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Ending advanced math can spur outrage, as Troy showed. Some schools buck trend

Boulan Park Middle School math teacher Jordan Baines writing on whiteboard
Boulan Park Middle School math teacher Jordan Baines gives tips to help her students figure out a mathematics problem in Troy. (Photo by Amanda J. Cain for The Hechinger Report)
  • As skirmishes in Troy and other districts show, efforts to eliminate advanced math classes are often unpopular
  • Research shows separating students by tracks disproportionately impact students of color
  • One survey shows nearly 40% of middle schools still separate classes based on achievement

This story about detracking was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Last April, an email went out to families in the Troy School District. Signed by unnamed “concerned Troy parents,” it said that a district proposal for its middle schools to end “basic” and “honors” math classes for sixth and seventh graders was part of a longer-term district plan to completely abolish honors classes in all of its schools. 

Superintendent Richard Machesky and his team were stunned. The district was indeed proposing to merge separate sixth- and seventh-grade math tracks into what it said would be a single, rigorous pathway emphasizing pre-algebra skills. In eighth grade, students could opt for Eighth Grade Math or Algebra I. But the district had no plans for changes to other grades, much less to do away with high school honors classes. 

Earlier that month, Machesky and a district team of curriculum specialists and math teachers had unveiled the plan during a series of meetings with parents of current and incoming middle schoolers. Parents had largely expressed support, said Machesky: “We thought we were hitting the mark.”

students at the whiteboard
Troy Superintendent Richard Machesky says that, after initial parent pushback, opposition to detracking of math classes in schools like Boulan Park, pictured here, has gone silent. (Photo by Amanda J. Cain for The Hechinger Report)

No matter. The email blast spurred opponents to show up at a board workshop and a town hall, and a petition demanding that the middle-school plan be scrapped got more than 3,000 signatures. At a packed board meeting that May, more than 40 people spoke, nearly all opposed to the plan, and the comments got personal. “Are you all on drugs?” parent Andrew Sosnoski asked the members. 

It’s part of the skirmish over “detracking,” or eliminating the sorting of kids by perceived ability into separate math classes. Since the mid-1980s, some education experts have supported such moves, citing research showing that tracking primarily serves as a marker of race or class, as Black and Hispanic students, and those from lower-income families, are steered into lower-track classes at disproportionate rates. In the last 15 years, a handful of school districts around the country have eliminated some tracked math classes.

While there’s been ample research on tracking’s negative effects, studies of positive effects resulting from detracking are scant. In perhaps the only attempt to summarize the detracking literature, a 2009 summary of 15 studies from 1972 to 2006 concluded that detracking improved academic outcomes for lower-ability students, but had no effect on average and high-ability students.

Related: Data science under fire: What math do high schoolers really need? 

Proposals to curtail tracking often draw fiery opposition, sometimes scuttling the efforts. The Portland school district in Oregon planned to compress two levels of middle school math into one starting in 2023, but after criticism, said the issue needed more study. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, a Republican, won office in 2021 on an education platform that included protecting tracking, after an outcry over a state department of education plan that included language about “improving math equity,” which some interpreted as limiting tracking. The San Francisco Unified School District, which in 2014 detracked math through ninth grade, recently announced that it’s testing the reintroduction of a tracked system, following a lawsuit from a group of parents who alleged that detracking hurt student achievement. 

student writing on whiteboard
A math class at Boulan Park Middle School in Troy, which has detracked some of its math classes. (Photo by Amanda J. Cain for The Hechinger Report)

The pushback, often from parents of high-track students with the time and resources to attend school board meetings, is part of why tracking, especially in math, remains common. In a 2023 survey of middle-school principals by the Rand Corporation, 39% said their schools group students into separate classes based on achievement. 

But some places have changed their math classes with minimal backlash, and also ensured course rigor and improved academic outcomes. That’s often because they moved slowly. 

Evanston Township High School, in Illinois, started detracking in 2010, collapsing several levels in two freshman-year subjects — humanities and biology — into one. 

Then, for six years, the school made no other changes. That allowed leaders to work out the kinks and look at the data to make sure there were no negative effects on achievement, said Pete Bavis, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. 


Teachers liked the mixed-ability classes and asked to expand them to other subjects, so in 2017 the school began detracking sophomore and junior English, Geometry and Algebra II. 

At South Side Middle School and High School on Long Island, detracking went even slower, taking 17 years to fully roll out. The district started in 1989 with middle-school English and social studies, and progressed to high school math and chemistry by 2006. 

The pace let parents see it wasn’t hurting their children’s achievement, said former South Side High Principal Carol Burris. During that period, the proportion of students earning New York’s higher-level Regents diploma climbed from 58% in 1989 to 97% by 2005. “I always told parents, when we started moving this through the high school, ‘Look, if this isn’t working, I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to hurt your kid,’” she said. 

Related: How one district diversified its math classes – without the controversy

Those slow rollouts contrast with what happened in the Shaker Heights City School District in Ohio in 2020. That summer, school leaders needed to simplify schedules to accommodate a mix of online and onsite students because of the pandemic. They saw an opening to do something that had long been in the district’s strategic plan: end tracking in most fifth- through ninth-grade subjects. 

But teachers complained last spring that it had gone too quickly, saying that they didn’t get enough training on teaching mixed classrooms, and that course rigor has suffered. Even supporters of detracking suggested it had happened so fast that the district couldn’t lay the groundwork with parents. 

Shaker Heights Superintendent David Glasner said he understands those concerns. But he said he also heard from parents, students and instructional leaders in the district who say they’re glad the district “ripped the Band-Aid off.”

In Troy, despite the pushback from parents, the school board ultimately voted 6-1 for the change, noting that the district had spent four years studying options and that teachers and outside experts largely supported the plan. 

teacher standing next to student
Math teacher Jordan Baines of Troy, with students at Boulan Park Middle School. (Photo by Amanda J. Cain for The Hechinger Report)

Machesky said if he had it to do over, he’d communicate with parents earlier. The anonymous email took advantage of an information void: The district had communicated the proposal only to parents of current and upcoming middle schoolers. Most who turned out to oppose it had younger kids and hadn’t been told, he said. 

Leaders in Evanston and South Side both say they also framed detracking as a way to create more opportunities for all students. As part of getting rid of tracks, Evanston created an “earned honors” system. All students enroll in the same classes, but they can opt into honors credit — which boosts their class grade by a half-point, akin to extra credit — if they take and do well on additional assessments or complete additional projects. 

School leaders in South Side also ensured that detracked classes remained as challenging as the higher-level classes had been previously, Burris said. To make sure students succeeded, the school arranged for teachers to tutor struggling students in a support class held two or three times a week and in a half-hour period before school, changing the bus schedules to make that work. Teachers also created optional activities for each lesson that would push higher-achieving students if they mastered the material being covered. 

“You have to make sure you’re not taking something away from anyone,” said Burris. 

To prepare for pushback, Evanston also formed a “rapid-response team” that answered parent questions about the new system within 24 hours and developed dozens of pages of frequently updated FAQs. That took the pressure off teachers, letting them focus on the classroom, said math department chair Dale Leibforth. By the end of the first year of detracking, the school had gotten just three complaints, all requests for fixes to narrow technical problems rather than wholesale critiques, said Bavis. 

“We imagined a catastrophe,” he said. “We asked, ‘what could go wrong?’” and mapped how to handle each scenario. 

Related: Inside the new middle school math crisis

In response to continued critiques of its detracking effort, last fall Shaker Heights pioneered another idea: an evening immersion experience that lets parents sit through detracked classes. The four mock sessions — two in literature and two in math — were followed by questions and answers. 

Parents were respectful but probing: How do teachers work together to make the new system work? Do kids know when they’re grouped with others who are struggling in a skill? Are the books we worked with really at sixth-grade level? While there’s no data on the session’s effects, Glasner says they “absolutely did move the needle” on community opinion. 

Research from the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, suggests that districts should focus on how detracking helps all students, rather than emphasizing that the efforts are aimed to advance equity and benefit students in lower tracks, said senior fellow Halley Potter. That approach gives parents of higher-track kids the idea that their own child’s academics are being sacrificed to help others. 

That fits with what Machesky thinks happened last spring in Troy. “We kind of got caught up with the equity arguments that were raging in districts nationally at the time,” he said. 

a bunch of students standing in front of whiteboard
The Troy district has moved to end “basic” and “honors” math classes for sixth and seventh graders. (Photo by Amanda J. Cain for The Hechinger Report)

After last May’s board vote, opponents launched a recall petition against three board members who’d voted in favor of the change. To get on the ballot, it needed 8,000 signatures but got fewer than half that. 

Since then, the opposition there has gone silent. 

Last fall the district held “math nights” to talk about the new system and let parents ask questions. The students have settled in. “I have received zero negative communication from parents — no emails, no phone calls — zero,” said Machesky.  

Related: How can schools dig out from a generation’s worth of lost math progress? 

Whether detracking spreads may depend on the experience of parents and students. Back on Long Island, parent Mindy Roman’s three children graduated from South Side High in 2009, 2012 and 2018, and she said she’s glad they were in classes with diverse groups of students. Her children didn’t have classes with a Black student until middle school because of the way elementary school lines were drawn, she said. And all three did well in the district’s detracked courses. 

But Roman said she’s heard from current parents with the opposite experience. “It’s not ‘oh my God, my child is getting access to these unbelievable opportunities,’ but more like, ‘my kid is gonna get a 70 in a class when they could get a 90. I don't want them to be put under that much pressure.’” 

John Murphy, who was principal at South Side High from 2015 to 2023, said he started hearing around 2018 from people worried about the effects of the workload on their children’s mental health, and the school responded by giving less homework. Even so, “students are working way harder than they did 20 years ago,” said Murphy, now an assistant for human resources to Superintendent Matthew Gaven. 

Still, academic outcomes at South Side have improved since the district eliminated tracking. In 2021-22, 89% of South Side graduates earned the highest-level diploma the state offers — the advanced Regents diploma — compared with 42% in New York state as a whole. Another 9% earned the Regents diploma. 


That said, the district recently made an accommodation. Post-Covid, a small group of parents of middle schoolers told the district they didn’t think their children were ready for Algebra I because of the pandemic-era learning interruptions. So South Side Middle School retracked eighth-grade math starting in the 2023-24 school year, offering parents the choice of Algebra I or a grade-level math course. Gaven said that only around 7% of parents of eighth graders asked for that option, and that demand for it might taper as schools return to normal. 

It’s an opt-in model far different from those that direct students into lower-level courses because of test scores or teacher recommendations, said Gaven. “We know our kids can handle algebra, but we respect our parents as partners and wanted to give them a voice and an option.”

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