To Track Or Not to Track, That is Not the Question

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.

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Performative Emotions

Found on Reddit:

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Performative emotions. What a great term. It applies so well to my relationships with family and friends, and it applies equally well to my relationship with students.

Today was an exhausting day, and I barely taught. It was day 2 of the NYS ELA Exam, and most of the time was spent proctoring. Thirty-two students, stressed to the bone from 1st period to 3rd period, furiously writing as if their future (because their future) depended on it. But then by 4th period, bored to tears because they couldn’t leave the room until 5th period. I wanted to emotionally support them, but besides the fact that I couldn’t talk, I don’t know if I would’ve had the strength to rally their spirits even if I could. It’s actually been an exhausting week.

By 7th period, I was in the playground on my assigned monitoring duties. The students always want to chat when everyone’s outside. They bring up oceans of gossip, usually revolving around conversations on snapchat. Lots of them were fed up with exams. One girl cried because she thought a boy posted a disfigured cartoon drawing of her. Another girl has been chronically exhausted because of all the extracurricular activities that her parents make her do. One boy got in trouble for something he says he didn’t do but “I’m okay with that, because I’m always getting in trouble anyway.”

It was a lot, and I could’ve done more.

Teaching is an emotional practice and sometimes that drains you. Making connections with students is the lifeblood of our profession. We devote our energies and our emotions for the sake of our students’ well-being. The difficulty is that we grow so tough and build so much stamina and care so deeply about kids that we often push ourselves to our emotional limit, and sometimes we go past it. For the sake of our students, we leave our exhaustion at the door, put on our kindest smile, give our love and support for their academic and emotional needs, and wish we did more.

But I don’t think we need to, and I’m not sure we should. Maybe it’s okay to take a break from our performative emotions. Maybe it’s okay not to put so much pressure on ourselves. It doesn’t mean we don’t love our students. In The Peacable Classroom, Mary O’Reilley writes, “[T]he best kind of teaching comes out of a willingness to stand in one’s condition. The best teaching does not come out of dropping one’s feelings at the classroom door. You don’t need to talk about being sad or happy, you just need to be present to your own inward life.”

I don’t think this means teachers should shut down entirely and I definitely don’t think teachers should be taking their exhaustion out on students. It’s about being real with oneself and ones emotional reserve. I do worry that a teacher might miss a critical crossroad, a moment where a student really needed someone but the teacher wasn’t emotionally available to respond. But I also worry about the burnout that may be caused by ignoring the dissonance between our inward and outward feelings.

Sociologists call the work of deciding when and how to express emotions “emotional labor”. The term applies to all kinds of professions such as how wait staff regulate their emotions in their interactions with customers. I think emotional labor has a special–and seldom talked about–role in teaching. The strong bonds that need to be forged between teachers and students brings up the question of how much teachers should hold back and how much they should reveal to students. In particular, as I’ve been asking myself all day without a good answer, how do we respond when our need to be real with our emotional condition conflicts with our duty to support our students?