Still Unanswered: Will New Math Pathway Allow “Tracked” Classes?

by James A. Bacon

Three days ago James F. Lane, superintendent of public instruction for Virginia public schools, successfully snuffed out a spreading narrative that the proposed Virginia Mathematics Pathway Initiative (VMPI) would eliminate “accelerated” courses for high-achieving math students.

In a press conference, he stated categorically: “We are not eliminating accelerated courses. We are not reducing the rigor of our courses. … We’re not eliminating any pathways to calculus.”

The media bought the story, defanging an issue that was alarming Northern Virginia parents who feared their children would be short-changed by the new policy and that was giving ammunition to Republican gubernatorial candidates. According to The Washington Post coverage of the event, Lane said he had no idea how people came to believe that the initiative called for eliminating accelerated math courses. “I don’t know where that came from, but what I will say is I’m worried that people are misinterpreting things.”

Well, I’ll tell you how people came to think that the Northam administration planned to extinguish accelerated math programs. First, Team Northam saw in math-curriculum reform an opportunity to advance its commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and it drank deeply of literature decrying tracked courses as racist. Second, its messaging repeatedly expressed the conviction that VMPI would promote “equity.” And third, its explanations of how VMPI would work were jargon-heavy, vague, confusing and incomplete. That’s how.

If the brouhaha arose from a misunderstanding, Team Northam bears much of the responsibility. The burning question now is whether that confusion stemmed from an inability to communicate clearly…. or a deliberate decision not to communicate clearly.

The bureaucratic process. The Virginia Department of Education undergoes a seven-year bureaucratic planning process to update its Standards of Learning, which define what Virginia public school students are expected to learn, and to revise class curricula in order to meet the SOL objectives. That multi-year process touches base with a vast array of educational constituencies, most of which the public has never heard of, and entails seemingly endless consultations and meetings. This process has a life and momentum of its own, but governors have some power to shape the outcome.

During the McDonnell and McAuliffe administrations, the overarching priority was to equip Virginia students with skills they need to compete in a 21st-century knowledge economy. STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Math — was the buzzword. Virginia’s booming technology sector, especially in Northern Virginia, had openings for thousands of jobs that companies could not fill. By doing a better job of teaching STEM subjects, it was thought, the public school system would ready high school graduates for high-paying jobs in the tech sector.

Racial equity was not the driving consideration at the time, but it still was important. The thinking then was that every kid, from whatever background, should be given a crack at taking advanced math courses. Curricula were redesigned to make it easier to progress to calculus. But the redesign created a lot of gaps. The colleges didn’t like what they were getting. Thousands of kids who completed high school calculus were failing college calculus-competency tests, and were required to re-take first-year calculus in college.

A reaction set in. Educators began questioning the premise that everyone needed to develop STEM skills. While students planning to enter technical and scientific fields might need to take calculus, many other students did not. Perhaps it would make sense to create other math pathways that emphasize different skills such as probability, statistics, patterns, and data analysis that would serve students well in non-STEM fields.

That’s what the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative is designed to accomplish. It would re-order the teaching of mathematical concepts in grades 8 through 10, doing away with the traditional progression from Algebra 1 to Geometry and Algebra 2, while introducing non-traditional material such as concepts relating to the presentation and analysis of data. In the 11th and 12th grades, students could branch off into different mathematical pathways, depending on what they saw themselves doing after high school.

The equity priority. As the education establishment was undergoing this ponderous, slow-motion evaluation, the Northam administration added its own priority — making Virginia’s public school system more equitable, that is, to reduce the achievement gaps between Asians and Whites on the one hand and Blacks and Hispanics on the other. Reducing racial disparities in educational outcomes has been a concern of the educational establishment for many years, but Northam, who committed himself to racial justice after his blackface fiasco, elevated it to a top priority.

The original version of the Virginia Mathematics Pathways Initiative website (before it was heavily edited in response to the uproar) contained links to “Additional Resources.” They were:

The Case for Mathematics Pathways

Closing the Opportunity Gap: A Call for Detracking Mathematics

Launch Years – Reimagining Mathematics Education

Mathematics Education through the Lens of Social Justice: Acknowledgement, Actions, and Accountability

The new, edited version of the VMPI website still lists these articles, but includes the following disclaimer: “These articles are not reflective of the views of the Virginia Department of Education.” That disclaimer did not appear in the original version that panicky parents saw when they were trying to figure what VMPI was all about.

Although Team Northam has distanced itself from the research to which it once drew attention, the articles are consistent with the administration’s oft-stated rhetoric that Virginias K-12 education system is “systemically racist” and biased against Blacks and Hispanics.

The research papers focus on systems that effectively segregate Asians/Whites from Blacks/Hispanics in separate “tracked” classrooms for faster learners and slower learners. Once a student gets stuck in a slow track, it is exceedingly difficult to move into a faster track. The “Closing the Opportunity Gap” paper elaborates:

As a practice, tracking too often leads to segregation, dead-end pathways, and low quality experiences, and disproportionately has a negative impact on minority and low-socioeconomic students. Additionally, placement into tracks too often lacks transparency and accountability. Overall, tracking does not improve achievement but it does increase educational inequality. In light of this, NCSM calls instead for detracked, heterogeneous mathematics instruction through early high school, after which students may be well-served by separate curricular pathways that all lead to viable, post-secondary options.

Similarly, the “Mathematics Education through the Lens of Social Justice” paper advocates eliminating “tracking systems that sort children based on perceived ability and demographic profile.”

Contrary to the disclaimer, VDOE officials were not citing random research with which they disagreed. In a meeting of the Special Committee to Review the Standards of Accreditation, VDOE policy director Leslie Sale said explicitly that equity was a major consideration in the new Math Pathway initiative: “Among the goals of VMPI is to improve equity in mathematics learning opportunities.” She did not explain how VMPI would advance equity goals, however.

Leah Walker, VDOE’s equity director reinforced the message during the same meeting: “The Virginia Math Pathway Initiative is equity work – claiming and restructuring the way we think about mathematics. … I think it will be one of the most transformational things we can do to advance equity.”

Beyond saying that students will be able to create new math pathways aligning with their longer-range ambitions, however, Walker shed no light on how the initiative might promote equity.

In a voice mail message and two emails to VDOE spokesman Charles Pyle, I explicitly asked three times how the new Math Path would improve equity. I also asked why VDOE linked to research sources that the VDOE now disavows. Pyle answered questions about Lane’s remarks and other topics but conspicuously declined to answer the equity-related questions.

Either VDOE does not have an answer or does not want to provide the answer. One of two conclusions seem likely: Either the talk about “equity” was gassy verbiage designed to placate “woke” constituencies in the educational community or the Math Pathway contains elements that VDOE wants to conceal.

Confusing language. Adding to the confusion is VDOE’s use of language. Certain phrases have specific meanings to educators that may elude the general public and the media. Such phrases include “accelerated pathways,” “advanced courses,” and “enriched classes.”

According to Pyle, “advanced courses” are mathematics courses beyond Algebra II (or, in the new Math Path, beyond Grade 10.)

Also, according to Pyle, “accelerated pathways” refer to when students enroll in math classes more advanced than their usual grade level. Members of the public might think of them as “skipping a grade” in math classes.

“Enriched lessons” refer to situation in which students who excel in one-size-fits all classes might be given additional assignments to enrich their learning experience.

In his recent media press conference, Lane also referred to “accelerated courses.” “We are not eliminating accelerated courses,” he said. I am not clear on what accelerated courses are. Pyle did not answer that question.  An online source defines the phrase as “classes that would typically last a set amount of time such as a semester, and are condensed into a much shorter amount of time without losing the amount of knowledge gained.”

With sweeping, emphatic language, Lane told the media, “Acceleration is not going away. … We are not eliminating accelerated courses. We are not reducing the rigor of our courses. … We’re not eliminating any pathways to calculus.” However, he never mentioned “tracked” courses. Was that an innocent oversight? Or did he deliberately omit “tracked” courses in the expectation that the media would never notice the difference?

Getting a straight answer is of paramount importance. For example, Fairfax County Public Schools offers a “continuum of advanced academic services” that “builds upon students’ individual strengths and skills and maximizes academic potential for all learners.” Fairfax schools refer to these as “advanced academic programs (AAP).” Admission requires cognitive-abilities testing and/or referrals. (The web page even has a photo of two studious-looking Asian kids.) These advanced programs are, by any other name, tracked courses. 

I explicitly asked Pyle if the new Math Pathway would “keep or ban ‘track’ systems or programs like the Fairfax County program.”

He declined to answer.

Nothing set in stone. Lane emphasized to reporters that the new Math Pathway is provisional. The initiative still faces a lengthy approval process. No formal plan has been presented to him, much less to the Board of Education for approval. “There is nothing set in stone [now],” he said, “and there is nothing set in stone for three years.”

That is true, but it overlooks the fact that the Math Pathway has enormous bureaucratic momentum behind it. Once established after thorough consultation with diverse stakeholders, a new set of educational policies is very difficult to change. Policies take on a slow, glacier-like inevitability.

In her presentation to the Special Committee to Review the Standards of Accreditation, policy director Sale indicated that the Math Pathways were significantly farther along in the development pipeline than a related initiative, which she described as still in the “conceptual” stage, that would combine Standard and Advanced high school diplomas into a single Virginia diploma. Math Pathways, she said, had reached the point where VDOE staff has begun “vetting” the initiative, reaching out to stakeholders in higher education, the special education community, and school district administrators.

What does that “vetting” look like? We get a good picture from an article published April 8 in the Martinsville Bulletin, about two weeks before the controversy erupted and before anyone had an incentive to spin the story. In that article reporter Holly Kozelsky recounted in great detail how Henry County educators described the new Math Pathway to the local school board. There is a strong sense in the story that the Math Pathway is something that will happen, not something that might happen. Henry County will take its math program out of the 19th century and into modern times. … The VMPI will change the way math is taught. “Some of the biggest changes will be seen” in grades 8 through 10. (Sometimes the narrative shifted to the conditional tense, saying what the Math Pathway would do at some point. But Henry County educators never suggested that there was any wiggle room.)

The equity priority comes through clearly in the descriptions tendered by Sherri Helbert, curriculum coordinator for secondary math and science, and Wendy Durham, director of K-12 instruction.

“All students [will] be on an even playing field and will have the same opportunities as they enter the advanced mathematics pathways,” [Helbert] said.

Although students will study the same content at the same time, “students who grasp the concepts are going to go deeper” with enriched lessons, [she] said after the meeting.

“Everybody has the same objective – the same content,” Director of K-12 Instruction Wendy Durham said after the meeting. Teachers would “look at where students are as far as mastering that objective and can provide enrichment activities for deeper learning.” Durham and Helbert said teachers do that now as well.

Let that sink in. All students will be on an even playing field, they will have the same opportunities, and they will study the same content. Advanced students — those who “grasp the content” — will be allowed to “go deeper” with “enriched lessons.” That description leaves no room for a track system.

Perhaps Henry County doesn’t have or want a track system. Perhaps Henry County educators are viewing the Math Pathway through a different prism than parents in Loudoun, Fairfax, or Arlington counties. Perhaps other counties will be allowed to maintain their track systems. Based on what Lane and the VDOE have revealed, however, it is impossible to say.

Unanswered questions. I am not yet persuaded by Lane’s declarations. I don’t know if he was being fully candid with the press corps or if he was weasel-working his answers. As far as I’m concerned, it is still an open question whether the new Math Pathway will allow local districts to provide tracking programs for faster- and slower-learning students.

Yes, Virginia schools will have “advanced” classes and pathways to calculus. Yes, Virginia schools will be able to “accelerate” the brightest students into more advanced classes. Yes, Virginia will allow “accelerated” math courses — presumably “accelerated” in the sense that they are condensed into shorter time periods, although that has never been made clear. But Lane has never said that Virginia will allow “tracked” classes.

I’m still confused about VDOE intentions, and parents of high-achievement students should be, too.