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ITHACA, N.Y. — On a frigid Thursday in February, math teacher Marietta Gibb was warming up her sixth graders at DeWitt Middle School with some algebraic expressions. She showed the students a video to review the math, then sent them scattering to different tables to practice the exercises they’d found challenging.

“We don’t want anything too easy, because if you go to the gym and you pick up two pounds, what purpose is that?” Gibb said as she encouraged her students to select math problems at their individual levels. “[And] we don’t want to pick up the weight that’s way too much for us, because we’ll end up hurting ourselves.”

At a table in back, two girls matched bright blue cutouts of unsolved equations with their solved counterparts. Two boys worked on riddles that tested them on combining like terms. A student practiced distributing negative numbers on a whiteboard as Gibb and co-teacher Nicole Parasiliti asked her questions.

Just 22 percent of students in the district are Black, Latino or multiracial, but in some lower-level math classes a disproportionate share of the kids were from those racial groups.

This is the look of the Ithaca City School District’s new effort to limit tracking — or separating students by perceived ability — in middle school math. Instead of sixth and seventh graders being divided into lower and accelerated levels, the students take classes of equal rigor but sometimes work in small groups, split up to practice specific skills, or pair up with another student who can guide them through a problem.

The district began rolling out the program two years ago after recognizing that students of color made up a disproportionate share of pupils in lower-level math classes. Just 22 percent of students in the district are Black, Latino or multiracial, but in some lower-level math classes kids of color were overrepresented, according to teachers and administrators. And Ithaca is hardly unique: Nationally, Black and Latino students are significantly less likely than white and Asian students to take accelerated math in middle school.

Ithaca’s school district is 22 percent Black, Latino or multiracial, but in some lower-level math classes a disproportionate share of students were from those racial groups. Credit: Steven Yoder

But the racial divide wasn’t Ithaca’s only concern. Students in accelerated math were struggling when they entered high school, having failed to pick up the skills they needed. Tracking didn’t seem to be benefiting anyone, so Ithaca became one of at least three school districts around the country to limit or abandon the approach.  

Math is the most-tracked subject in school: Three-quarters of eighth graders attend math classes that are segregated by ability, according to the latest federal data. The pervasiveness of math tracking may be due, in part, to the persistent belief that some people are good at math and others aren’t, education experts suggest. Now some experts are encouraging school districts to step away from the practice. In a report published in May, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommended that districts eliminate tracking in middle school math.

Ithaca’s detracked middle school math means students take classes of equal rigor but sometimes work in small groups or with another student. Credit: Steven Yoder

“For students who may have accelerated through [high-level math], they may not have had enough time to engage with the content,” said Robert Berry, the council’s president until this April. Meanwhile, lower performers may grow bored repeating the same concepts over and over again, he said.

The group points to slumping test scores as a reason why change is needed: Eighth grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been flat for a decade, with just 34 percent  of students testing proficient in 2019, as the gap between the highest and lowest performers grows.

Still, researchers aren’t united on the benefits of eliminating tracking. And in Ithaca, district leaders said it would be years before there was data to evaluate the success of the new approach. In the meantime, school administrators face a more immediate challenge, one that likely awaits other districts that attempt detracking: parent opposition. When Ithaca moved to reduce advanced math classes, parents voiced concern that students wouldn’t be challenged academically and would miss out on a chance to take algebra in eighth grade, which is often viewed as a steppingstone to high-school calculus and a college STEM degree. Two years into the effort, school administrators are still contending with a backlash against detracking in this highly educated, politically liberal city.

Related: Middle school is often difficult. Try experiencing it under quarantine.

Ithaca’s detracking efforts have their roots in Susan Danskin’s classroom at DeWitt Middle School. Credit: Steven Yoder

The changes to the math curriculum have their roots in Susan Danskin’s classroom. Danskin leads the math department at DeWitt Middle School, one of Ithaca’s two middle schools, which for years had separated eighth graders into three different math levels. In her lowest-tier class in fall 2017, seven of the 10 students were Black, Hispanic or multiracial, compared with 25 percent of the school. Another DeWitt math teacher reported similar numbers. “We said, ‘We are just perpetuating institutional racism here,’ ” recalled Danskin.

The teachers worried that the process for tracking kids was overly subjective. Students were placed in regular or accelerated math at the end of fifth grade based on teacher recommendations. But parental input also played a big role: Teachers complained of sometimes feeling pressured by parents to recommend their children for accelerated math.

Over at Ithaca High School, Steven Weissburg, the math department leader, was also troubled. He once loved teaching ninth grade geometry, a class for kids who’d completed accelerated eighth grade math. But in recent years he’d come to dread it because the students had sped through content in middle school and had weak skills. He partly blamed the 2010 Common Core requirements, which had toughened middle school math at all levels and raised the cost of moving too quickly. Meanwhile, students in the lower tracks weren’t performing well, either. The district’s middle school scores on state tests were “rock bottom,” said Weissburg.

“We said, ‘We are just perpetuating institutional racism here.’ ”

Susan Danskin, middle school math teacher, Ithaca, New York

Weissburg and Danskin and other middle school math department leaders began meeting regularly with district officials to discuss a solution. “I pretty much made myself a pain,” said Weissburg. “I am not the most diplomatic person.” It was in those meetings that the teachers proposed detracking eighth grade math.

Superintendent Luvelle Brown needed no convincing. He and his leadership team felt the research about the benefits of detracking was clear. “But until we had the teacher connection and the ability to do that, we would have no chance,” he said.

For Brown, the issue was also personal. He is African American and grew up near Charlottesville, Virginia. As a sixth grader, he wondered why he and all his Black peers ended up in the lower math classes. Later he saw what happened to Black kids who languished in lower-level courses — many dropped out of school, got into trouble and ended up in prison. For African American students, he said, “this is about life and death.”

Ithaca’s Superintendent Luvelle Brown, right, with Deputy Superintendent Lily Talcott. Brown recalled wondering as a middle schooler why all his Black peers ended up in lower-level math classes. Many of those students later dropped out of school, he said. Credit: Steven Yoder

In spring 2018, the district approved a pilot at DeWitt to collapse math for eighth graders from three tracks to two: algebra and eighth grade math. Teachers developed new strategies to offer “differentiated” learning, like those practiced in Gibb’s class, to students of different proficiency levels enrolled in the same course.

The district liked what it saw and decided to take the changes a few steps further. In fall 2019, Boynton, the district’s other middle school, adopted DeWitt’s two tiers for eighth grade math. Meanwhile, sixth grade math collapsed from two tracks to one, and the following year seventh grade math did the same.

To support the changes, the district hired new teachers to give kids more individual attention and help them work more easily in small groups. It also paid teachers extra to help redesign the curriculum over the summer.

Related: What does ‘career readiness’ look like in middle school?

The Ithaca City School District’s decision to limit tracking of kids in middle school math set off a furor in this college town. Credit: Steven Yoder

In February 2019, the district had sent a letter to the parents of fifth graders announcing the changes. Word got around, and parent opposition sprouted. At district meetings on the detracking effort, parents swamped administrators with questions. How would students be picked for eighth grade algebra? What research had informed the move? How would kids who excelled at math learn alongside students who were struggling?

Even parents who felt inclined to support the changes said the district wasn’t prepared to answer their questions. Tara Holm, a professor in Cornell’s math department who has a fifth grader and a second grader in the school system, said her understanding is that detracking “really is better for many kids.” But she wasn’t satisfied with the district’s explanations and how it had communicated the changes to parents. “It seemed like a very half-baked plan,” Holm recalled.

Sullymar Peña Vázquez and her daughter, Selena, who would have been in accelerated sixth grade math before the Ithaca City School District did away with it. Ms. Peña Vázquez said if the district was worried about students falling behind, it should offer them more support instead of eliminating accelerated classes. Credit: Sullymar Peña Vázquez

Parents started to organize. Deirdre Hay, a parent of two kids in the district, drew up a petition asking that the district reverse the decision. About 300 people signed. While the school board was united behind detracking, a parent named Erin Croyle jumped into the school board race as a write-in two weeks before the May 2019 election and defeated a longtime member after gaining the backing of detracking opponents.

At least one parent decided to pull her kids from the school because of the changes. Sullymar Peña Vázquez, who works in the district’s human resources department, said her daughter, Selena, would have been in accelerated sixth grade math before the district did away with it. Vázquez is from Puerto Rico and her kids are Black. She said that if the district was concerned about students of color falling behind, it should offer them more support rather than get rid of advanced classes.

She and her husband had planned to send Selena and their 10th grade son, Sincere, to a boarding school in Florida this fall before the pandemic upended those plans. “We don’t feel like she’s being challenged enough here,” she said of Selena.

“I’d never go back to the previous system. I think this is so much better for all the levels of kids.”

Marietta Gibb, middle school math teacher, Ithaca, New York

Still, most parents are taking a wait-and-see approach. The resistance to the curriculum change “feels premature,” said Marianella Casasola, a senior associate dean at Cornell with two kids in the district. She said she liked the idea of having students at different skill levels in the same classroom. But, Casasola said, “It’s not clear how this is going to play out and the degree to which they’ll be able to really meet the needs of each child.”

Student reaction has also been mixed. Detracking is designed to reduce the cliquishness around math, the idea that some students are cut out to excel and others aren’t. But Boynton sixth grader Sandra Clarke said when students are split up for small groups, she knows which kids are “ahead” and which are at the “normal pace.” Sandra, whose favorite subject is math, also said she sometimes gets frustrated when paired with another student who hasn’t mastered the content.

But John Clarke, a Boynton eighth grader who is Sandra’s brother, said he likes the paired work. “Later on, when we have jobs, we’ll have to learn how to work with different types of people and answer questions,” he said.

Related: How to boost math skills in the early grades

Academic research tends to support detracking. Studies have shown that separating kids by ability worsens inequality and steers experienced teachers and extra resources to the advanced students. Other research suggests that lower-achieving kids suffer academically in lower tracks. “A whole slew of research shows that detracking produces better outcomes,” said Jo Boaler, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education who has studied the topic for two decades.

Still, the research is not unequivocal. In a 2016 report, for example, education researcher Tom Loveless found that states that sort more kids by ability in eighth grade math wind up with more students scoring high on Advanced Placement exams in high school.

Middle schoolers work through a math problem together in Kathleen Cole and Robin Flach’s classroom at Boynton Middle School in Ithaca. The district sometimes pairs a student who has mastered a topic with another who needs help. Credit: Steven Yoder

In Ithaca, Lily Talcott, the district’s deputy superintendent, said it would take another seven years — when this year’s sixth graders graduate high school — for the district to know for sure the impact of detracking. But she said the district would find ways to measure student performance and assess kids’ views on the changes along the way.

Brown, the superintendent, said he felt the district would have faced opposition from parents no matter how the rollout was conducted. Two other middle-school detracking efforts — in San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts — both generated significant resistance from parents.

Teachers, meanwhile, said they were satisfied with how the district has pursued detracking, but the shift hasn’t been easy. Kathleen Cole, who teaches eighth grade math at Boynton, said the move would have failed without the district’s investment in co-teachers. And even though she thinks detracking is the right answer, it means more work. Each afternoon, Cole and her co-teacher carefully choose how they’ll pair up kids for the next day’s exercises so all the students have an opportunity to maximize their skills.

Gibb, the DeWitt math teacher, has a master’s degree in working with gifted students. She said the differentiated approach lets her challenge kids for whom math comes easily by giving them more complicated exercises on the same topics as their peers. The girl that she and Parasiliti were working with in the back of class is gifted — with a “hugely high IQ,” Gibb said.

Gibb said kids like her student expected not to be challenged after detracking; some parents told their children they’d be bored, she said. But now, “I don’t hear kids saying they’re bored,” Gibb said. “I don’t see it. I’d never go back to the previous system. I think this is so much better for all the levels of kids.”

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