13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


13th annual Municipal Finance Conference


High Achievers, Tracking, and the Common Core

A curriculum controversy is roiling schools in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In the past few months, parents in the San Mateo-Foster City School District, located just south of San Francisco International Airport, voiced concerns over changes to the middle school math program. The changes were brought about by the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  Under previous policies, most eighth graders in the district took algebra I.  Some very sharp math students, who had already completed algebra I in seventh grade, took geometry in eighth grade. The new CCSS-aligned math program will reduce eighth grade enrollments in algebra I and eliminate geometry altogether as a middle school course. 

A little background information will clarify the controversy.  Eighth grade mathematics may be the single grade-subject combination most profoundly affected by the CCSS.  In California, the push for most students to complete algebra I by the end of eighth grade has been a centerpiece of state policy, as it has been in several states influenced by the “Algebra for All” movement that began in the 1990s.  Nationwide, in 1990, about 16 percent of all eighth graders reported that they were taking an algebra or geometry course.  In 2013, the number was three times larger, and nearly half of all eighth graders (48 percent) were taking algebra or geometry.[i]  When that percentage goes down, as it is sure to under the CCSS, what happens to high achieving math students?

The parents who are expressing the most concern have kids who excel at math.  One parent in San Mateo-Foster City told The San Mateo Daily Journal, “This is really holding the advanced kids back.”[ii] The CCSS math standards recommend a single math course for seventh grade, integrating several math topics, followed by a similarly integrated math course in eighth grade.  Algebra I won’t be offered until ninth grade.  The San Mateo-Foster City School District decided to adopt a “three years into two” accelerated option.  This strategy is suggested on the Common Core website as an option that districts may consider for advanced students.  It combines the curriculum from grades seven through nine (including algebra I) into a two year offering that students can take in seventh and eighth grades.[iii]  The district will also provide—at one school site—a sequence beginning in sixth grade that compacts four years of math into three.  Both accelerated options culminate in the completion of algebra I in eighth grade.

The San Mateo-Foster City School District is home to many well-educated, high-powered professionals who work in Silicon Valley.  They are unrelentingly liberal in their politics.  Equity is a value they hold dear.[iv]  They also know that completing at least one high school math course in middle school is essential for students who wish to take AP Calculus in their senior year of high school.  As CCSS is implemented across the nation, administrators in districts with demographic profiles similar to San Mateo-Foster City will face parents of mathematically precocious kids asking whether the “common” in Common Core mandates that all students take the same math course.  Many of those districts will respond to their constituents and provide accelerated pathways (“pathway” is CCSS jargon for course sequence). 

But other districts will not.  Data show that urban schools, schools with large numbers of black and Hispanic students, and schools located in impoverished neighborhoods are reluctant to differentiate curriculum.  It is unlikely that gifted math students in those districts will be offered an accelerated option under CCSS.  The reason why can be summed up in one word: tracking.

Tracking in eighth grade math means providing different courses to students based on their prior math achievement.  The term “tracking” has been stigmatized, coming under fire for being inequitable.  Historically, where tracking existed, black, Hispanic, and disadvantaged students were often underrepresented in high-level math classes; white, Asian, and middle-class students were often over-represented.  An anti-tracking movement gained a full head of steam in the 1980s.  Tracking reformers knew that persuading high schools to de-track was hopeless.  Consequently, tracking’s critics focused reform efforts on middle schools, urging that they group students heterogeneously with all students studying a common curriculum.  That approach took hold in urban districts, but not in the suburbs.

Now the Common Core and de-tracking are linked.  Providing an accelerated math track for high achievers has become a flashpoint throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.  An October 2014 article in The San Jose Mercury News named Palo Alto, Saratoga, Cupertino, Pleasanton, and Los Gatos as districts that have announced, in response to parent pressure, that they are maintaining an accelerated math track in middle schools.  These are high-achieving, suburban districts.  Los Gatos parents took to the internet with a petition drive when a rumor spread that advanced courses would end.  Ed Source reports that 900 parents signed a petition opposing the move and board meetings on the issue were packed with opponents. The accelerated track was kept.  Piedmont established a single track for everyone, but allowed parents to apply for an accelerated option.  About twenty five percent did so.  The Mercury News story underscores the demographic pattern that is unfolding and asks whether CCSS “could cement a two-tier system, with accelerated math being the norm in wealthy areas and the exception elsewhere.”

What is CCSS’s real role here?  Does the Common Core take an explicit stand on tracking?  Not really.  But de-tracking advocates can interpret the “common” in Common Core as license to eliminate accelerated tracks for high achievers.  As a noted CCSS supporter (and tracking critic), William H. Schmidt, has stated, “By insisting on common content for all students at each grade level and in every community, the Common Core mathematics standards are in direct conflict with the concept of tracking.”[v]  Thus, tracking joins other controversial curricular ideas—e.g., integrated math courses instead of courses organized by content domains such as algebra and geometry; an emphasis on “deep,” conceptual mathematics over learning procedures and basic skills—as “dog whistles” embedded in the Common Core.  Controversial positions aren’t explicitly stated, but they can be heard by those who want to hear them.    

CCSS doesn’t have to take an outright stand on these debates in order to have an effect on policy.  For the practical questions that local grouping policies resolve—who takes what courses and when do they take them—CCSS wipes the slate clean.  There are plenty of people ready to write on that blank slate, particularly administrators frustrated by unsuccessful efforts to de-track in the past

Suburban parents are mobilized in defense of accelerated options for advantaged students.  What about kids who are outstanding math students but also happen to be poor, black, or Hispanic?  What happens to them, especially if they attend schools in which the top institutional concern is meeting the needs of kids functioning several years below grade level?  I presented a paper on this question at a December 2014 conference held by the Fordham Institute in Washington, DC.  I proposed a pilot program of “tracking for equity.”  By that term, I mean offering black, Hispanic, and poor high achievers the same opportunity that the suburban districts in the Bay Area are offering.  High achieving middle school students in poor neighborhoods would be able to take three years of math in two years and proceed on a path toward AP Calculus as high school seniors.

It is true that tracking must be done carefully.  Tracking can be conducted unfairly and has been used unjustly in the past.  One of the worst consequences of earlier forms of tracking was that low-skilled students were tracked into dead end courses that did nothing to help them academically.  These low-skilled students were disproportionately from disadvantaged communities or communities of color.  That’s not a danger in the proposal I am making.  The default curriculum, the one every student would take if not taking the advanced track, would be the Common Core.  If that’s a dead end for low achievers, Common Core supporters need to start being more honest in how they are selling the CCSS.  Moreover, to ensure that the policy gets to the students for whom it is intended, I have proposed running the pilot program in schools predominantly populated by poor, black, or Hispanic students.  The pilot won’t promote segregation within schools because the sad reality is that participating schools are already segregated.

Since I presented the paper, I have privately received negative feedback from both Algebra for All advocates and Common Core supporters.  That’s disappointing.  Because of their animus toward tracking, some critics seem to support a severe policy swing from Algebra for All, which was pursued for equity, to Algebra for None, which will be pursued for equity.  It’s as if either everyone or no one should be allowed to take algebra in eighth grade.  The argument is that allowing only some eighth graders to enroll in algebra is elitist, even if the students in question are poor students of color who are prepared for the course and likely to benefit from taking it.

The controversy raises crucial questions about the Common Core.  What’s common in the common core?  Is it the curriculum?  And does that mean the same curriculum for all?  Will CCSS serve as a curricular floor, ensuring all students are exposed to a common body of knowledge and skills?  Or will it serve as a ceiling, limiting the progress of bright students so that their achievement looks more like that of their peers?  These questions will be answered differently in different communities, and as they are, the inequities that Common Core supporters think they’re addressing may surface again in a profound form.   

[i] Loveless, T. (2008). The 2008 Brown Center Report on American Education. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2009/02/25-education-loveless. For San Mateo-Foster City’s sequence of math courses, see: page 10 of http://smfc-ca.schoolloop.com/file/1383373423032/1229222942231/1242346905166154769.pdf 

[ii] Swartz, A. (2014, November 22). “Parents worry over losing advanced math classes: San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District revamps offerings because of Common Core.” San Mateo Daily Journal. Retrieved from http://www.smdailyjournal.com/articles/lnews/2014-11-22/parents-worry-over-losing-advanced-math-classes-san-mateo-foster-city-elementary-school-district-revamps-offerings-because-of-common-core/1776425133822.html

[iii] Swartz, A. (2014, December 26). “Changing Classes Concern for parents, teachers: Administrators say Common Core Standards Reason for Modifications.” San Mateo Daily Journal. Retrieved from http://www.smdailyjournal.com/articles/lnews/2014-12-26/changing-classes-concern-for-parents-teachers-administrators-say-common-core-standards-reason-for-modifications/1776425135624.html

[iv] In the 2014 election, Jerry Brown (D) took 75% of Foster City’s votes for governor.  In the 2012 presidential election, Barak Obama received 71% of the vote. http://www.city-data.com/city/Foster-City-California.html

[v] Schmidt, W.H. and Burroughs, N.A. (2012) “How the Common Core Boosts Quality and Equality.” Educational Leadership, December 2012/January 2013. Vol. 70, No. 4, pp. 54-58.