My school accelerates every 8th grade student by requiring them to take the 9th grade algebra Regents in June. I have always held mixed feelings about this. On one hand, does this policy do justice to those students who would rather be taking regular 8th grade math? On the other hand, don’t all the research and trends suggest that this would benefit all students by pushing them to take higher-level math? The alternative would be a tracked system where some students were accelerated while others were not, which is precisely the situation that, based on their most recent publication, the NCTM would probably take issue against.

Thanks to Michael Pershan, I ran into an article by Rochelle Gutierrez that has helped me clarify my perspective on these issues. In it, she points out that tracking is often talked about in a vacuum, as if it were a purely bureaucratic matter rather than a policy that is “embedded in cultural and political contexts, replete with good intentions, bad intentions, and messy human decision making.” She goes on to talk about requirements for students to take high-level math classes:

“Although requiring students to begin with Algebra and take three years of mathematics has a great influence on students’ ultimate mathematics attainment during high school, it was clear from interviews that such a policy did not operate in a vacuum. That is, certain factors seemed to facilitate the successful implementation…teachers believed students could realistically achieve such goals and were committed to supporting them in this endeavour. Mathematics departments which altered their programmes to fulfill state or district requirements, but did not effect changes in course content or did not provide students with the adequate support networks for the increase in demands, were less successful in advancing their students.”

In other words, policies that require students to take higher-level math may not benefit them if there is not a corresponding set of teacher attitudes, cultural practices, and support structures committed to the belief that every student can succeed under such conditions.

I think this is where I take issue with my school’s policy to accelerate all 8th grade students, and I also believe I am complicit in the problem. For years, the teachers in our math department (me included) have regularly said statements to one another along the lines of, “[So and so] should not be taking algebra. They don’t have the foundation” and “I can’t believe [so and so] has to take algebra when they got a 1 on the 7th grade exam”. The culture in our department is decidedly not aligned with the belief that all students can succeed in algebra, but rather our discourse supposes that some students are equipped with the prerequisites while others are not. To be frank, it is a culture that, up until now, I have been participating in without even realizing it.

It’s no surprise that our school’s system of universal acceleration has not been working, and our principal has stated that he’ll be making some changes next year. There are two possibilities: remove the policy of universal acceleration or work to change teacher attitudes and the support structures coming from our math department. The principal will be doing the former, with the result that there will actually be three 8th grade tracks: regular 8th grade math, 9th grade algebra, and 10th grade geometry (reserved for our school’s gifted and talented program, which is a whole other issue).

Once again, my feelings on this are mixed. On one hand, I can’t ignore the arguments against tracking. On the other hand, what good is universal acceleration if it will be treated as an empty gesture, as a means of promoting the school’s reputation while turning our teachers into cynics and setting up some of our students for failure?

I don’t actually think the ideal situation lies within the choice to universally accelerate or not. Such thinking continues to treat tracking and acceleration as purely bureaucratic matters. Instead, I think the ideal situation is one where the formal policies, regardless of their exact specifications, reflect a departmental culture that thinks carefully about what mathematical success means, what is appropriate for each student, what each student prefers, and what can be gained for each student by the decision to accelerate them or not. Michael Pershan talks about his school’s system for tracking, which I believe reflects a positive departmental culture. Moreover, I’m not sure such a cultural shift can be made by administrators. I do know that moving forward, I need to check my beliefs about who can succeed in my algebra class and what it means, and doesn’t mean, to enter 8th grade with low 7th grade math scores.

I can’t say I’ve developed a firm opinion on whether to track or not track. What I do have is a new framework for thinking about tracking–that is, to step away from a “tracking lens” and look deeper into the surrounding values and beliefs distributed across a school’s math department and how such values and beliefs shape the learning trajectories of students.