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December 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 4

Prom Pictures: A Principal Looks at Detracking

An experiment in eliminating low-track classes in a suburban high school challenges students and teachers but yields promising results.

Last year I attended our senior prom with the usual sense of sadness and joy. As I scrutinized each arriving couple and watched them pose for their prom pictures, I realized from my perspective as principal that this was the end of a remarkable educational journey for these special seniors.

The Decision to Detrack

The journey began six years ago when teachers and administrators at Kennedy High School in Bellmore, New York, expressed dissatisfaction with what was then known as our non-Regents track. (In New York state, most students sit for fairly rigorous year-end evaluations known as Regents Examinations. But in almost all high schools, the weakest students take less challenging non-Regents courses and must pass far simpler competency tests.)
Our problem with these non-Regents courses was not based on research calling for higher expectations for all students. Our view then was more limited and concrete. With approximately 225 students in each grade, we had only one or two sections of each non-Regents course per grade. Typically, students weak in math were also weak in English, social studies, and science. We inadvertently segregated this population for almost the entire day, and, except for gym, art, and lunch, these youngsters interacted only with one another.
Two distinct types of poor learners were enrolled in the non-Regents classes: the “can't do's” and the “won't do's.” Whenever such groups are brought together and segregated from the rest of the school population, the result is predictably a core of angry, self-loathing youngsters who learn little and are viewed by teachers as hostile and uneducable. This proved to be the case, and most of our teachers disliked teaching these students.
After hearing lengthy faculty complaints about the non-Regents classes, I proposed what was then almost heresy: Eliminate the non-Regents section in all subjects other than math, and integrate these students, a few in each section, into the regular classes. (We chose not to eliminate our honors track, which fed our Advanced Placement program.) Although it took over a year to obtain agreement from all 9th grade teachers and then to sell the idea to parents, the superintendent had long been an advocate of detracking. In fact, he was looking for one of the three high schools in the district to break ground.

Success Versus Struggles

Now, four years later, I looked at our seniors in evening gowns and tuxedos, and I tried to judge how life would have been different for some of them had we not eliminated those low-level classes. First, I thought of the most outstanding of these students. His mother, a high school guidance counselor, had originally felt her son needed slow-paced classes to succeed. Now, she is our biggest supporter; her son not only succeeded in regular classes, but he easily passed Regents exams in all his courses! When he received 92 percent in Global Studies on the Regents exam, his teacher was dumbfounded. How, he wondered, could a student who was viewed as well below average actually become his best student? How indeed!
On the other hand, I watched now as another young man, also one of those students who originally sought entry into a non-Regents program, smiled into the camera for his prom picture. He would have to attend summer school in order to earn a diploma because he had failed his senior English class. In fact, a half dozen seniors were in the same bind. In years past, these students were in the non-Regents program and could pass a class that had only minimal standards. This year, however, with no non-Regents section, there was no golden parachute, and these students would be struggling through their summer making up a class.
What were their chances of achieving academic success this time? We found that the so-called “can't do's” had no difficulty passing, because teachers, after four years of experiencing detracking, were aware of the special needs of these youngsters and how to grade them. The “can't do” students may not have prepared sophisticated term papers, but they did follow the guidelines outlined by their teachers and gave a sustained and maximum effort. But the “won't do's” failed—not because they could not complete assigned tasks, but because they did not attempt them. Now, as I looked at Johnny's smiling face, sadly knowing that he would not earn his diploma in June, I realized that if the non-Regents program had allowed him to pass without requiring an effort on his part, this would have been an even greater injustice.

Encouraging Results

Surely, these two prom pictures neither validate nor negate our efforts at detracking. Nor do I suggest that Regents exams are the only means to evaluate success. In fact, I argue that more modern assessments, based on current research, should be substituted. Still, Regents results can be significant.
For instance, in our district, almost 15 percent more of our students now sit for these exams. This is no small accomplishment because with about 800 students in each grade, this means that an additional 120 students are scheduled for a more rigorous program with far higher expectations. And even though the Regents exams may measure only a part of the curriculum, the students who pass them demonstrate some level of proficiency that is indicative of a solid learning base.
Compared to student achievement four years ago, our students have demonstrated enormously improved performance. In English, 80 percent of our students now pass the Regents exam as compared to 61 percent four years ago. In Sequential Math I, the percentage of students passing the Regents increased from 71 to 87 in Sequential Math III, from 47 percent to 59 percent. We have had similar, but somewhat less dramatic, improvement in other subjects.
To suggest that these improved scores are simply the result of changing students' schedules would be deceptive. We have been forced to change many teaching practices and to expend additional funds. For instance, as is typical in Japanese schools, we have asked our teachers to stress student effort more than student ability. This means that teachers rely less on student recall of factual information and more on research papers, lab reports, homework, and classwork. Most teachers have had to revise old lesson plans and develop a new level of expertise with computers and other technology. We hired additional personnel and developed a partnership with a local university to create a new “intern” position. These teaching assistants have been invaluable in working with 9th graders who attended detracked classes for the first time.
At first, many teachers objected to detracking, and a few may wish we still had non-Regents classes, especially if someone else was assigned to teach them. Also, we still have an occasional course where the proportion of formerly non-Regents students to Regents students is high, and we have not yet reached our goal of motivating all students to produce solid efforts. But we have challenged many more students, and, perhaps more important, we have eliminated a divisive, nonproductive learning environment that creates a core of self-hating, antisocial adolescents who vandalize our schools and intimidate their classmates and teachers. Although such students continue to exist, we as an institution no longer provide a fertile ground for these seeds of discontent to flourish.
And finally, as I viewed these picture-perfect seniors on prom night in their poses of satisfaction and anticipation, I realized that our efforts thus far have been well focused, and we are surely pointed in the right direction.

Fredric Cohen has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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