Our Detracked System: College Curriculum for All

In Rockville Centre, N.Y., accelerated instruction is served to students of every ability level and a range of socioeconomic backgrounds

By William H. Johnson/School Administrator, September 2015

Detracking in K-12 education remains a controversial subject. Supporters have the research they need and detractors have the research they need to argue effectively for their respective positions.

William H. Johnson, superintendent in Rockville Centre, N.Y., with teacher Viri Pettersen and students in the STELLAR (Success in Technology Enrichment Literacy Library and Research) Center at Francis F. Wilson Elementary School. Photo by Rockville Centre UFSD

But real-life cases count for something and should not be left out of the equation for helping leaders decide what might work for their schools or districts. Much of the longitudinal and cross-sectional work lacks the sense of character that an in-depth examination of the process and variables, as well as the development of solutions, would provide. Those who have tried to detrack students and failed and those who have tried it and succeeded need to share their stories and insights with one another.

In Rockville Centre, N.Y., a Long Island school district with approximately 3,600 students, we’ve had our share of successes and we’ve made plenty of mistakes from which other school systems might learn.

Open Access

How is it that over the past 29 years we have managed to accelerate the curriculum for students in this racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse suburban community and even provide some with opportunities to begin their college studies early?

A 12th-grade International Baccalaureate course, History of the Americas, is open to all students at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, N.Y. Photo by Rockville Centre UFSD

Years ago, I was sitting with a high school principal and assistant principal reviewing file after file of students who were not achieving at levels that would prepare them for higher education. We noticed some interesting themes that were rooted in administrative decisions made at the elementary and middle schools. Some of the more noticeable themes focused on our special education and gifted programs, but the most obvious was rooted in math.

At the time, the majority of our students took algebra in 9th grade. Incoming 6th graders needed to meet strict standards to qualify for any accelerated math courses. The limited number of seats in the classes meant only the best of the best were able to take accelerated classes. If students were not following an accelerated path in math in middle school, they had little or no opportunity to take calculus in high school.

We took a look at the research and at the students in our district who did have access to algebra in 8th grade and discovered the majority of those students were, at most, marginally different from their classmates who were denied this opportunity based on the math courses they completed in 6th and 7th grades.

We began increasing the number of sections of algebra in 8th grade and found no difference in pass rates on the New York State Regents exam. This continued for two years until we had only two sections of non-algebra math. At this point, we again looked at the students remaining in the last two sections of non-algebra math only to discover marginal differences between the remaining students and their classmates taking algebra. In fact, when we compared the transcripts of students passing algebra with those in the non-algebra courses, we found that, except for the severity of disability in some students, there were no differences in performances in other courses and therefore no reasons for pushing these students into a separate and less-challenging math class. It was at this point that we decided to enroll all 8th-grade students in algebra.

So began our walk down the road of detracking. We did not call it detracking at the time because we were focused primarily on our goal, which simply was to increase the overall participation of students in college-level curriculum before they left the high school. What we learned from our experience in math enabled us to recraft the entire system to allow all students to enroll in the most challenging academic courses rather than a chosen few.

Now, approximately 70 percent of our students are enrolled in Advanced Placement Calculus or AP Statistics before they graduate. In addition, every student is enrolled in two college-level International Baccalaureate courses as juniors, English and social studies, and more than 95 percent of the juniors continue with these IB courses into their senior year.

Looking back, it’s clear detracking alone was not the sole factor in our success. Rather, a mixture of many variables, including collaboration, accountability and differentiated instruction, was needed. A focus on math will illustrate how these parts all fit together.

Laying Groundwork

If the goal was to have all students fully prepared to take algebra in 8th grade, we needed to start with a backwards planning model that took into consideration factors such as the content and skills necessary for students to be ready for algebra; the academic support some students might need to take on this challenging curriculum; the means and costs of providing that support; the composition of the classes; teacher training in differentiation, collaboration and assessment; and a way to share results with the community. These questions actually informed our definition of detracking.

First, we needed to develop a course of studies that prepared all students for algebra in 8th grade. By compacting the curricula and eliminating topic repetition, we moved the original 8th-grade math curriculum to 7th grade and combined the 6th- and the 7th-grade curricula to be taught in 6th grade. In later years, the district also revamped its 4th- and 5th-grade math curriculum to better prepare students for the expectations in 6th- and 7th-grade math.

We knew some students would struggle with algebra, so we considered ways to structure the school day to provide access to more instructional time. We already had experimented with stretching the course into a two-year sequence for some students, but performance for students who took the extended sequence was no different than it was for those who participated in the one-year course.

Our secondary schools operate on a six-day cycle (A/B cycle) with a nine-period day and a half hour of extra help before each day’s start. Ultimately, we provided every student with one period of math every day and created three additional periods of instruction every other day for students who needed extra support. Consequently, some students received nine periods of instruction during a six-day cycle.

We next considered the composition of the classes. Our goal was to have every class reflect the racial, socioeconomic, cultural and ethnic composition of our student population. If the intent is to detrack, building administrators need to be sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of their scheduler. When the scheduler completed its task, the principal and assistants responsible for scheduling reviewed every class and every schedule and hand balanced the classes, usually during the summer.

A Sensitive Matter

One of the more sensitive issues, and possibly one of the most volatile, concerned teacher assignments. Tradition may have it that teachers with seniority teach higher-level courses with the better students. In a detracked school, that’s not the case and actions by the principal that in any way resemble favoritism, punishment or violation of the rules of fairness or equal distribution of classes can easily bring effective instruction to a grinding halt.

We have found our teachers buy into both detracking and their assignments if they feel they are treated fairly, the classes are balanced, performance data are shared with teachers and they are provided adequate support for any of the instructional modifications expected of them due to the wide variety of students in their classes.

With the groundwork laid, we looked at the class composition one more time with an eye toward actual instruction and wondered how these students will learn together as a unit. The answer is differentiated instruction. Simply stated, differentiated instruction works when it’s supported by good supervision, observations and evaluations by knowledgeable administrators; effective use of technology; collaboration with colleagues; and lots of district-supported staff development.

Because staff development around differentiated instruction is so important, we negotiated into the teacher contract that teachers must spend time in district-approved or district-designed staff development outside the school day. During the many years this has been in place, we have found that the majority of offerings are developed and provided by members of our own professional staff at a minimal cost to the district.

Teacher collaboration also is an integral element of detracking. Teacher collaboration does not happen by accident. Teacher schedules, like student schedules, need to be hand done so teachers have time to meet and share their expertise and experiences with colleagues through structured staff time.

Teachers, once they buy into the success and richness of classroom life in a detracked system, become the staunchest supporters, defenders and drivers of new ideas for enhancing classroom instruction. Our teachers and leadership teams have become conscious of leveling student performance and, with district support, have collaborated to develop grade-level and subject-wide assessments that help teachers and principals monitor student progress throughout the school year.

On the topic of buy-in, there are forever those in the community who will argue for a return to a sort-and-select model for their students. The concept of “us” and “them,” for whatever reason, seems to be built into the DNA of an ever-present segment of our communities. The only way to manage what may appear to be a counterintuitive initiative is to build a mountain of good data. It is not enough to say you are successful; you must prove you are successful with irrefutable information that can be clearly articulated by staff and readily understood by the public.

Enrichment for All

Additional districtwide issues needed to be addressed so we could move forward with detracking. One of these was the education of the “gifted.” For many years, we had a pullout program in our elementary and middle schools. The district was disappointed with the results of participating students who in much smaller than anticipated numbers took on the challenge of the International Baccalaureate diploma. We decided the search for the gifted child was futile, and it was time to move on to teaching to giftedness in all children. The district did away with the gifted program as it existed and replaced it with an enrichment-for-all program constructed around the schoolwide Renzulli model in grades K-5, and in grades 6-8 did away with the honors/accelerated curriculum.

That decision was not met with open arms by the community. At one standing-room-only meeting of parents, it was clear they had come to fight for the gifted program. An hour into the discussion, I asked them the same question I had asked our instructional staff: By show of hands, who in the room does not have a gifted child? No hands went up. And so began a real and meaningful discussion on how to discover the giftedness in each child and develop it to its fullest.

If the expectations were to be the same and instruction the operant variable, why not try it in all classes, including special education students in general education settings? We did and it worked. We now are a fully included district and have no special classes except for the most severely, developmentally disabled students who remain until they are 21 and participate in our school-to-work program. Support is provided by a combination of special education and regular teachers and teaching assistants. Since inclusion has become the rule, more than 90 percent of our special education students are graduating prepared to continue their studies in college.

Every high school in America proudly sends a segment of its graduating class off to college each year. Every high school has a successful formula for preparing those students for college. Therefore, the question is not whether schools and school systems know what college and career ready means, the question is how do we expand to all students the opportunities that often are available only to a select group?

In Rockville Centre schools, we challenge ourselves to expand to all our students the richness of the curriculum and programs that prepared some of our students for college work. Virtually every strategy we in the school district could imagine leads us back to a central theme: Detracking done properly can and will work.

William Johnson
is superintendent of the Rockville Centre Union Free School District in Rockville Centre, N.Y. E-mail: drj@rvcschools.org