Can Detracking Boost Student Achievement?

By Carol Corbett Burris and Delia T. Garrity

School board members often feel pulled in different directions by what appear to be conflicting demands. Since the No Child Left Behind Act was enacted in 2002, they must ensure that all students are achieving basic proficiency levels, and that gaps among student groups are closing. At the same time, the public constantly reminds board members of the importance of excellence.

Our communities expect high test scores, prestigious college acceptances, and challenging programs. Growing numbers of parents are concerned that the emphasis on basic standards has drained resources from programs dedicated to providing opportunities for high-achieving children.

This is not a new phenomenon. Many efforts to improve schools have been sidetracked by debates about which is most important -- equity or excellence. Should closing the achievement gap between wealthy and low-income children be our first priority? Or should we focus on preparing our most talented students to lead the world in scientific and mathematical discoveries?

Do you have to make that choice? Our research and experiences demonstrate that both goals are attainable if schools will provide access to their best curriculum to all students. Our school system, New York’s Rockville Centre School District, has increasing numbers of students achieving at high levels in the same heterogeneous classrooms.

How did we do it? The short answer: detracking.

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