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A SPECIAL SECTION ON THE ACHIEVEMENT GAP - Closing the Achievement Gap by Detracking

Article excerpt

Achievement follows from opportunities, Ms. Burris and Mr. Welner assert, and the persistent practice of tracking denies a range of opportunities to large numbers of students. That a disproportionate number of these students are minorities is one of the underlying reasons that the achievement gap has remained so persistent. The authors describe how a diverse suburban district in New York narrowed the gap by offering its high-track curriculum to all students.

THE most recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools found that 74% of Americans believe that the achievement gap between white students and African American and Hispanic students is primarily due to factors unrelated to the quality of schooling that children receive.1 This assumption is supported by research dating back four decades to the Coleman Report and its conclusion that schools have little impact on the problem.2 But is the pessimism of that report justified? Or is it possible for schools to change their practices and thereby have a strongly positive effect on student achievement? We have found that when all students -- those at the bottom as well as the top of the "gap" -- have access to first-class learning opportunities, all students' achievement can rise.

Because African American and Hispanic students are consistently overrepresented in low-track classes, the effects of tracking greatly concern educators who are interested in closing the achievement gap.3 Detracking reforms are grounded in the established ideas that higher achievement follows from a more rigorous curriculum and that low-track classes with unchallenging curricula result in lower student achievement.4 Yet, notwithstanding the wide acceptance of these ideas, we lack concrete case studies of mature detracking reforms and their effects. This article responds to that shortage, describing how the school district in which Carol Burris serves as a high school principal was able to close the gap by offering its high-track curriculum to all students, in detracked classes.

Tracking and the Achievement Gap

Despite overwhelming research demonstrating the ineffectiveness of low- track classes and of tracking in general, schools continue the practice.5 Earlier studies have argued that this persistence stems from the fact that tracking is grounded in values, beliefs, and politics as much as it is in technical, structural, or organizational needs.6 Further, despite inconsistent research findings,7 many parents and educators assume that the practice benefits high achievers. This is partly because parents of high achievers fear that detracking and heterogeneous grouping will result in a "watered-down" curriculum and lowered learning standards for their children.

And so, despite the evidence that low-track classes cause harm, they continue to exist. Worse still, the negative achievement effects of such classes fall disproportionately on minority students, since, as noted above, African American and Hispanic students are overrepresented in low-track classes and underrepresented in high-track classes, even after controlling for prior measured achievement.8 Socioeconomic status (SES) has been found to affect track assignment as well.9 A highly proficient student from a low socioeconomic background has only a 50-50 chance of being placed in a high-track class.10

Researchers who study the relationship between tracking, race/ethnicity, and academic performance suggest different strategies for closing the achievement gap. Some believe that the solution is to encourage more minority students to take high-track classes.11 Others believe that if all students are given the enriched curriculum that high-achieving students receive, achievement will rise.12 They believe that no students -- whatever their race, SES, or prior achievement -- should be placed in classes that have a watered-down or remedial academic curriculum and that the tracking system should be dismantled entirely. …