Rockville School District in New York began detracking in 1989. In 2013, all 12th graders took IB English. The process took over 20 years (Burris, 2014). It took the teachers at one high school that had a stated commitment to detracking five years to move from four levels of chemistry to two levels (Watanabe et al., 2007). In 2006, Evanston Township High School had reduced the number of academic tracks to four (Burris, 2014). By 2017, the total number of tracks had decreased even further, but the work was ongoing (Bavis, 2017). The success stories of detracking in the research all highlighted schools that moved slowly through the process. The ideal is to balance slow, incremental work with a steady focus on the end goal (Oakes, Wells, & Yonezama, 1997)
In Stamford Connecticut, parents opposing detracking organized and took over the school board, stalling the reform. Powerful parents in Evanston Township in the early 2000s threatened to remove their children from the schools (Burris, 2014). One principal working on detracking said this; “[A group of parents] who have always been very aggressive about that they want things done a certain way and want their desires met . . . [they] threatened me and my job and my position…. [The parents said to me], ‘If this doesn’t happen our way, there are going to be consequences.'” (Theoharis, 2008, p.317).
As Jeannie Oakes wrote, “Among the key lessons we learned… is that districts and schools that initiate detracking reforms without preparing to overcome normative and political obstacles are likely to see their efforts for change substantially undermined” (Oakes, 2005, p.290). Therefore, she contends that detracking leaders both need to know the emperical literature and need to be ready to confront racial and cultural politics (Oakes, 2005).
Advice from Jeannie Oakes
In her 2005 book, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, Jeannie Oakes ends with eight pieces of concrete advice.
Advice from Kevin Welner and Carol Burris
In their 2006 article, Alternative Approaches to the Politics of Detracking, Welner and Burris identified strategies that had worked in detracked disticts. We have reworded their findings as action statements.
Stages of detracking
John Murphy, the current principal of South Side High School in Rockville Center presented four stages for detracking an International Baccalaureate (IB) program:
Level 1: Gated– school has criteria for access to the IB program.
Level 2: Open gate– the school allows any student access to the IB program.
Level 3: Open gate with active recruitment.
Level 4: IB is the default program of studies. (J. Murphy, personal communication, April 9, 2018).
In a presentation on sense making in detracking, Shannon Holder offered these four stages for detracking a school:
1. Total student choice in course selection.
2. Bottom track eliminated.
3. One or two subjects are detracked.
4. All subjects are detracked. (S. Holder, personal communication, April 8, 2018)
Role Based Advice
For School Board Members
Welner and Burris included specific advice for school board members in their 2006 article, Alternative Approaches to the Politics of Detracking, based on advice written by Welner and Oakes (2000) in their book, Navigating the Politics of Detracking. Here is what they wrote:
“Among the strategies that should be considered by the school board are the following:
Commit to the principles underlying the reforms.
Set clear expectations for change, including detracking.
Develop a comprehensive reform plan and guard against losing sight of its goals.
Engage the community in participation and discussion designed to ensure that all constituents have an effective political voice.
Foster constructive public engagement by establishing ongoing community forums on excellence and equity in the schools.
Hold detracking reform to a rigorous but reasonable standard” (Welner & Burris, 2006, p.97)
For Central Administrators
Welner and Burris included specific advice for central administrators in their 2006 article, Alternative Approaches to the Politics of Detracking, based on advice written by Welner and Oakes (2000) in their book, Navigating the Politics of Detracking. Here is what they wrote:
“Among the strategies that should be considered by the central administration are the following:
Emphasize the educational high ground on which detracking rests: All children can learn, and all children should receive a high-quality education.
Ensure that each school has the support necessary for detracking reforms to succeed.
Move beyond technically minded professional development.
Provide incentives for teachers working successfully with heterogeneous classes.
Replace departing faculty with a reform minded, diverse group of teachers.
Work systematically with local media.
Augment the public relations office with an office of parent and community relations with responsibility for improving parent involvement from the district’s low-income and minority neighborhoods. (Welner & Burris, 2006, p.97)
Welner and Burris included specific advice for schools in their 2006 article, Alternative Approaches to the Politics of Detracking, based on advice written by Welner and Oakes (2000) in their book, Navigating the Politics of Detracking. Here is what they wrote:
“Among the strategies that should be considered by schools are the following:
Develop faculty study groups.
Create a diverse, multicultural parent–faculty task force to monitor school practices for academic excellence and equity.
Disseminate relevant information about the reform.
Ensure that parent advisory groups reflect all of the parents in each school” (Welner & Burris, 2006, p.98)
“Among the strategies that should be considered by secondary schools in particular are the following:
Create smaller, more personalized learning environments.
Phase out all low-level courses.
Make ninth-grade enrollment in college preparatory Algebra 1 a minimal benchmark for all students.
Provide additional academic support for students not prepared for rigorous academics.
Provide ample opportunities for academic enrichment.
Provide challenging academic support and college counseling” (Welner & Burris, 2006, p.98).
For Departments And Teachers
Kelly’s work on the prevalence of tracking shows that departments within schools vary in how tracked they are– and how the amount of tracking changes over time (Kelly, 2007, Kelly & Price, 2011). Teachers can exert influence on how many tracks their department offers. A teacher from Watanabe’s teacher working group on detracking was troubled by the amount of tracking in her chemistry department and lead a reform effort that decreased the department’s tracking (Watanabe et al., 2007).
For more specific advice for teachers, visit our Making It Work page
Parents are often portrayed as the opponents to detracking reforms, yet parents can also be the strongest proponents of reforms. Begin by educating yourself about your school. What is the diversity of the student population? What is the diversity of the high track courses? How tracked is the school? Then look at parent groups such as the PTA. Who is represented there? Does the group look like the population of the school? If not, you as a parent can advocate for increasing recruitment of other parents and adjusting the structure of the meetings to be more friendly to under represented parents. That might mean offering child care, varying meeting times, or providing translation.