Although the debate over ability tracking (placing students in classes by mathematical level) in the mathematics classroom has been alive and well for some time, the heat has exponentially increased recently after California looks to adopt a new framework where students of all levels of mathematics will be mixed in together. This framework aims to address academic, social, and racial disparities in the mathematics classroom. The new framework has been heavily influenced and co-authored by Professor of Education and fellow Brit: Dr. Jo Boaler (who I had the pleasure of interviewing for the MathEd Out Podcast) of Stanford University. She argues that “tracking looks horrible when you look at the racial inequities, and we have to ask, ‘What do we want for this country? Do we want a country that has these racial divides in achievement?’ If we don’t, we need to work on a different model,”
Reaction has been emotional, political, swift, and strong, especially from those who associate the initiative with a leftist agenda. I have often heard the argument that this will water down the curriculum and hold back ‘more advanced students’ and will not help those in need of support. There are even studies that seem to back up both sides of the argument. A 2014 Fordham Institute paper argues that tracking helps disadvantaged students be more successful when it comes to preparing for AP math classes. On the other hand, Boaler has published multiple peer-reviewed papers on the negative consequences of tracking both academically and culturally.
However, de-tracking vs. tracking is a simplistic question which ignores a large and crucial part of the conversation that needs to be simultaneously considered if not reflected upon first: What is the nature of the mathematics that we are teaching and learning in our schools? One question simply cannot be considered without the other. When taken at face value, with the narrow and linear curriculum that students go through in many schools, it makes complete sense to track in ability groupings. Students need to be able to learn how to find the square root of a number before they can solve a quadratic equation. They need to know how to simplify fractions before they study before they can consider rates, ratio, and proportion. The way the curriculum is structured is why we track in mathematics and not in History or Science, for example, which are more multi-dimensional and complex. If a major aim of mathematics is preparing students for AP level math, then I can see the benefit of working with students at different levels, at least for more advanced students. My question is: Is that it?! Is that why we teach math? To prepare students to succeed in AP? If that is it, this is nothing short of a travesty.
Beyond mere preparation for AP level mathematics, there is a big problem with this model. For students who are struggling, placing them in a lower ability group can cement the fallacy that they are not capable of accessing even basic mathematical principles and skills. And, it can be challenging to move upward once students are set on a particular path. As the new framework puts it: “the subject and community of mathematics has a history of exclusion and filtering, rather than inclusion and welcoming. This is a much bigger issue to consider when compared with whether advanced students can understands imaginary numbers or not and this conversation should take up proportionally more time in our curriculum reviews.
Tracking even advanced students with current curricula is not without its drawbacks. I have had multiple parents of 6th-grade students in my conferences who are deeply concerned that their daughter/son is on track to get into good colleges or into a certain profession. Is this really what we want our 11-year-olds to be worrying about?
I enjoyed math at school, working through a linear narrow curriculum that I found straightforward, and I was able to demonstrate mastery in assessments. I also went to a school where there was an admissions exam so I should have been surrounded by similar minded peers. However, I was still in the minority in terms of those that enjoyed mathematics. Today, I tell friends that I teach math and I often see the shudder as they reply “oh I was never great at math”. I believe this to be a cultural legacy after decades of students working their way through a linear and monochromatic curriculum. This also makes me sad.
I only began to love math after I started to learn to teach and was blessed to be inspired to teach and learn great math by a phenomenal professor. He showed us that mathematics was so much richer and complex, so much more useful, so much more interesting than was often found in textbooks. After for teaching for over a decade, I have seen how such ‘Low-Floor-High-Ceiling’ activities can provide noticeably more engagement and a deeper level of learning. If we don’t start with the consideration of the nature of the mathematics we are teaching in our classrooms, there is no point in asking whether we should track or de-track. Thankfully, organizations such as YouCubed, Desmos, and Nrich are leading the charge to bring in a new kind of mathematics learning where de-tracking makes a lot more sense.
It is an uphill battle. Progressives are up against divisive politics and decades of established narrow curricula. This is much is for sure, however: Rather than simply just preparing students for AP level mathematics we should be asking:
- Why do we teach mathematics?
- How can we design a curriculum and learning space that is rich, engaging, and useful at every level?
- How can we help students see how different parts of the curriculum are deeply connected?
- How can we help students of every ability, culture and socio-economic background get excited about learning mathematics and their own capabilities to solve problems?
Math is so much richer, so much more useful and crucial than many curricula portray. In the real world, there is no neat and narrow linear progression of skills, there is are complex problems to be solved in whatever scrappy way possible. Let us at a minimum give every student, irrespective of academic prowess or culture, the chance to access the confidence to say ‘I can do this’.
*Opinions are my own and not associated with any school or organization with which I am associated