A small but growing number of American schools are reducing or delaying access to advanced courses. Most often, these changes have been enacted in the name of reducing achievement gaps between demographic groups. However, rather than helping marginalized students, these policies deny educational opportunities for gifted students of all backgrounds.
“Detracking” is an increasingly popular proposal among educators that attempts to reduce the degree to which students are separated by academic ability. It typically takes the form of removing advanced course offerings or delaying the introduction of these offerings. Supporters claim that marginalized students are often wrongly placed—or place themselves—in less advanced courses and that these students often stay on a less advanced curricular path.
In San Francisco, public schools have eliminated accelerated math courses in middle and high school since 2014, and several Seattle schools had rolled out detracking efforts by 2016. Earlier this year, a Detroit-area school district eliminated middle school honors math classes, while schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began phasing out advanced middle school math in 2017—though the district announced it would reverse course in August. Outrage erupted in February when one Los Angeles–area school eliminated honors English courses for ninth- and 10th-grade students.
“I was born in Cuba,” one parent told The Wall Street Journal, “and it doesn’t sound good when people are trying to achieve equal outcomes for everyone.”
This week, Brian Conrad, a mathematics professor and the director of undergraduate mathematics studies at Standford University, wrote in The Atlantic about this trend and the support for these policies voiced in new curriculum guidelines in California.
California’s State Board of Education published a draft of the Math Framework (CMF) in 2021. The curriculum guideline promoted a series of radical changes to how the state teaches math. A revised version of the CMF was formally accepted this summer.
Under the CMF, Conrad wrote, California schools are encouraged, but not required, to delay Algebra I until ninth grade—meaning that students would be unable to take Calculus as seniors without doubling up on math classes or taking extra classes during the summer. The document also encourages schools to offer additional math options, including courses like “data science,” as an alternative to taking Algebra II. But Conrad argues that this course, as described in the 2021 CMF, doesn’t actually teach students math and instead more closely resembles a data literacy course.
“Steering sophomores and juniors away from Algebra II forecloses the possibility of careers in certain fast-growing quantitative fields—which would seem to do the opposite of promoting equity,” Conrad wrote, noting that the state “is notably skeptical of efforts to group students in math class according to ability, out of a fear that disadvantaged students will be placed in low-expectation tracks that they can never escape. But for some reason, shunting them away from advanced math is portrayed as progress.”
Conrad also points to a new working paper studying math detracking in San Francisco. The paper suggests that the policy has had the opposite effect as intended, reducing the percentage of black and Hispanic students enrolled in advanced math and making it harder for students to take calculus in high school. He noted how “later CMF drafts quietly removed the mention of the [San Francisco Unified School District] policy while still generally endorsing the ideas behind it.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that removing academic options doesn’t magically reduce gaps between demographic groups. When schools reduce advanced courses, the students hurt most are poor, academically gifted children. While students with wealthy parents can enroll in private schools, hire tutors, or move districts to get the academic resources they need, kids whose parents don’t have those resources will end up stuck in schools that force them to take lower-level courses. And for students who are falling behind, detracking can make it harder for them to get specialized help.
“Armed with trendy buzzwords and false promises of greater equity,” Conrad wrote, “California is promoting an approach to math instruction that’s likely to reduce opportunities for disadvantaged students—in the state and wherever else educators follow the state’s lead.”