Montclair Finds Many Pieces to the ‘Detracking’ Puzzle

By Stan Karp

MONTCLAIR, NJ — Montclair, whose school system has previously drawn national attention for its public school choice program, is currently wrestling with another hot educational issue — tracking. Last spring, a proposal to “detrack” the high school’s freshman English program mobilized hundreds of supporters and opponents in a sharply contested campaign that raised all the thorny issues surrounding the practice of separating students by academic ability. The proposal eventually passed the Board of Education by a narrow 4-3 margin and went into effect this fall.

Under the plan, the three levels of freshman English into which 9th graders had been tracked were replaced with one World Literature course which emphasizes multicultural perspectives. In addition to mixing academic levels, classes will be balanced by race and gender. A special program of staff development, with a strong focus on cooperative learning; a new Writers’ Room staffed by over 30 members of the community who have been trained in writing process methods; and a series of alternative assessment strategies have been put into place to support the new program.

Despite these impressive initiatives, however, the effort still faces obstacles and underscores how complicated it can be to undo tracking, which remains the basic organizing principle of most schools. Many Montclair parents and residents (and many inside the school system) remain unconvinced that detracking is an appropriate response to pressing problems of low academic achievement and negative school climate. Establishing realistic expectations for the course and managing the fishbowl atmosphere won’t be easy. More significantly, the controversy made it clear that the 9th grade proposal was a lightning rod for broader concerns about racial polarization and educational quality.

Montclair earned a reputation for educational innovation and multicultural tolerance as the result of a desegregation plan implemented in the seventies. At the time, the district’s eight elementary and middle schools were all turned into “magnet schools,” each with a particular theme.

Parents were free to choose any school for their children as long as space was available and racial balance was maintained. Though it initially faced much of the same opposition and emotionally-charged resistance that greeted the detracking proposal, today it is generally acknowledged that the magnet plan made significant progress toward quality, integrated education to Montclair’s children.

During the 1980s, proponents of privatizing educational services often cited Montclair as an argument for introducing market mechanisms into public school systems. But the magnet plan, which originated with legally-mandated desegregation orders and was sustained by a local constituency focused on equity issues, was never designed to foster competition among schools. It was designed to promote desegregation and was typically seen in Montclair as an example of what could be accomplished in communities where social and economic problems, however significant, were not as extreme as in nearby cities like Paterson or Newark, and where the size of the town (about 37,000) kept problems on a scale that could be more readily addressed.

But at Montclair’s only public high school, many of the problems the magnet system was designed to correct gradually re-presented themselves. The tracking system, based on test scores, grade point averages, and staff recommendations, effectively re-segregated the student population as it flowed from the middle schools. Although parents had the formal right to overrule track placements, in practice the sorting system did its job. By the 1992 school year, for example, the top track in freshman English had 13 Black students and 63 whites, while the lowest track had 72 Blacks and just 7 whites. (Overall, the student body of 1500 was about 50% African-American). Even more alarming to many was the pervasive social segregation in the high school which reinforced a climate of tension, and sporadically surfaced in clashes and incidents.

In addition, several factors helped make tracking at the secondary level a particularly volatile issue in Montclair. The student population included a degree of class diversity that is increasingly rare in public high schools. Unlike most of the surrounding northern New Jersey communities, where class and racial stratification is often rigidly reinforced by town lines, Montclair was something of an exception. Children of the wealthy, with elite, Ivy League ambitions, shared hallways and locker rooms — if not necessarily their classrooms — with children of African-American, middle-and working-class parents.

The difference between the number of African Americans in the town (31%) and their percentage in the high school population, did reflect a degree of “white flight” which took place as the magnet choices of the lower grades gave way to a single, comprehensive high school (and which kept school officials on edge whenever racially related issues came up). But a considerable range of class diversity remained.

At the same time, the school choice system and the history of community advocacy around civic and educational matters had created a sizeable constituency of empowered, vocal parents who were ready to give voice to potentially disparate interests. These factors insured that any effort to change the tracking system would attract lots of attention.

English Faculty Leads the Way

Dr. Bernadette Anand, the chair of the English Department, had been convinced by both research and experience that detracking was overdue at Montclair High. To her the tracking system perpetuated inequities, and reinforced social polarization. Dr. Anand developed the idea for a course that would encourage both detracking and multicultural curriculum reform. She saw a connection between untracking the academic program and improving the social climate in the school, and also saw changes in curriculum and classroom practice as complementary pieces of the process of reform.

With the Social Studies Department, Dr. Anand helped to pilot and teach an interdisciplinary history/literature course called World Cultures and Literature. The course presented diverse cultural and literary perspectives to a racially balanced, heterogeneous group of freshmen in a cooperative learning setting. World Cultures was a clear success. Students gave it rave reviews and academic achievement was encouraging.

But efforts to expand the program bumped up against the tracking system. Because the course was untracked, the grades didn’t carry the “quality points” many students and their parents sought for college entry and competitive class rankings. Quality points, which were given only for the upper track “1-A” sections, made the grades in such courses worth more. So students who wanted to remain in the World Cultures program into their sophomore year were forced to choose between a positive, multicultural learning

experience and the more lucrative currency of weighted grade-point averages. At the same time, most freshmen remained in the regular three-level tracked program.

After two years of success with limited enrollment, the English Department proposed replacing the existing freshman program with the untracked World Literature course. (Since the Social Studies Department was not ready to do the same, World Cultures reverted to the English-only World Literature). The 19-member Department unanimously endorsed the proposal, as did the “School Review” committee of parents and community residents.

Gradually, the proposal worked its way up the administrative review ladder.

Objections were raised by the district-wide principals’ committee, which thought college-anxious parents would balk at the elimination of “1-A” sections. The principals recommended that the new course be given “quality points” and be taught at “the most challenging level.”

This was one of several times that the effort to detrack ran into the system’s almost insatiable impulse to sort and label students. The English Department had wanted to move away from competitive course rankings altogether. Offering “quality points” for the new course would, in a sense, be contradictory, since the English Department was reconsidering the very mix of lectures, tests, and teacher-centered instructional practices that rewarded one narrow range of abilities in the typical “quality point” course. On the other hand, the Department was trying to raise academic expectations across the board, and the “quality point” designation would constitute some defense against inevitable accusations that detracking meant the opposite. In addition, offering “quality points” for an untracked course that would value cooperative group skills, in-class student leadership, and multicultural perception, alongside more traditionally recognized academic abilities, was a backhanded way of redefining the quality point system, if not overturning it. The English Department accepted the principals’ recommendation, and with a few other minor changes the revised proposal went before the Board and the newly-appointed Superintendent, William Librera. It quickly became a hot public issue.

Every fear, real and imagined, that parents had about the educational program and social climate in the high school quickly seemed to translate into a different objection. Parents of high-tracked achievers denounced the proposal as a leveling formula for mediocrity. “Do not lower the top to make it look equal,” one wrote to the local paper. More than a few were convinced that mixed ability grouping, by definition, meant lower standards. In fact, academic standards were being raised for the majority of freshmen, who before had been put in the lower tracks, but years of tracking had created a close association between academic rigor and academic segregation. Many had come to see advanced course placements as a privileged entitlement reserved for the few, and they responded to the implications of detracking with the educational equivalent of “there goes the neighborhood.”

Some complained that the alternative assessment features of the proposal were “vague and non-measurable,” and would “further erode the chances of pursuing academic excellence in the system.” They dismissed the collaborative learning and multicultural aspects of the new curriculum as “feel-good education.” While English teachers in the high school were re-examining traditional curriculum and instructional practices, many parents who felt well-served by those practices wanted them retained.

Still others charged, despite an open, painstaking review process and the two-year pilot program, that the change was being “railroaded through.”

Some of the strongest arguments against detracking were pointedly couched in terms of “choice,” an echo of the conservative agenda dominating current educational debate. “We are gravely concerned,” declared the plan’s opponents in a paid advertisement in the local paper, “that implementation of this plan would undermine one of the cornerstones of our school system’s success: freedom of choice.” Calling themselves the Montclair Coalition for the Continuation of Choice in Education, the ad’s sponsors contended, “The plan would eliminate that freedom of choice.

Instead it would mandate compulsory enrollment in classes that will be heterogeneously grouped and racially and sexually balanced.” The statement pointed with alarm to the English Department’s expressed intentions to “go beyond simply exchanging heterogeneous for homogeneous classes” to rethinking curriculum, assessment, and classroom practice.

Tracking, the coalition contended, was “but a straw man,” since the system nominally allowed course placements to be changed. It was the restriction of “choice” and mandated multicultural grouping that the coalition saw as the real issues.

These “choice” arguments seemed eminently reasonable to many, including some who supported the new World Literature class, but didn’t see why everyone should have to take it. For example, Dr. William Librera, the new Superintendent, professed philosophical support for the plan, but proposed compromises that would have crippled it in several ways. Librera wanted to schedule all incoming freshmen into the new class, but maintain one or two other freshman courses for those intent on opting out. He also wanted to blunt the larger implications by declaring a two-year moratorium on other detracking initiatives at the high school. This attempted balancing act, predictable perhaps from a new administrator who had stepped on a beehive, satisfied no one. It begged the question of educational leadership, which called for a clear statement to the community about why tracking was ethically wrong and academically self-defeating. The English teachers, particularly Dr. Anand, were left hanging out to dry, bearing the brunt of the opposition’s increasingly overheated attacks.

Montclair’s seven-member, appointed Board of Education was also under pressure to reject or weaken the proposal, as whispers of “white flight” from the high school circulated throughout the town, and passionate attacks on the plan filled the letters (and editorial) columns of the local paper. Board meetings took on an increasingly contentious character, running long into the night with opposing speakers and steadily growing audiences that initially appeared to oppose the change.

But Montclair also has a sizable progressive community and it began to mobilize in support of the English Department’s proposal. A multiracial group of residents including public school educators, academics, political activists, parent advocates, and others began to rally behind the plan. From their point of view, it was a small first step toward addressing persistent problems of tracking and racial polarization at the high school. It was also a way to put some substance into the rather timid efforts that had been made toward introducing multicultural reform into the secondary curriculum. This group feared that there would be long-term negative implications if such a relatively modest plan was defeated, especially by a conservative backlash. It was important to demonstrate that the consequences of not moving ahead with detracking and multicultural reform were at least as serious as the problems of potential resistance to such reforms.

Supporters Organize

Supporters of the plan soon out-organized opponents, turning out more people at public meetings, placing their own ad in the local paper, and matching argument for argument in the letters columns.

They also shifted the terms of the debate, making it clear that tracking was indeed an issue of educational civil rights. Leaflets laid out in stark statistical terms the racial imbalance in level placements. Speakers presented the formidable research case against tracking, documenting its negative impact on the overwhelming number of minority students in the lower tracks.

African-American parents and students who felt personally victimized by tracking expressed their anger and pain. Students who had taken the World Cultures course were among the most eloquent, speaking to the ways tracking impoverishes the educational experience of the more academically successful by narrowing their experience and making their lives in public school less democratic. “Just because we’re all in the high school doesn’t mean we’re learning from each other,” one senior said.

These appeals to racial equity and the emotional testimony from students were hard for the opposition to respond to and they went a long way toward dominating the debate. If nothing else, they showed the Board that there was no “safe” vote.

But it would be misleading to suggest that very many minds were changed during this public, political battle. Invariably, opponents of the plan resented having the racial implications of tracking raised at all.

Ability-grouping, they insisted, was an “educational” not a “political” issue. Many parents, particularly privileged white parents, find it almost impossible to see academic tracking, backed up by “objective” test scores and years of institutional legitimacy, for what it is: a self-fulfilling policy of educational discrimination. The hard job of changing such attitudes falls, in the long run, to teachers in classrooms who, with school-wide support, need to successfully demonstrate that mixed grouping can improve outcomes and enrich educational experience for all students.

Supporters of detracking also tried to respond to the issue of choice. On the one hand, they argued, when it came to equity, “the only choice is the best education for all.” Parents do not have a right to publicly-funded pockets of segregated privilege, and public schools should not be systematically structured to provide qualitatively different levels of education to different categories of students. Even if some students do benefit differently from the same educational experience, that, by itself, is not a compelling argument for educational segregation, particularly when such practices raise ethical questions about equality and fairness. If public schools are to be integrated institutions, they can’t adopt grouping policies that make integration a charade. The answer again is to raise expectations and outcomes for everyone.

Supporters of detracking also argued that “choice” was only one of several issues that had to be considered. “We agree that all parents and students should have choices in designing educational programs,” one statement read. “But there have always been areas like family life education or drug and alcohol awareness which we have collectively deemed important enough to require of all students. We believe that effective multicultural education should be included in this category. Multiculturalism has become a basic skill that we all must learn. Asking a student to devote one year of high-school English to a study of multicultural literature does not violate anyone’s democratic rights. To the contrary, a system that allows parents or students to escape any contact with democratically arrived-at guidelines on social policy or racial and cultural differences is not democratic at all.”

After three months of heated debate, the school board voted 4-3 to endorse the English Department’s proposal. This fall about 400 Montclair High freshmen entered one of 17 sections of World Literature.

With Dr. Anand working overtime to juggle programs and schedules, racial and gender balance was attained and class size held to 22 (well below the district average.) The seven freshman teachers including Dr. Anand, prepared extensively over the summer, including participation in a three-day retreat where they helped design an ambitious assessment plan to evaluate progress for the first year.

The Montclair proposal incorporates many features necessary for successful detracking, yet it still faces formidable obstacles. Outside of the World Literature course, the rest of the high school remains tracked, academically and socially driven by competitive rankings, quality points and advanced placement agendas. While some in the high school hope the course will be the first step towards generalized detracking, others are intent on containing or even reversing the change. Moreover, no single course like World Literature can bear the burden of reversing long-standing trends towards educational inequity and racial division. It is important for the district and the school administration to frame broader initiatives around issues of tracking and racial polarization that will shift the spotlight away from this one course to a more comprehensive approach.

Long-term success will also depend on the ability to mobilize those parents and students who have traditionally been steered towards the bottom of the academic ladder. As is too often the case, this constituency was heard from least during the detracking battle. Students themselves need to be directly involved in such policy discussions. The core of African-American activists who helped campaign for the freshman plan, also recognizes a need to continue mobilizing in Montclair’s African-American community around the civil rights implications of detracking and to keep raising educational expectations and demands. Here too, Montclair has made a start, enlisting the town’s churches and attempting to restore common commitment to making the program work in the wake of a divisive debate. These community outreach efforts need to be broadened and sustained.

As the Montclair example suggests, detracking is not simply a matter of administrative declarations or paper policies. To succeed it requires innovations in curriculum, instruction, assessment practices, and school-community relations. At times, it is as much a community organizing project as an educational one, and it calls for broad-based campaign of education, activism and public policy debate. In the final analysis, detracking is about making schools more democratic institutions. As long as schools have economic, social, and class forces pulling them in decidedly different directions, debates over tracking will continue to raise fundamental questions about who our schools should serve and how.