“Shaker Heights sorted students by ability level, and the top classes always had more White students. In the pandemic, it unraveled this ‘tracking.’
August 16, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
This story is adapted from the author’s forthcoming book, “Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity."
SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — 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.
Would Shaker again be a leader in the quest for racial equity, or a cautionary tale?
The rise and fall of tracking
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.
In Shaker, as elsewhere, if a student wasn’t in advanced English in seventh and eighth grade, the chance of joining those classes in high school was slim. In math, it was all but impossible. If you didn’t have enriched math in fifth and sixth grade, you probably wouldn’t take pre-algebra in seventh grade, then couldn’t enroll in Algebra 1 in eighth grade and so on.
As such, decisions about math placement made when students were still in elementary school determined whether they could reach calculus by their senior year of high school, a sign of academic rigor that college admissions officers value.
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.
“Every White person wanted their kid in advanced, and open enrollment allowed it,” said Glasner, who is White.
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.
When he got the job, Glasner suggested he would promote “incremental change,” perhaps starting with the youngest students. “One thing I’ve learned is it’s really important to bring people along with this change,” he said at the time.
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.
Glasner said a decision on whether to make the change permanent would come later. In his mind, though, he suspected — and hoped — that they were never going back.
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.”
When asked about families who left, Glasner flipped the question around. What about all the families the old system was failing? He said he was on a call with parents in spring 2021 during which a White parent voiced frustration that her child wasn’t being challenged. But on the same call, he said, a Black parent said, “It’s about time we made a change.”
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.
The early going was smoother for Erin Mauch, a White English teacher, who worked to create assignments that could be completed in multiple ways. For a unit on graphic novels, for instance, students could choose the more challenging task of creating their own graphic novel, including identifying the elements that make up the format, or they could analyze an existing panel. Both assignments required understanding graphic novels, but one was more ambitious.
As the year came to an end, she noticed that more of her sophomores were opting to take the advanced course offered in 11th grade than was normally the case. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said.
John Morris saw the demographic impact immediately. When classes were leveled, his honors English class had 24 students, two of them Black. After the change, 11 of his 21 students in the same honors English class were Black. And he had long offered his multidisciplinary American Experience course with honors and regular students mixed together.
In his American Experience class on a Monday afternoon in spring 2022, racially diverse groups of sophomores spread across the high school library, researching figures and topics from various decades. At one table, the 1960s group was puzzling over Beatlemania, while over at the ’90s table, they were considering Bill Clinton and the advent of email. “Who is Bob Dole?” someone asked. No one seemed to know, but they were looking him up. Every group was engaged in conversation, laughing and having fun together. It was a class that looked like Shaker.
“It’s just super fun,” said Grace Sheets, a White girl. They weren’t friends before the class, she said. “Now we are.”
The one group of teachers who got formal coaching on detracking (albeit after the new system began) were middle school math teachers, who arguably faced the toughest challenge because students were enrolled in classes even if they had not successfully completed the precursor courses. Plus many were learning online.
Their mandate was to collapse a year and a half of math into one year to prepare all students for the advanced track in high school. To help, the district hired a consulting firm, West Wind Education Policy. Teachers said sessions dealt more with the underlying philosophy and moral urgency of detracking and less with the nuts and bolts of teaching a diverse classroom. One math teacher rolled her eyes when asked if West Wind had been helpful.
Asked whether teachers were readied for this moment, Glasner ducked the question. “I’m not sure there’s any amount of preparation that would make every teacher feel prepared,” he said.
Teachers were trying their best to manage deleveled classes with the tools they had.
One morning in spring 2022, almost two years into the detracking initiative, seventh-grade math teacher Karlee Robinson, a young White woman with a deep reserve of energy, greeted her students with the enthusiasm of a coach on the eve of a big game. “You ready to rock-and-roll? You got everything you need?” she asked as students filed into Room 321 of Shaker Heights Middle School.
She asked students to close their eyes and give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down as to whether they understood the lesson from yesterday. It was a way of checking in without embarrassing anyone, and most of the thumbs pointed up. For the next fifty minutes, she walked a line, pushing certain students to deepen their knowledge while helping others keep up.
Their first task was to list on a piece of paper every topic they could remember learning from the year. One White girl quickly ran out of space: probability, exponents, integers, order of operations, volume, decimals, and on and on. A Black boy sitting next to her stared out the window, having written nothing on his page. “You didn’t write anything?” the girl said to him, glancing at his page. “Wow.” And that prompted him to start writing.
Robinson divided the class into stations, each of which offered a different type of review. At one, students could pick among three worksheets. They were all mazes that required solving a problem to move to the next step, but they could choose worksheets with one-step, two-step or multi-step problems.
“At the beginning of the year, remember how we talked about a growth mind-set? We challenge our brains,” Robinson told the group seated around a circular table in the corner. Most kids took the hardest worksheet, the multi-step version. One girl took the two-step option and slowly but steadily worked her way through it. Another student, clearly less engaged, kept tipping back his chair and staring at nothing in particular. He took the one-step sheet and worked on it a bit, with the teacher offering help in exactly the same tone as she used for every other student in the group.
It was an example of the type of high-ceiling, low-floor exercises that are critical to mixing kids in a class. The boy doing the one-step problems seemed miles away from what anyone would consider honors math work. But that didn’t stop others in his group from challenging themselves. Maybe he picked up something from being around more engaged students that he wouldn’t have otherwise. And this small group had something that traditional honors courses have not had. It looked a lot like Shaker: two White girls, one White boy, three Black boys and one Black girl.
In an eighth-grade classroom, most of the White students in the room were seventh-graders accelerated into eighth-grade math — an accommodation offered for some advanced students.
Tasked with filling out a worksheet matching various formulas to graphs, one Black eighth-grader was struggling. The girl next to her, a White seventh-grader named Ellie, stepped in to gently explain it.
“Which one is positive?” Ellie said, pointing to the options. “What one is negative? … Yeah, there you go. Perfect. … It’s positive and there’s only one positive left. … Yeah, that’s right.” The older girl said that she understood it better after the one-on-one help.
Ellie said coaching someone else helped her understand the material better herself: “When explaining it, it gets that imprint in your head.”
By summer 2023, district officials saw evidence that detracking was producing positive academic results.
District data showed that the number of students of all races taking AP classes in high school rising. The number of Black students taking at least one AP course nearly doubled from 53 in 2018-2019 to 98 in 2022-2023. John Moore, director of curriculum, said it was too soon to say whether that change related to detracking, but he did credit a renewed push at the high school to encourage more Black students to try these classes.
Fears that the changes would drive some families away appeared to be mostly unfounded. In the past two years, after an enrollment drop closely related to the pandemic, the number of students declined but only slightly and in line with long-term demographic trends.
Most compelling, Moore said, were changes in math scores of eighth-graders in classes like the one Ellie took.
Before the change, very few Black students took Algebra 1 in eighth grade; afterward, almost everyone did. In spring 2021, after the first year of detracking, 44 percent of Black students demonstrated competency in algebra in end-of-year testing, a requirement for high school graduation. Two years later, in spring 2023, that rose to 51 percent.
It was still only half the students. Yet under the old system, most of them would never have even been in the class or taken the test in eighth grade.
“This is truly, truly remarkable,” Moore told the school board in July. “While we certainly have room to grow and we are committed to that, I really think this is a celebratory moment.”
Still, the district has a long way to go, with more teacher training needed to help make this new system work, said Burnley, the DEI director. He is encouraged by early progress, and finds “some reason for optimism” today. But he was cautious about declaring victory: "There’s a lot of work yet to be done.”
Story editing by Adam B. Kushner. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli. Design by Jennifer C. Reed.“