High school tracking for math classes

This is my first post on this new blog. I have a number of ideas to get up on the page, but need to find the time to get it going. This post stems from my doctoral research. I would love to hear what you think about my thoughts.

The current situation for Texas high school math education, generally speaking:

  1. The most advanced students typically take Algebra 1 in 8th grade, Geometry in 9th, Algebra 2 in 10th, Pre-calculus in 11th, and Calculus in 12th.
  2. The least advanced students take Algebra 1 twice-9th grade and 10th, Geometry in 10th and/or 11th, and finish with Mathematical Models and Applications in12th, resulting in a minimum diploma.
  3. Obviously, there are a myriad of situations in between. At worst, though, the least productive high school math students are 3 years behind at graduation. Of course, the level of learning is probably well below as well.

I would like to propose a new system for my pretend high school:

  1. The highest level, in general, would be called a University STEM track, which has Calculus or AP Statistics  as the expected final course.
  2. The second level, in general, would be called a University non-STEM track, which  has Pre-calculus or AP Statistics as the expected final course.
  3. The third level, in general, would be called a Junior College track, which has Pre-calculus or Algebra 2 as the expected final course.
  4. The fourth level, in general, would be called a Vocational track, which has Algebra 2 or MMA as the expected final course.
  5. The fifth level, in general, would be called a Liberal Arts/Fine Arts track, which has MMA as the expected final course.
These five tracks can all lead to postsecondary educational opportunities, and each more closely relates to the ability, desire, and future plans for individual students.
Different tracks do not have to mean "bad."
An Algebra 2 example of how curricula would match the graduation tracks, while not being overly burdensome on teachers follows:
  1. The university tracks(1 and 2) are to be parallel Algebra 2 classes. They should have similar six weeks calendars. The STEM curriculum/course should be more rigorous and in all ways a more challenging math class. Teachers may need to modify pacing, depth, and style, but the curricula should be similar enough as to not be considered a whole different course.
  2. The junior college track would be the present on-level Algebra 2 course and is the stepping stone between the two major level differences. If a child wanted to take a step down from the university track or up from the vocational or fine/liberal arts tracks. It is unlikely that a student will be following a liberal arts track and choose to move to the university STEM track and be successful. However, track switches are possible, and this is a good compromise.
  3. The vocational and liberal arts tracks would, like the university tracks, be parallel course tracks. The  major difference, however, would be the theme of the courses pointing to non-mathematical or job cluster math. These math courses would be taught relatively close to the watered down versions that are acceptable today and are considered minimal. Depth of abstract math understanding is not the goal in this class, though learning Algebra 2 methods and thinking is still imperative.

Track choices:

  1. “Placement” tests before 6th grade and 8th grade would be implemented to determine appropriate tracking levels, along with teacher recommendation and input from parents, students, and counselors.
  2. Choice would be the norm, with input being expected from teachers and counselors to best match students with a track.
  3. Additionally, brief, non-comprehensive, parent/student reviews of placement would be conducted semi-annually. If no changes were expected, the process could be bypassed.
  4. Comprehensive reviews would be conducted annually, involving all parties. If no changes were expected, the process could be bypassed.

This is not the final development of the ideas, but a good start towards making high school math education more student friendly.


5 thoughts on “High school tracking for math classes

  1. Bruce Bothwell

    This is a fantastic first blog. I will be following you everywhere. I think you have a brilliant future as the preeminent expert in world of public education math.


  2. Wendy Tahill

    I think your ideas are grandiose at best. It is not feasible to carry out all these tracks. Who would keep up with these “tracks”? Counselors? The sames ones who allow kids to take the same courses over and over (having passed it the first time) and thus prevent these kids from graduating? Even when those kids tell their counselors, but I’ve already taken this class. And they STILL put them there because there is no other choice, according to them anyway. Just not practical. The only schools that could do this would be the larger high schools, the same ones that perpetuate drop outs due to their largeness. So sorry but just don’t see it.


    1. brettrubicristian Post author

      Interesting comment, Wendy!

      Counselors would be held more accountable in this tracking, as teachers, administrators, parents, and students would be involved in the process. I have not trusted counselors as the sole source of knowledge in education planning for my whole life. More eyes and hands in the kitchen should improve the tracking, in my opinion. I do not think your perceived incompetence of counselors should steer education away from this concept, as it is likely a better organizational system. When parents and kids feel like they are choosing the path of education, the student’s performance will undoubtedly improve.

      It would be easier for big schools, admittedly. However, simply because it is “easier” for the big schools, does not mean it is not the right thing to do for math education. Are you suggesting there are not all five levels of students in smaller high schools, as well? Do they not deserve options in their educations?

      In education, we too often choose the easy way over the best way, would you not agree? This may be an opportunity to go the other route.



      1. Wendy Tahill

        You seem like a realist to me, why don’t we look at this realistically? Is it realistic to fathom all these levels in a school where they do not have the manpower to hold these tracks? Present a viable option, one that actually can be done in a smaller school. The U.S. is not comprised of 5A schools only.


      2. brettrubicristian Post author

        Wendy –

        I think you are smart to envision the realities of implementing this plan. But, first things first: I would like to know if you believe that this is the best plan for student learning? If we are trying to meet the needs of students, I believe offering greater support for students through multiple course offerings is more sensible than offering a single course to the myriad levels of students at any one particular age, e.g. juniors, especially when that course is above the level suitable for 50-70% of the children. Loveless explained that the lowest ten percent of the students operate at the second-grade level mathematically, while their peers operate on average at the ninth-grade level (2008, p. 10). Second grade students taking Algebra 1 seems crazy.

        If we can agree that this is the “right” thing to do, then we can start worrying about how to make that happen. When differentiation is one of the most challenging tasks for high school math teachers, separating students into more homogeneous groups by ability level ought to help with that difficulty. So, while it may be difficult for smaller school to implement, in many ways it could simplify the challenges of educating students for many teachers.

        If a school only has enough students to offer one Algebra 2 class, period, then this is a moot discussion. If there are only 45 students in a class and two classes is the maximum, again this is moot. However, when there are enough students for enough classes, now we need to have the discussion. Now that all students are required to take Algebra 2 in Texas, we would only need a junior class of about 150 to justify the multiple levels being offered. I do not know how many schools in Texas have junior classes as large or larger than 150 students, which is probably near the breaking point of this discussion.

        Wendy, does that make sense?


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