Tracking students — the process by which students are put into a curriculum track based on their achievement level — used to be the mode of operation for many schools. Tracking can occur in many forms, includng gifted and talented programs, honors programs, magnets, and any other euphemism for putting the “smart” kids all together. One problem, of course, is that often it’s the kids who come from privileged backgrounds who end up in these courses. Another: frequently, kids who are tracked into a low-level class remain there for their entire K-12 career.
Washburn and other schools within Minneapolis Public Schools have made steps to eliminate tracking, by requiring “rigorous” courses for all students, no matter their past educational experiences. The theory is that in order to combat the achievement gap, all students need to be pushed to succeed at high levels. However, some parents criticize that by not offering advanced courses for high achievement students, the school punishes kids who are smart and hard working. Other criticisms include lack of choice for students who may not want to take those rigorous courses.
Earlier in February, Kip Wennerlund, a Washburn High School parent, wrote a letter to the Minneapolis Public School board members criticizing what he calls a “one-size-fits-all” system at the school, which he characterizes as being of “one standard pace, one standard of difficulty.”
The problem, according to Wennerlund, is that instead of offering students an option to take more challenging courses in core subjects, “Washburn requires every core-subject classroom to span all levels of student achievement.”
Last year, Washburn introduced IB curriculum, which affects mainly grades 11 and 12. For ninth and tenth graders, Wennerlund writes that they have no opportunity to take classes at a higher pace. Even “honors” courses are offered to students of all levels of achievement.
In an interview, Wennerlund said that the problem is that the school isn’t doing a good job preparing 9th and 10th grade students for the 11th and 12th grade IB curriculum, “since they don’t offer any advanced classes” in grades 9 and 10.
In his daughter’s geometry course, she isn’t being challenged enough, Wennerlund said, and that’s true for other high achieving students, too. He says there are a handful of high-achieving students in the 10th grade math class, but even then, it’s still not separated to go at a faster pace.
The system, according to Wennerlund, puts too much burden on the teachers, forcing the to differentiate different achievement levels. “They’ll say, the problem is the teaching, we have to remedy with better teaching.’ The teacher is supposed to individually tailor stuff to a wide range of achievement within the class room.”
According to Wennerlund, his daughter was given the option of taking an online 10th grade math class. “Why not offer an in-school version, rather than making people resort to an online class?” he asked, though he thinks the online option is better than none at all.
Wennerlund says he understands that tracking can be detrimental for students, especially if they haven’t had the same advantages in elementary and middle schools, but he says Washburn’s solution is a “false choice,” because if you have higher levels of a subject, that is inherently tracking. “Southwest and South offer AP and College In The Schools. They somehow were able to offer different labels,” he said.
Carol Markham-Cousins, principal at Washburn, said the school is trying to live up to MPS’s mission to close the achievement gap by providing access for all kids at a higher level. “That means all kids are well prepared and have challenging curriculum, she said, even if they hadn’t had those opportunities previously. “Washburn is a very diverse school,” she said. “We feel that is a huge strength.”
“We know kids are individuals,” Markham-Cousins said. “Part of the effort as students enter our schools is to arm them with as much preparedness as possible.”
Honors courses are offered in the humanities, she said, in both English and social studies. The goal is not to track kids in the first two grades of high school, so that the classes are “truly going to be of mixed abilities.” That means that all kids are in the same 9th and 10th grade English and social studies courses, and that all of these are called honors courses.
Markham-Cousins disagrees with Wennerlund that there is no choice for students. Students take the level of math class and language class that they are at. The difference at Washburn, as opposed to some of the elementary and middle schools that students attended, is there’s no low, middle, and high levels of each subject — it’s all the same.
Part of the reason that the humanities classes are labeled “honors,” even if every student takes the honors classes, is in “creating a culture of high expectations for kids,” she said.
Washburn is only in its second year of the IB program, Markham-Cousins said. “Other schools have been involved in IB for over 20 years. Our effort from the beginning was that I really wanted to create capacity, and build up the diploma program.”
Markham-Cousins said at the heart of this system is an effort to address equity. “We’re trying to create an educational system that is responsive to all kids, that doesn’t label kids. That sets expectations for kids. It’s a challenge. It’s not the way we’re used to doing business. It’s hard, and it needs a lot of support.”
For math, online courses have been a way to offer math courses that students can take according to their own schedule, whether that is in the summer, or at another time if a particular course doesn’t fit in their schedule, according to Markham-Cousins.
Next year, Washburn will offer “Higher Level” IB math for the upper grades. Now they just have standard level, although Markham-Cousins points out that a student can still get into an Ivy League school if they take Standard Level IB Math.
“Implementing IB is very complicated,” Marham-Cousins said. “It takes a lot of resources and training. It takes a lot of time.”
The bottom line, according to Markham-Cousins, is that, “Washburn has advanced courses and can challenge students academically. I stand by that. We’ve worked very hard to get there.”
Sometimes it seems like Markham-Cousins and Wennerlund are talking right past each other. She emphasizes the advanced courses in the final two years of high school, while he focuses on the uniformity and lack of challenge for advanced students in the first two years. Markham-Cousins said that the first two years are challenging for all students, and that teachers can offer additional challenging coursework within a single class, such as giving the advanced kids special assignments.
De-Tracking in Minneapolis Public Schools
Washburn isn’t the only school that has made de-tracking efforts in recent years. Rob Panning-Miller, who teaches world history at South, says that at his school there are similar efforts. All 10th graders take Advanced Placement U.S. History, for example.
The situation may even get heightened next year, when the district’s new “Focused Instruction” plan takes effect. That plan is guided by the idea that a student taking a subject in one school in Minneapolis is learning the same things as any other student in any other Minneapolis school.
“In the big picture that makes sense,” says Panning-Miller, although he gets frustrated that, more and more, teachers are dictated what they are supposed to teach over the course of the year, and he’s skeptical about whether teachers will have a say in testing.
Math teachers are essentially already doing Focused Instruction, Panning-Miller said. To him, that makes sense, as math is much more logical and sequential in terms of the course material. “History is not exactly like that,” he said. “Teachers feel very micromanaged.” Panning-Miller fears Focused Instruction will discourage teachers from being creative, and opportunities to do new things, such as having a read-in of books banned in Arizona, might not fit in the schedule.
The intent of offering advanced classes for all students is “well supported,” Panning-Miller said, but the problem is that it limits choices for students. While some students would love to take an A.P. Chemistry class, for example, others would prefer to spend their time and energy on music and art. “When they are forced to take an A.P. U.S. History class,” he said, “that pulls away from their ability to focus on other classes.”
Panning-Miller doesn’t like the semantics. “That’s the problem with this obsession with the word ‘rigor,’” he said. “My class is called Honors World History. That was a title given to the course. People wanted to know that it was a rigorous course. It becomes a name game.”
Ideally, any class has a mix of students, he said. “You need to have students at various levels. You can’t have classes with students who are cruising ahead and a separate class for students who are struggling. It creates all sorts of problems.” The challenge for the teacher is to have the ability to help students who are struggling, he said, and to set a pace that “keeps everyone engaged. It’s hard to quantify.”
That said, Panning-Miller still questions forcing students to take advanced courses. “If you had told me in high school I had to take an A.P. Lit class… I remember dreading and hating Romeo and Juliet.”
Emily Puetz, the Chief Academic Officer for MPS, said the district is moving more towards seeking alignment between schools, so that there’s a clear “one page map” of the learning objectives. Part of the goal, at the high school level, she said, is to have a “common course sequence and common course content”, so that, for example, “advanced algebra is advanced algebra wherever you take it.”
She described the district as very committed to equity, with a goal of offering challenging course work to a diverse schools and diverse classrooms. “That being said,” she added, “for students that need a challenge, we want to allow them to move through the courses at a faster rate.” The goal is to differentiate the learning as best as possible within any given class.
MPS “doesn’t support tracking,” Puetz said. “Philosophically we aren’t aligned with that.” However, MPS does support students going through the core sequence at varying rates, she said. That could mean taking courses online.
Next year, the district will be offering a “blended” course model, in which if there aren’t enough students at a particular school to take a higher level math class, such as statistics, they’d work with a teacher for part of the week and take online lessons the rest of the week. That model, Puetz said, addresses the dilemma of providing the class even though there are not enough students at a single school to fill a class.
Puetz recognizes that online courses are controversial, and said the district is looking very carefully at student evaluations of the programs every year.
As for Washburn’s model of offering honors core curriculum to all students, Puetz said, “I think the intention of the movement is that all kids deserve learning at high levels and all kids deserve high expectations.”
Puetz also recognizes that is challenging for teachers to differentiate between students of different achievement levels within one classroom. Student assessments prior to the start of school should aid teachers in planning for their classes, she said.
As for Focused Instruction, she said it will actually “free up teachers to be more creative. What we’re providing for these teachers is a map. What people are teaching is governed by state law… these are required skills.” The purpose of focused instruction has to do with how to organize the curriculum, to aid teachers when they are stuck, she said. “It’s a guide to help you design and implement instruction,” she said.