San Francisco’s Detracking Experiment

Tom Loveless:

San Francisco Unified School District  (SFUSD) adopted a detracking initiative in 2014-2015 school year, eliminating accelerated middle and high school math classes, including the option for advanced students to take Algebra I in eighth grade. The policy stands today. High schools feature a common math sequence of heterogeneously grouped classes studying Algebra I in ninth grade and Geometry in tenth grade. After 10th grade, students are allowed to take math courses reflecting different abilities and interests.

Implementing Common Core was provided as the impetus for the change. When first proposed, district officials summed up the reform as, “There would no longer be honors or gifted mathematics classes, and there would no longer be Algebra I in 8th grade due to the Common Core State Standards in 8th grade.” Parents received a flyer from the district reinforcing this message, explaining, “The Common Core State Standards in Math (CCSS-M) require a change in the course sequence for mathematics in grades 6-12.” Phi Daro, one of Common Core’s co-authors, served as a consultant to the district on both the design and political strategy of the detracking plan.

The policy was controversial from the start. Parents showed up in community meetings to voice opposition, and a petition urging the district to reverse the change began circulating. District officials launched a public relations campaign to justify the policy. Focused on the goal of greater equity, that campaign continues today. SFUSD declared detracking a great success, claiming that the graduating class of 2018–19, the first graduating class affected by the policy when in eighth grade, saw a drop in Algebra 1 repeat rates from 40% to 8% and that, compared to the previous year, about 10% more students in the class took math courses beyond Algebra 2. Moreover, the district reported enrollment gains by Black and Hispanic students in advanced courses.

Important publications applauded SFUSD and congratulated the district on the early evidence of success. Education Week ran a storyin 2018, “A Bold Effort to End Tracking in Algebra Shows Promise,” that described the reforms with these words: “Part of an ambitious project to end the relentless assignment of underserved students into lower-level math, the city now requires all students to take math courses of equal rigor through geometry, in classrooms that are no longer segregated by ability.”  The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) issued a policy brief portraying the detracking effort as a model for the country. Omitted from these reviews was the fact that the “lower-level math” to which non-algebra 8th graders were assigned was Common Core 8th Grade Math, which SFUSD and NCTM had spent a decade depicting as a rigorous math course, as they do currently.

Jo Boaler, noted math reformer, professor at Stanford, and critic of tracking, teamed up with Alan Schoenfeld, Phil Daro and others to write “How One City Got Math Right” for The Hechinger Report, and Boaler and Schoenfeld published an op-ed, “New Math Pays Dividends for SF Schools” in the San Francisco Chronicle.

In this public relations campaign, there was no mention of math achievement or test scores. Course enrollments and passing grades were presented as meaningful measures by which to measure the success of detracking.