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, and then sent them scattering to different tables to practice the exercises they had 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.
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, children of color were overrepresented, according to teachers and administrators. 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.
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 benefit 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 districts eliminate tracking in middle school math.
The group points to slumping test scores as a reason 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.
Still, researchers aren’t united on the benefits of eliminating tracking. 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 probably awaits other districts that attempt de-tracking: 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 de-tracking in this highly educated, politically liberal city.
ADThe changes to the math curriculum have their roots in Susan Danskin’s classroom. Danskin leads the math department at DeWitt, 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,’ ” Danskin recalled.
The teachers worried the process for tracking children was overly subjective. Students were placed in regular or accelerated math at the end of fifth grade based on teacher recommendations. But 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 students who had completed accelerated eighth-grade math. But in recent years, he had come to dread it because the students had sped through content in middle school and had weak skills.
Weissburg and Danskin and other middle school math department leaders met with district officials and proposed de-tracking eighth-grade math. Superintendent Luvelle Brown needed no convincing. He and his leadership team felt the research about the benefits of de-tracking was clear. “But until we had the teacher connection and the ability to do that, we would have no chance,” he said.
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 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- and seventh-grade math collapsed from two tracks to one. To support the changes, the district hired teachers to give students more individual attention and help them work more easily in small groups.
But almost immediately, parent opposition sprouted. At district meetings on the de-tracking effort, parents swamped administrators with questions. How would students be picked for eighth-grade algebra? What research had informed the move? How would children 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 de-tracking “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.
Parents started to organize. Deirdre Hay, a parent of two children in the district, drew up a petition asking the district reverse the decision. About 300 people signed. While the school board was united behind de-tracking, 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 de-tracking opponents.
ADStill, 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 children 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.”
Academic research tends to support de-tracking, but is not unequivocal. In a 2016 report, for example, education researcher Tom Loveless found that states that sort more children by ability in eighth-grade math wind up with more students scoring high on Advanced Placement exams in high school.
In Ithaca, Lily Talcott, the district’s deputy superintendent, said it would take years 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 students’ views on the changes along the way.
ADTeachers, meanwhile, said they were satisfied with how the district has pursued detracking. Gibb, the DeWitt math teacher, said some parents told their children they would be bored in the combined math classes. 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.”
This story about middle school math was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.