Getting Students Off The Track

A new teacher questions the elitism of her school's culture and helps launch reform

By Jessie Singer

“Just make it through the year,” said the teacher sitting next to me at one of the first English department meetings of the school year, “Wait to think about what worked and what didn’t until it’s all over.”

And though my colleague was trying to be supportive, his words served as a reminder that many teachers – both new and seasoned – think that a new teacher’s major goal is to survive the school year.

I was feeling overwhelmed. I had just been hired as an English teacher at Cleveland High School in Portland, Oregon. I was teaching two freshmen honors classes, two sophomore “regular” classes and one senior honors class. But I didn’t want to put my head down and plow through the year, only to look up in June as my students walked away. I wanted to think about what was happening in my classes and in my school.

I decided to approach my year from a place of inquiry – and this grew into an effort to dismantle the tracking system that was in place in our school.

I bought an artist’s sketch book and used it to jot down thoughts about individual classes, students, department meetings, and my school as a whole. I found time between classes, during meetings, and with students to take note of my teaching life. This journal provided a place for me to record thoughts that I would have otherwise allowed to float away without notice. I used my journal to ask questions: “Where can I find poems that speak to these students? Why does Kyle always sit in the back and never take off his backpack? Where is the heart of this school?”

Cleveland is a predominantly white (77 percent) urban school serving 1,300 students in the heart of Southeast Portland. One of the first things I noticed was the way students were divided into two groups: honors and regular. Honors is the name assigned to all classes where students earn honors credit by taking the class and regular classes are the classes that are considered less challenging and move at a slower pace. The content in these classes is not parallel. Although I had taught for one year in a public high school in Eugene, Ore., I had never taught in a tracked system and I was naïve about the divisions, assumptions, and learning cultures created and perpetuated through tracking.

I participated in the Portland Area Rethinking Schools Steering Committee, a group of new and experienced teachers, parents, and community members. Our conversations and work together reminded me to trust my voice and instincts. That year, our group’s focus was on creating an alternative to the state’s system of evaluating schools through standardized testing. We created an Alternative Report Card. I kept thinking about one of the questions from the report card: “Who is represented and honored in the school? Consider hallways, library, and overall school environment.” New questions began to form as well: How are students separated by social class, gender, and/or race? How does the language we use as educators mask or perpetuate divisions among students? In what ways does my school provide places for students to feel connected and seen as members of the same community? Are all students given equal opportunities to succeed?


As I walked to my classroom each morning, I looked at the school with the eyes of an anthropologist gathering data. And I began to notice that my regular students were not given a place in my school. Their faces were not photographed as members of student government, their names were not in the entry way’s honor roll, they were not members of the yearbook staff, or the newspaper. Many of them worked half time and some even full time at afterschool jobs. Many students had responsibilities caring for younger siblings or ailing grandparents.

One issue of the school newspaper printed an article with an enlarged photo of a line-up of Honda Accords and seniors standing in front of each car. The article said the Honda is the most desired and owned car at Cleveland High School. One of my sophomores walked into class that day and said, “Who does this paper think it’s talking to? I wish I had a car – don’t they get that some of us have to use the city bus?”

I noticed that the daily line-up in front of the discipline vice-principal’s office was often made up of regular students and – more often than not – students of color. I noticed how some counselors visited only honors classes to hand out college and scholarship information. I went to the counseling office to ask a counselor about this policy. She said, “Well, this saves me time. I mean, it’s clear that the other kids aren’t going on to study. If they were, they would be in honors classes.”

It became obvious that the choice to be in honors does not happen from year to year – or at all – in high school. My second period senior honors class was made up of 32 students, most of whom had been together since first grade. They often shared stories from fifth grade and then laughed together like a family that had built a collection of shared stories through the passing of time. These students not only shared a history; they also shared a culture. Here they were in high school, in my classroom, together again for one last year of English. School authorities had designated these students as honors students from the day they entered elementary school.

The makeup of my regular classes was more diverse: they came from the poorer and less respected middle and elementary schools. Many students were recent transplants to Oregon.

Some had transferred school districts or bused across town, hoping to get away from a rough start somewhere in the past. As I observed the differences in my classes, I wanted to know more. I talked to my curriculum vice-principal about my concerns, and together we looked up the zip codes of students in honors and regular classes and found that more than 90 percent of honors students came from the affluent neighborhood that fed into our school.

I carried my curiosity about my students and school into my teaching practice. I approached student papers, conversations, notes, and absences, all as data that could inform me more about my teaching and school culture. This approach to my teaching changed my outlook as an educator. The blur of bells, phone calls, attendance notices, overflowing classes, daily plans, piles of papers, meetings, and new curriculum became less overwhelming as I began to see it all from the eyes of a teacher-researcher. When things went well, I asked myself what worked so I could use a successful strategy again. When I came across road bumps in my teaching or with colleagues, I formed questions in my mind or in my teaching journal to collect answers on how to work toward change. My questions made teaching feel like a process instead of a race.

My students became my teachers about what a system of exclusion can do to hinder learning and achievement. Heather, one of my sophomore regular students, started crying when I introduced a unit on college preparation and essay writing. “My counselor told me my freshmen year that I was not college material,” she said, “She said I am a regular student and I should just hope to get through the next four years. Why are you making me write a college essay when I am not headed there?”

I was not alone in my inquiry. My neighbor and ally in the east wing was another new English teacher, Deanna Alexich. Her teaching assignment consisted of all regular classes. Deanna’s concern was that conversations about curriculum and books did not fit the needs of many of the kids she worked with. At one point she told me, “I feel like I am tracked in our department because I am not an honors teacher. I’m seen as just a regular teacher and my kids don’t matter.” Through our discussions, we decided to raise the question of tracking with the English department. As new teachers raising a difficult question, it helped to raise it together.

Deanna and I talked for a few weeks before we decided to bring our thoughts to the department. I was nervous. It is ideas that feel outside the realm of common conversation. Through my conversations with Deanna, we decided that the most effective way to share ideas was through questions. We wanted to invite a dialogue, to hear our colleagues’ perspectives, and to see where our conversations led. Now, looking back, I believe that this approach is one of the main reasons that change became possible. It created a safe venue to share ideas.


I started a department meeting asking one of the questions that had been sitting with me for the past weeks: Who is honored here? As soon as this question was asked, the room became uncomfortable. We all knew who was honored at Cleveland, but the question forced us to actually talk about it. This topic was not on my department’s agenda, but by asking the question it had to be. I began to share some of my research. As a new teacher, I had an advantage. I felt I had a kind of permission to share my observations as a naïve and new agent.

I began to share the data I had collected throughout the previous months. One of my colleagues, Jim, who is a fellow teacher in the English department, nodded. He said, “As a teacher who has been in this field 25 years, I miss teaching diverse classes with a true mix of kids.” As our department began to answer the question of who we honor at our school, we could not avoid the topic of tracking. We all started in different places in the way we talked about our students and teaching. One teacher said, “My regular students are lazy and hard to deal with. I hate having regular classes at the end of the day. They aren’t here to learn and they don’t care.” I added my perspective as a new teacher in the department. “I keep searching for the heart of this school. I can’t help feeling uneasy in that the department and system I am a part of are perpetuating divisions among the haves and havenots.” Deanna asked, “What does it say about us as educators if we are only feeling successful with an already successful group of kids? Aren’t we failing a huge section of our population?”

That day we all began to ask questions about our teaching and the set-up of our department and school. We began what would become a two-year dialogue and mission to change the way we talk, think, and work with students. This dialogue was not easy. It began from a place of questioning, which led to conversation, and then, more questioning. Our conversations were, and often still are, quite heated. When things get too uncomfortable, we often stop ourselves and restate ideas in the form of questions. This may sound corny, but it works. We have chosen to work toward becoming a department that truly communicates together in order to work toward change. Having true conversations as educators about difficult and important topics meant pushing aside smaller differences to focus on a larger vision of equity and justice in our school.

Our department’s conversations led us to un-track our ninth grade. We decided that all students should begin their time at Cleveland High School with an opportunity to be seen equally – without pre-assigned labels. As a result of this work, freshmen classes now represent the true population of our school with equal numbers of boys and girls, students from different neighborhoods, and diverse backgrounds. A colleague in my department who was initially resistant to the idea of untracking, walked into my classroom and said, “I love teaching my freshmen classes. In all my years of teaching this age group these classes are more engaged and more fun to teach than any I have taught before.” The freshmen team has a common meeting time during fourth period each day to work on ninth grade curriculum and to discuss teaching strategies, behavioral issues, and successes. This team has presented at district- wide workshops to share our work on untracking. As a result, a neighboring public high school untracked their ninth-grade English classes. At Cleveland, freshmen who struggle significantly with their literacy are offered a second English course called Freshmen Success to work with teachers and tutors on writing development, reading fluency, and homework. A few of the freshmen teachers in the English department are collaborating with teachers in other departments to create Freshmen Academies, where groups of students study multiple subjects together, integrating the curriculum.

As a new teacher, I realized that to see past my own experience meant looking deeply into it. My inquiry process helped to demystify my students, school, and teaching. I learned how to collect data, ask questions, share ideas with a network of support, and instigate change to help create the kind of school I wanted to be a part of over time.

I’m grateful that I did not take my colleague’s advice. I didn’t wait to think about what worked and what didn’t until the end of the year. Inquiry through journal writing, working with other like-minded teachers, and listening to the concerns of other teachers and students can effect positive change in schools.

Jessie Singer ( teaches English at Cleveland High School in Portland, Ore.