Research about detracking

Effects of detracking

While parents and researchers have expressed concern about the effects of detracking on high achieving students, research on detracked schools has generally found that all students benefit from the new, heterogeneous instruction, with students who had previously been placed in the lowest classes benefiting the most.

Rui (2009) conducted a meta-analysis of studies on detracking. He found that detracking had a substantial positive impact on lower achieving students and no negative effect on higher achieving students. Read more

    Citation: Rui, N. (2009). Four decades of research on the effects of detracking reform: Where do we stand? A systematic review of the evidence. Journal of Evidence Based Medicine, 2(3), 164-183.Abstract:

    Objective To review and synthesize evidence about academic and non-academic effects of detracking reform.
    Methods Fifteen studies conducted from 1972 to 2006 were located and reviewed, including 4 experimental studies, 2 quasi-experimental studies, 7 observational studies, and 2 qualitative studies. Meta-analyses using fixed effects and random effects models were conducted for all and subsets of selected studies (by the academic ability of students and research design), followed by extensive discussion of individual studies.
    Results Generally speaking, students in detracked groups performed slightly better academically than their equivalent-ability peers in tracked groups (d = 0.087, k = 22, N = 15,577, p < 0.0001), using a fixed effects model. A random effects model also indicated the overall positive effects of detracking (d = 0.202, k = 22, N = 15,577, p < 0.01). However, the effect sizes of individual studies are generally heterogeneous with I2(21) = 94.033. Using a random effects model, the study shows that average or high ability students in detracked groups performed no differently than their equivalent-ability peers in tracked groups with a 95% confidence interval of (−0.047, 0.388). For low-achieving students, both the fixed effects model [d = 0.113, k = 8, p < 0.0001, 95% CI (0.056, 0.169)] and random effects model [d = 0.283, k = 8, p < 0.005, 95% CI (0.087, 0.479)] revealed positive effects of detracking on student achievement for the 8 low-ability subgroups in 6 studies. The evidence with respect to the non-academic impact of detracking is mixed.
    Conclusion The findings suggest that the detracking reform had appreciable effects on low-ability student achievement and no effects on average and high-ability student achievement. Therefore, detracking should be encouraged, especially in schools where the lower-track classes have been traditionally assigned fewer resources.

    Methods: Meta-analysis of fifteen studies on detracking from 1972 to 2006.

    Key findings: Overall, students in detracked groups performed slightly better than students in tracked groups. There were mixed reports of non-academic benefits from detracking. Across the studies, detracking had a moderate positive impact on academic outcomes for lower achieving students and no impact on higher achieving students.

    Burris, Wiley, and Welner (2008) examined the achievement effects of the detracking initiative at South Side High School in Long Island. They found improvement in district test scores following the detracking effort. Read more

    Citation:Burris, C., Wiley, E., & Welner, K. (2008). Accountability, rigor, and detracking: Achievement effects of embracing a challenging curriculum as a universal good for all students.  Teachers College Record, 110(3), 571-607.


    Background: This longitudinal study examines the long-term effects on the achievement of students at a diverse suburban high school after all students were given accelerated mathematics in a detracked middle school as well as ninth-grade ‘high-track’ curriculum in all subjects in heterogeneously grouped classes. Despite considerable research indicating the ineffectiveness and inequities of ability grouping, the practice is still found in most American high schools. Research indicates that high-track classes bring students an academic benefit while low-track classes are associated with lower subsequent achievement. Corresponding research demonstrates that tracks stratify students by race and class, with African American, Latino and students from low-socioeconomic households being dramatically over-represented in low-track classes and under-represented in high-track classes.
    Purpose: In light of increasing pressure to hold all students to high learning standards, educators and researchers are examining policy decisions, such as tracking, in order to determine their relationship to student achievement
    Design: This study used a quasi-experimental cohort design to compare pre- and post-reform success in the earning of the New York State Regents diploma and the diploma of the International Baccalaureate. Data Analysis: Using binary logistic regression analysis, the authors found that there was a statistically significant post-reform increase in the probability of students earning these standards-based diplomas. Being a member of a detracked cohort was associated with an increase of roughly 70% in the odds of IB diploma attainment and a much greater increase in the odds of Regents diploma attainment – ranging from a three-fold increase for White or Asian students, to a five-fold increase for African American or Latino students who were eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunch, to a 26-fold increase for African American or Latino students not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Further, even as the enrollment in International Baccalaureate classes increased, average scores remained high.
    Conclusion: The authors conclude that if a detracking reform includes high expectations for all students, sufficient resources and a commitment to the belief that students can achieve when they have access to enriched curriculum, it can be an effective strategy to help students reach high learning standards.

    Methods: Compared the achievement of three cohorts of students who entered high school before universal acceleration in math with the achievement of three cohorts who experienced universal acceleration.

    Key findings: The odds of students getting a Regents high school diploma was six times greater, controlling for aptitude and demographics, for students who experienced universal acceleration than for students who didn’t. While achievement increased for all students, it especially increased for Black and Latinx students and students from lower income families.

    Wilcox and Angelis (2011) compared practices of higher achieving  high schools with practices in lower achieving schools and found that, among other things, higher achieving districts were more likely to be detracked. Read more

    Citation: Wilcox, K. & Angelis, J. (2011).  High school best practices: Results from cross-case comparisons. High School Journal, 94(4), 138-153.

    Abstract: Identifying what commonalities exist in high schools where students consistently outperform other demographically similar students is of particular interest to administrators and practitioners looking to increase graduation rates among all students. Schools that particularly improve the performance of students with special needs and those from diverse backgrounds have become a top priority in recent years. For this study, a set of schools whose students consistently performed better than a demographically similar set of schools was identified and compared. The study employed a multiple case study methodology, with interview and document collection in each of the fifteen schools. Findings suggest that four interrelated practices distinguish higher-performing schools from their average performing counterparts. These practices are a well-defined and enacted focus on rigor, capacities to innovate, open and transparent communication within the school and with the broader community, and the willingness and capability to use a variety of evidence to make strategic decisions.

    Methods: Multiple case study of 10 higher achieving schools and five lower achieving schools.

    Key findings: 60% of the higher achieving schools were detracked and only 20% of the lower achieving high schools.

    Detracked public high schools

    Most public high schools have historically had academic tracking. Several schools, and departments within schools, have succeeded at either removing or decreasing the number of academic tracks offered to students.

    While many schools and school districts have faced resistance when they attempted to detracked, a few studies have focused on success stories. One, South Side High School, was discussed in the previous section.

    Bavis, the assistant superintendent for Evanston schools near Chicago, describes his district’s long term commitment to detracking. Read more

    Citation: Bavis, P. (2017). Detracked and going strong. Phi Delta Kappan, 98(4), 37-42.

    Abstract: None

    Methods: Practitioner piece describing the district.

    Key findings: While the district initially encountered resistance to detracking, the leaders persevered. In 2010, they began with detracking freshman English, history, and biology. As the district has progressively detracked departments and more students have pursued AP credit and honors options, they have seen test scores climb, especially for students who wouldn’t normally have taken AP or honors. The district has paired its detracking efforts with additional supports for students, including study centers before and after school, academic intervention teams, and Saturday supports.

    Burris’s (2014) book describes how Rockville district, home of South Side High School, successfully detracked over the course of more than twenty years. Read more

    Citation: Burris, C. (2014). On the same track: How schools can join the twenty-first-century struggle against resegregation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

    Key findings: The district began detracking in 1989 in middle school English and social studies by gradually eliminating tracks in each course. In 1995, they began detracking 8th grade math and science. By 1997, they were down to only two or three tracks in each subject in high school. In 2001, the first class of 9th graders was heterogeneously grouped in all subjects. In 2013, all 12th graders took IB English. The process was very  gradual, beginning with eliminating the lowest track in each subject first, caerful data collection, and extensive support for both students and staff members.

    Watanabe et al., (2007) focused on the instructional practices in a detracked chemistry program, touching on how the chemistry program came to be detracked. Read more

    Citation: Watanabe, M., Nunes, N., Mebane, S., Scalise, K., & Claesgens, J. (2007).“Chemistry for all, instead of chemistry just for the elite”: Lessons learned from detracked chemistry classrooms.  Science Education, 91(5), 683-709.

    Abstract: Within the already limited literature on instructional practices in detracked classrooms, there are even fewer research-based studies of detracked science classrooms. This article attempts to address this gap in the research literature, delving into the unique challenges and instructional responses to teaching detracked science. The authors report on a case study of two chemistry teachers’ heterogeneous classrooms at a racially diverse, public high school in California, where all students have been required to take chemistry since the school’s founding in 1994. The authors highlight the following four beliefs and instructional practices that were instrumental in teachers’ successful efforts to teach detracked chemistry classes: (1) teachers’ true belief in a developmental conception of ability and intelligence; (2) a focus on an inquiry-based pedagogical approach to chemistry foregrounding real-world contexts; (3) a focus on teaching students study skills; and (4) a strong sense of community in the classroom, where students are held responsible for their own and each other’s learning. To illustrate each of these findings, the authors select vivid examples from fieldnotes of classroom observations as well as interviews of teachers and students that make clear how teachers enacted and students experienced these elements in chemistry classroom

    Methods: Case study, co-written with several of the chemistry teachers at the high school.

    Key findings: In 1997, the school had four levels of chemistry. In 1998, it had three levels. By 2002, it had two levels of chemistry. The effort was lead by the chemistry teachers, who also adapted their pedagogy to focus on using inquiry approaches to chemistry and explicitly teaching study skills.

    Charter schools designed without tracking

    Several charter schools  were designed to be detracked, although opponents could argue that charter schools are inherently tracked based on who chooses to apply to the school and is able to attend.

    The High Tech schools in San Diego are part of the Coalition for Essential Schools, an organization that eschews tracking. While research has not focused on detracking works at these schools, several articles have mentionned their lack of academic tracking. Read more

    Citation: Neumann, R. (2008). Charter schools and innovation: The High Tech High model. American Secondary Education, 36(3), 51-69.

    Abstract: This article examines the High Tech High charter school, the ideas and practices that influenced its development, and the school’s impact on San Diego Unified School District, which authorized the charter. The Discussion analyzes the school’s program using frameworks of social bonding theory and progressive educational theory and practice. Since the program is a reflection of John Dewey-inspired progressive education, it is not an entirely novel model of innovation. The school, however, differs decidedly from conventional public high schools. High Tech High’s success in producing high levels of student achievement and enrollment of graduates in higher education is attributed to progressive educational methods and certain structures and processes of organization and operation that strengthen students’ bonds with the school.

    Methods: Ethnographic study of the schools with observations and interviews.

    Key findings: The school is small and all students take courses geared at gaining them admittance at University of California schools.

    Also in San Diego is the Preuss School, a charter school run by the University of California in San Diego and designed to help first generation college students attend college. It as well is detracked.  Read more

    Citation: Alvarez, D., & Mehan, H. (2006). Whole-school detracking: A strategy for equity and excellence. Theory into Practice, 45(1), 82-89.

    Abstract: The Preuss School on the University of California, San Diego campus is dedicated to preparing all 700 of its students to be eligible to attend college when they graduate if they choose. Students, who must be from low-income families, are enrolled in a single college-prep track. Because students who enter the school as 6th graders may not have the academic preparation necessary to succeed in rigorous college-prep classes, the school provides a wide range of social and academic supports. Eighty percent of the students from the first graduating class of 55 attend 4-year colleges as of Fall 2004; 20% attend community colleges—with their transfer to UC campuses guaranteed in 2 years. This gives us an existence proof that detracking (i.e., presenting underserved students with a rigorous academic program, supplemented by a comprehensive system of academic and social supports) can propel students from low-income households toward college eligibility and enrollment.

    Methods: This practitioner piece focuses on describing the school.

    Key findings: The school features small classes, an extended year, and extensive supports for their students to help all students be successful in rigorous courses.

    A final charter school, Gompers, in San Diego was designed to be detracked as well to combat the prior low expectations for children in the community. Read more

    Citation: Mehan, H. & Chang, G. (2011).  Is it wrong for us to want good things? The origins of Gompers  Charter Middle School. Journal of Educational Change, 12(1), 47-70.

    Abstract: This paper documents the initial process by which a San Diego middle school, located in a low-income and predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and repeatedly failing to meet No Child Left Behind provisions, restructured into an academically rigorous, detracked charter school. The discussion of the political experience and working relationships between the charter organizers, the school district, and its superintendent illustrate the often contentious process of community mobilization and deliberation. The involvement of faculty from the University of California San Diego and community groups as contributing partners enhances our understanding of the creation of educational reforms or the transformation of passion into practice.

    Methods: The authors helped found the school and their research describes the history of the school, through the lens of their involvement.

    Key findings: Community members saw having the school detracked as part of its focus on achieving excellence for all students.

    Resistance to detracking

    While many schools and school districts have faced resistance when they attempted to detracked, a few studies have focused on success stories. One, South Side High School, was discussed in the previous section.

    Theoharis (2008) discussed parents’ and teachers’ resistance to principal led detracking initiatives. Read more

    Citation: Theoharis, G. (2008). “At every turn”: The resistance that principals face in their pursuit of equity and justice. Journal of School Leadership, 18(3), 303-343.

    Abstract: This article details the struggles that principals faced as they sought to enact an equity-oriented agenda. Utilizing a qualitative approach combined with principles of autoethnography, seven urban principals described the resistance they faced “at every turn” in their pursuit of equity and social justice. This resistance was produced by such factors as the scope of the principalship, the momentum of the status quo, obstructive staff attitudes and beliefs, privileged parental expectations, formidable bureaucracy, unsupportive central-office administrators, prosaic colleagues, a lack of resources, harmful state and federal regulations, and principal preparation, These leaders also explained the physical and emotional toll they experienced as a result of facing this resistance

    Methods: An auto-ethnography based on Theoharis’s own experiences and those of six other principals.

    Key findings: Principals working for social justice encountered resistance from teachers and from parents. Principals who implemented detracking initiatives faced significance resistance from parents whose children had benefited from the tracked system, with some parents even threatening the principals’ jobs. Teachers also expressed resistance.

    Abu El-Haj and Rubin (2009) explored similarities in teacher beliefs uncovered in their separate studies on detracking and on inclusion. Both found that underlying teacher beliefs about ability and inequality impacted the reforms. Read more

    Citation:  Abu El-Haj, T.R. & Rubin, B. (2009). Realizing the equity-minded aspirations of detracking and inclusion: Toward a capacity-oriented framework for teacher education. Curriculum Inquiry, 39(3), 435-463.

    Abstract: Inclusion and detracking policies seek to remedy the pervasive inequality of educational opportunities in U.S. schools by building classrooms that are integrated across the lines of race/ethnicity, class, and disability and that offer all students access to a rich and challenging curriculum. In practice, however, teachers often struggle with the implementation of these reforms. Drawing on ethnographic research in detracked and inclusion classrooms, this article analyzes the nature and sources of the tensions and dilemmas felt by teachers working in intentionally heterogeneous settings. It argues that the implementation of these policies is not often accompanied by a serious interrogation of the taken-for-granted understandings of ability, standards, and structural inequality that pervade educational dis course inside schools. This failure to challenge dominant discourse about these three issues is at the root of the tensions and dilemmas felt by teachers working in detracked and inclusion classrooms. Drawing on lessons learned from research, the authors propose a capacity-oriented framework for teacher education that might better prepare teachers working in intentionally heterogeneous classrooms to meet the equity-minded goals of these reforms

    Methods: Each researcher completed separate, ethnographic studies on either detracking or inclusion. In this paper, the researchers compare their findings and discuss implications.

    Key findings: As teachers moved to implement new policies for detracking and inclusion, their overall belief system about ability, standards, and the impact of social inequality on schooling was not interrogated. Many teachers continued to believe that families and communities needed to change first for students to be successful and contained to view academic ability as a fixed quantity rather than something malleable.

    Oakes, Wells, and Yonezama (1997) followed ten high schools that were attempting to detrack and analyzed some of the successes and challenges of the initiatives. Read more

    Citation: Oakes, J., Wells, A., & Yonezama, S. (1997). Equity lessons from detracking schools. In A. Hargreaves (Ed.) Rethinking educational change with heart and mind (1997 ASCD Yearbook) (pp.43-72). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

    Abstract: None

    Methods: Longitudinal case study following ten diverse secondary schools that were attempting to detrack.

    Key findings: The easiest part of the initiatives was coming up with new structures such as new schedules, new teacher teams, open access to honors class, and extra support for students. Changing underlying teacher beliefs about intelligence and confronting racial stereotypes about students was more challenging. White and wealthy parents also pushed back against the changes, by threatening to remove their children from the school and by exerting political pressure on leaders. Other parents who might have supported the reforms did not have the same political clout.

    Burris (2014) describes three P’s that sustain tracking– prejudice, prestige, and power (p.114).  Read more

    Citation: Burris, C. (2014). On the same track: How schools can join the twenty-first-century struggle against resegregation. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

    Key findings: Burris describes the challenges faced by school leaders who attempt detracking, writing; “Many school leaders who begin to detrack their schools feel as though they have walked into a political minefield” (p.78). She sees a sense of entitlement by certain parents, unidimensional views of intelligence, stereotypes about race and class, and a belief in schools as meritocracies as factors that can derail tracking reforms. Burris describes what happens in Stamford, CT when a superintendent attempted to detrack the district. He had allies on the school board, raised private money, and saw test scores improve. Despite this, there was a significant backlash that led to a take over of the school board by hostile parents and the resignation eventually of the superintendent. In Woodland Hills, PA the district was ordered by the courts to desegregate but the reform was never fully embraced by the school staff or the community and, once the district was no longer under a court order, the district went back to tracking students.