Reviewed by Steve Canipe
Director, Science, Mathematics & Instructional Design Technology
This is a relatively short book with a big message supplemented by a DVD with testimonials from teachers and students in these detracked classes. Three schools share their experiences and thoughts about how and why detracking in science and mathematics classrooms works.
The three schools are all in California. In each of these schools, there was a commitment from faculty and administration to allow some classroom behaviors outside the traditional. A key take–away is that not every assignment can be made into group work. There is a need to have something that is difficult, something that is complex, and something worthy of taking the time to do. The confusion that results from complex processes is desirable. As the author Watanabe notes, teachers must "…normalize confusion as part of the learning process."
When planned and executed well, the results reported in the book are outstanding. Achievement for all of the traditional mathematics levels got better. It might be assumed that only lower ability levels and traditionally lower performers would benefit but the discovery that students with high ability levels also got better is shocking to anyone who accepts ability tracking. In looking at students who participated in degrouped courses compared to the higher level mathematics courses they took later in high school, there were increases in all subgroups—low socioeconomic (32%–67%); Black and Latino (46%–67%); low achievers (38%–53%); average achievers (81%–91%); and high achievers (89%–99%).
Using complex instructional theory is something that goes beyond just giving lip service to the degrouping process. It operationalizes this degrouping to yield higher achievement and self confidence. Some good teachers do a complex instruction process almost without thinking; other teachers must be more intentional, at least in the beginning. Chapters 2–5 provide written explanation and extension to the DVD. There are sample lesson plans shown and discussed. This exemplar teaching method can help those educators seeking to replicate what happened in the schools described in the book.
Providing support for teachers and students is the focus of Chapter 6. This process can sometimes seem counterintuitive and might be met with skepticism and outright antipathy from colleagues and administrators. In the schools, which were the focus in the book, there were support structures to help teachers experimenting with detracking courses. Unfortunately, as the author points out, that is not always enough, as one school has closed its doors completely; another changed leadership and this degrouping experiment ended; only one remains open following the processes described in the book. The only open school has been recognized as being in the top 0.25% of schools in the country with 100% of its graduates meeting the California University admission standards (mean of other state schools is 40%); 75% of their seniors passed at least one AP test compared to the state average of 21%; and finally, 96% of their graduates were accepted to at least one four–year college.
For an individual mathematics or science teacher, a mathematics or science department, or a forward–looking administrator, this book is an excellent discussion starter for program development in mathematics and science. The data provided in the book speak for themselves: detracking through legitimate groupwork works for improving student performance at all levels. There are walls and barriers to implementing change but this book is a good manual for how to start undermining traditional tracking and helping all students achieve at a higher level of performance.
Review posted on 10/25/2012