one? How do I build a community?
Teachers, site leaders, and parents around the country are working on reforming track systems from Evanston, Illinois to Rockville Center, NY. So you are not alone– but we want to make it easier for you to find other people who share your interests and commitment. Join our site and start building your community. We have groups on the site that you can join, forums where you can post questions, a teacher created resource bank, and a private messaging service within the site for you to contact other members. Joining is free and we promise no spam or junk mail.
I am a teacher. Where can I start?
If you are an elementary school teacher, your site most likely doesn’t have formal tracking. Research on ability grouping however shows that it starts as early as kindergarten, has long term consequences, and impacts later academic trajectories. Start by looking at your classroom and your school and interrogating what you find. Look at the research on tracking and ability grouping on this page.
If you are a middle school or high school teacher, start looking at what is happening in your school. How many tracks are there in your department? Who is taking the honors courses? Teachers often feel powerless, but the research on tracking shows that most of the changes within tracking occur at the department level. Departments at the same school often vary in their level of tracking and that level of tracking changes over time (to read more about this click here). That means that teachers have power to change the track structure at their schools. Check out our Making it Work page for classroom tips and How to Detrack for bigger picture ideas.
I am a parent. Where can I start?
As a parent, you have the power to create change at your child’s school and at the school district. We have created a system where the loudest parents are able to dominate the conversation at school board meetings and enforce their views on schools. If you are a parent who supports equity at schools, the school board and leaders need to hear from you. Do research on your school. The Office of Civil Rights publishes data on school level disparities. Check out our How to Detrack page for more ideas.
I am a school or district leader. Where can I start?
Start by analyzing data. How racially diverse is your school? How diverse are the highest levels of courses? Read the research and begin to make a plan. Our How to Detrack page has advice from several different detracking researchers on how to begin detracking and how to plan for resistance and challenges.
I tried this and hit a wall. What do I do now?
Talk to a friend. The members of this site have all sorts of ideas and expertise around detracking. Maybe they have an idea you haven’t tried. In addition, the books cited on How to Detrack are wonderful sources of ideas and all available on Amazon.