cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Tracking versus Detracking in Secondary Math Programs — a primer on educational psychology

In order to understand the 'why' behind all the arguments around tracking versus detracking in public school secondary math programs, it is vital to understand the educational psychology underlying the argument.

The essential question for the research and practice communities is this: 

Why do some students thrive in whatever math class they are placed into, while others do not?

To address this question, educational psychologists, teacher educators, and front-line math teacher practitioners have all invested considerable time and energy exploring the foundational concept called a student's "academic self-concept." A student's academic self-concept is one of the most important non-cognitive variables in determining student outcomes. Roughly speaking, it is organized around several key questions: How do students experience themselves as learners in community with other learners? What social comparisons do students experience when they look around at self and others? What practices and factors support students in developing a healthy academic self-concept or an unhealthy one?

Nowhere in schools are the impacts of these questions more profound than they are in K-12 math classes and programs. 

A student's academic self-concept is critical to understand and nurture because it has been shown to be one of the most impactful non-cognitive factors in adolescent academic psychology, with a powerful impact on students' actual cognitive development, as well as their ability and willingness to engage and learn.

The research on academic self-concept in secondary math classes and programs has broken down into two schools of thought, based on competing hypotheses. 


The labeling hypothesis first came into prominence around the early 1990s. The idea was that if some students are being consistently placed into a course that is labeled as "the advanced class" or "the remedial class," they will take on those attributes and incorporate them into their academic self-concept and will lose the flexibility to achieve to their full mathematical potential. The kids who are placed into the "advanced class" tend to take themselves to be "the advanced math kids," while the kids who are placed into the non-"advanced" classes tend to take themselves to be "the not-so-advanced math kids" (or worse). And then we as a society lose out on the massive human potential of all these potential mathematical thinkers.

This theory posits that when students are pre-labeled by being placed into certain levels of a class, it erodes their sense of agency and empowerment. It is argued that this then leads them to lose the capacity to discover capacities and potential within themselves that might require a little more nudging or encouragement to uncover.

This was the genesis of the pedagogy called Complex Instruction, whose founding tenet is that all kids possess "smartness" in math -- it just needs to be accessed and witnessed/reflected back to them. The theory is that by placing kids into un-labeled heterogeneous courses, more students will be positioned to discover their own "smartness in math." And teachers who are trained in reflecting back these students success to them can have a positive impact on students' academic self-concepts in mathematics.

The labeling hypothesis is the main justification behind the detracking movement — aka the opposition to tracking is that exclusively heterogeneous class sections combined with the practices of Complex Instruction will improve both math learning and academic self-concept for all students.


As detracked classes have become the norm, researchers have begun to investigate the impacts of detracked classrooms on students' academic self-concept. And what they're finding will sound familiar to every parent who has ever worried about the self-esteem impacts on their teenager who is spending hours and hours on social media.

The Contrast Hypothesis considers the impact of constant exposure to higher-achieving, math-hungry classmates on more vulnerable and/or less confident students.

As we have learned over the last ten years, there is a social and emotional cost to detracking. Students are more affected than researchers had anticipated by constant proximity to and self-comparison against higher-achieving peers.

What does that mean? It's similar to what researchers are discovering about the impacts of social media on girls and young women who spend hours each day scrolling through images of beauty influencers on Instagram and Tik Tok and finding fault with their own faces and bodies.

Much like the tween or teen girl who feel discouraged as they scroll past impossible — or artificial — standards of physical beauty that they can never hope to achieve, less confident math learners in a massively heterogeneous classroom are being found to experience feelings of doom and hopelessness as they compare themselves to the student next to them, who is effortlessly solving one 12-sided Rubik's Cube after another before blazing through the rich problem in front of their table group.

Social psychologists are sounding the alarm about the dangers of social comparison to young teens as they measure the levels of anxiety and depression these young people are experiencing on social media. So it might have been inevitable that educational psychologists would begin to measure and discover the risks of social comparison in heterogeneous classrooms as well.

And as they are discovering, far from being a benign factor, psychologists who research the contrast hypothesis are indeed finding that lower-achieving students are suffering from the constant negative social contrasts they experience when they measure themselves against their high-achieving peers in the math classroom. 

To put this in more concrete terms, what teachers and researchers are seeing — and expressing alarm about — is that our less confident or less well prepared students who are placed into massively heterogeneous math classrooms run the risk of becoming discouraged by the contrasts they perceive between their own abilities and those of other students they perceive as naturally strong or confident math learners. 

This can't be dismissed as teachers simply needing to impose stronger norms on their group work. This is about how the adolescent mind lapses into social comparison whenever they experience themselves in proximity to others with different characteristics. 

When teens see others, they compare themselves and then internalize what they perceive to be the contrast. That's it. That's what they do on social media and it's what they are doing in the math classroom. And it's proving to be dangerous for their long-term engagement, motivations, and academic outcomes.

And since the practices of "detracking" are now being seen to have had such a huge impact on student motivation,  which is taken to be "the decisive determinant of academic choices and career decisions" (Eccles & Wigfield, 2020; Wigfield & Eccles, 2000), this is worth policymakers' time and attention to consider.



Math programs don't have to be all one or the other. Many advocates of modified tracking in math classes use promising techniques from advocates of the detracking school, and many advocates of detracking are recognizing the need to improve students' foundational mastery of early math facts, numeracy, and mathematical language. The AVID program has launched a renaissance in teaching students organizational, retrieval, and metacognitive skills, which many teacher practitioners have integrated into classes.

There is a middle way. But we need to stop yelling past each other or engaging in cancel culture to make this happen for students.

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