Laura Meckler, Washington Post, August 16, 2023
David Glasner had been superintendent of schools in this Cleveland suburb for less than a year when a single sentence from a fifth-grader left him shaken.
He was visiting Woodbury Elementary School, home to the district’s fifth- and sixth-graders, in fall 2019. Here, the sorting of students by ability — or perceived ability — began. Advanced students, about half the grade, were sent to the basement for enriched math and English language. The other half stayed put.
Glasner popped his head into a fifth-grade classroom and saw that all but one student were Black. A colleague asked a child sitting in the corner, “Where are the White students?” And the student replied, “The White kids — they’re enriched.”
He didn’t say the White kids were getting enrichment. They were enriched. In this formulation, it wasn’t just a question of classrooms, but actual identity.
“That student has internalized that idea that those White kids are better than him,” Glasner said later. “That one incident was a punch to the gut.”
Glasner had already been grappling with how to change a system that seemed to belie the community’s values. The suburb had been founded at the turn of the 20th century as an elite, explicitly racist enclave for wealthy families escaping the city. But beginning in the 1950s, Black and White families came together here to create integrated neighborhoods. They backed busing and drew boundary lines to make schools more integrated, while line drawing in other communities had the opposite intent. Student groups formed to celebrate Black achievement and advance race relations.
But here, as elsewhere, an academic “tracking” system meant White students dominated advanced classes, with regular- and lower-level classes disproportionately occupied by Black students. The disparities resisted various interventions over many years.
At the same time, many families — most of them White — prized the advanced classes and saw them as a pillar of the academic excellence that Shaker Heights also cherished.
Less than a year after that visit to Woodbury, a solution unexpectedly presented itself to Glasner. It was summer 2020, and the district was trying to figure out how to operate in the pandemic — both online and once students returned to buildings. School leaders realized the schedule would be simpler if they eliminated much of the tracking.
It was perhaps the worst time for a change like this. Teaching (and learning) online was already impossibly stressful, and there was no time to train teachers. On the other hand, Glasner and his lieutenants saw a chance to do something difficult that might not present itself again.
Three years later, data suggested some early success. Shaker’s experience would show both the promise of integrating academic tracks, but also its perils — and the high risks that come when major decisions are implemented without community buy-in.
Academic tracking was introduced in the United States in response to the influx of immigrants in the early 1900s — and used to sort students into rigid educational pathways. Certain students were groomed for college and others for trades such as plumbing or secretarial work. By mid-century, most high schools used some form of tracking, though over time it became less rigid.
It consistently resulted in racial disparities. Federal data shows that for 22 percent of White students, calculus is the highest-level math class taken in high school. But the same is true for just 11 percent of Black students and 14 percent of Hispanics. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders top all other races, with nearly half reaching calculus.
The problem was twofold: Black students were not encouraged to take upper-level classes, despite an open-enrollment program aimed at making sure they had equal access. Meanwhile, White parents actively pushed to get their children into these courses.
In recent years, school districts made racial equity a priority, with new urgency after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Tracked classes, the site of so much inequity, were an obvious target. California considered a new math curriculum that eliminated tracking for most students. School systems in New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Alexandria, Va., changed admission policies in hopes of boosting Black and Hispanic enrollment in elite magnet schools. And districts including Shaker Heights began combining students into mixed-ability classrooms.
In early 2019, after five years as a middle school principal, Glasner, then 40, was named superintendent of the Shaker Heights City School District. Research for his doctoral thesis had bolstered his concerns about tracking, finding students with average ability levels did better when placed in higher-level classes, especially Black students.
But when the pandemic hit and a decision was needed about the fall schedule, Glasner set aside his concerns about community buy-in. Part of his reasoning was that if tracking remained in place, segregation would worsen. There was a public health imperative to keep students isolated in small groups, so if two students were together for honors math, they would be together for everything else, too. With the support of his principals, Glasner made a major change.
Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses would still be stand-alone offerings in the upper grades of high school, but most classes between fifth and ninth grades would collapse. Honors- and regular-level students would all be taught together at the honors level.
In retrospect, even many supporters of detracking said it was a mistake to move this quickly in a pandemic — leaving no time for training teachers, preparing parents or explaining the changes in any real detail.
The district did little to recruit allies who might have helped sell the change. Glasner did not give the Parent Teacher Organization a heads-up or ask for aid explaining or advocating for it. There was no Q&A document posted on the district website, and there was a lot of misunderstanding about the new policy. For instance, many wrongly concluded that AP and IB classes at the high school were disappearing or changing, which they were not.
The district pressed the philosophical case for detracking with scant details about how it would be accomplished.
“People were like, ‘We get the why. We want to understand the how,’” said Sarah Divakarla, a White woman who was PTO co-president.
The combination of online learning and detracking delivered a double serving of anxiety. Stacey Hren, the other PTO co-president, who is also White, heard families complain that classes were too slow and no longer assigned homework. She personally knew of five families who left the district with generic explanations like, “This is just a better fit for us,” which Hren read as “coded White privilege language.”
Still, even some district leaders were dismayed by the early going. Lawrence Burnley, a Black man who joined the Shaker school district in 2022 as chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, said the intention was well meaning but the implementation was a mess. “There were parents who value a detracked system but they need it to be done well,” he said. “It was a disaster.”
Criticism came from Black and White families.
“I don’t think it’s fair to have the honors kids in with the, we’ll call them regular kids,” said Adriann Kennedy, a Black woman who graduated from Shaker schools, sent three children through Shaker and now was a primary caregiver for a grandson in elementary school. “The honors kids will be bored or the regular kids left behind.”
Andrew Farkas, who is White, was a high school sophomore in the 2020-2021 school year. He had been on the enriched and advanced track since third grade. Now, in 10th grade, his detracked class was still labeled honors but felt very different.
“There were kids who were just learning at such a different speed than I learned,” he said. In ninth grade, he said, students would be assigned to read 30 pages per night, and his essays would be returned marked up with red pen, and he could see where he’d made mistakes. Now the teacher had students reading the texts aloud during class, and his homework took maybe 10 minutes. “You just get a score. Oh, 95, great, cool, I guess.” He added: “They’re bringing down expectations instead of bringing up expectations.”
John Morris, one of Andrew’s teachers who is also president of the teachers union, knew Andrew’s concerns were shared by some teachers. When teaching at a high level to “students who are motivated and gifted, you can take students places that are extraordinary,” said Morris, who is White. “You can almost step back as a teacher and watch amazing things happen. I’ve seen it.” Now those teachers felt “a loss.”
William Scanlon, a White high school science teacher, thought detracking had great potential but in practice found it impossible. The idea that these classes would be taught at a true honors level was “a joke,” he said.
In ninth-grade honors physical science classes, he said, he used to do complicated problems that required advanced math skills and talk about “the quantum theory of the models of the atoms.”
“There is no chance I could teach that this year,” he said.