Five questions for school leaders to move beyond tracking
By Robin Avelar La Salle & Ruth S. Johnson
February 5, 2018
Schools used to blatantly track students. Beginning in the early 20th century, many schools funneled students into high, medium, or low groups of expected academic achievement and educational attainment, regardless of their potential. Once labeled, students most likely remained in those groups throughout most or all of their schooling, which undermined their future workforce opportunities.
However, dating back to Howard Becker’s development of the “labeling theory” in the 1960s, sociology research has long suggested that students’ images of themselves may become intertwined with the label. Regrettably, most schools and districts still have systems for “sorting” students, which are often rooted in tracking legacies associated with race, income, ethnicity, gender, and language status.
Many districts are working to change their policies and practices to align with higher standards and expectations for all students. This is promising, but such a transformation requires vigilance, courage, and the will to assess and to call out and eliminate detrimental sorting systems. Leadership by administrators, teachers, school boards, parents, community, and even students is necessary to expose and shift systems of harmful sorting.
We have worked with hundreds of schools in dozens of districts over the past 20 years through our consulting work, partnering with schools and school districts with diverse student populations to improve student achievement. Here are some major questions we’ve learned that schools and district leaders should be asking to keep expectations high for every student:
1) What systems in our schools are creating the academic results students are currently getting?
It is imperative that results are analyzed by using multiple indicators to reveal how all students are performing. High-achieving schools and districts may have pockets of underachieving students whose performance is masked by aggregate data. If the results indicate a need for improvement, responding correctly is critical.
One of the most common approaches we have observed is a phenomenon we describe as the “wallpaper effect,” which occurs when often well-intentioned school and district leaders launch programs or interventions based upon limited data without full understanding of the most critical underlying issues.
2) What are our hunches about those results?
We all may have a lot of hunches about the underlying causes of academic disparities, but everything is just a hunch until we analyze pertinent data. To bring authentic issues to light, school and district leaders must combine data from academic, discipline, and other indicators, examined from every possible angle. These findings often show a vast difference in underlying conditions and frequently dispel myths about why some students are underachieving. Consequently, these data inform leaders about which crucial academic inequalities to address.
3) What types of decisions do we make about students based on their labels?
Decades ago, many struggling students were labeled “special education,” even if their struggle was simply being an English-language learner. Today, we hear labels like “Title I kids,” “long-term English-learners,” “at-risk students,” and so on. Students’ labels and grouping may limit access to premium educational experiences. For example, does a student identified as an English-learner, or student with disabilities, or one who has been suspended get as much access to a high quality, enriched schooling experience as a student labeled “honors”?
If students are in the same group for much of the day, leadership must be concerned about equity issues: Is this grouping linked to differential expectations? How does it inform students’ expectations for themselves? If students need additional support, the support must result in students becoming more proficient after the intervention. Leaders must analyze evidence concerning proficiency and ensure an exit strategy so that students can be eventually moved out of these groups and not be defined by what should be temporary challenges.
4) What are the results of the programs initiated to support students’ academic needs?
It is essential to scrutinize the contents of curricula and courses. For instance, at the secondary level instead of algebra, some students may get guided toward readiness for algebra; instead of biology, life science; and instead of English literature, senior English. The course titles vary, but they all are less rigorous versions of expected requirements for college and career readiness.
Decades of research confirms the futility of this approach. Although these classes are ostensibly created to give struggling students a greater chance to succeed, the failure rate in these courses is almost always higher than classes with mixed achievement levels. Since the publication of her book Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality in 1985, Jeannie Oaks has documented how underachieving students have the best chance of academic success when they are in classes that have academic rigor, higher expectations, and higher achieving students.
5) Are there large disparities in our grade distributions and diploma pathways?
When examining grades by individual high school teachers, we often find large disparities in grade distributions for the same course taught by different teachers. Some teachers routinely award a high percentage of passing grades, while others fail a sizable percentage of their students. Disparities are attributed to curriculum rigor, ineffective teaching, and teachers’ perceptions about students’ abilities. To uproot systemic unconscious biases, schools and districts must analyze syllabi, textbooks, course requirements, grouping patterns, grading criteria, and content coverage for the same course. This analysis allows them to develop cohesive curricula and expectations for each course.
A 2017 Alliance for Education study of nine states found 98 different pathways to a high school diploma. Unfortunately, only 47 of those pathways represent college- and career-ready diplomas. A disproportionate share of the less rigorous diplomas were earned by students of color and low-income groups. It is of paramount importance that schools and districts consider what are our diplomas are worth.
Transforming systems for all students to meet higher standards is hard, but it is necessary and noble work. Many educators who are equity warriors are already engaged in meeting the challenge. Our children deserve leaders who fervently ask and answer: Does my school or district have the highest expectations and results for all children? All of our students deserve no less than the best.