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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Detracking in Shaker Heights: 'Honors' for all, lower expectations

All Shaker Heights students take honors classes -- or classes with an "honors" label. The "enriched" and "advanced" tracks are gone, along with the "regular" track. Detracking in the liberal Cleveland suburb is showing signs of success, reports Laura Meckler in the Washington Post. But it's still very much an experiment.

Shaker Heights students

Superintendent David Glasner decided to eliminate academic tracks, which started in fifth grade, in the summer of 2020 when classes were still online. He retained Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses in the upper grades of high school.

There was no time to train teachers, inform parents or build community support.

Before the pandemic, enriched and advanced classes were open to all students, but were chosen much more often by white parents than by black parents. "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," writes Meckler.

“There were parents who value a detracked system but they need it to be done well,” said Lawrence Burnley, a black man who started in 2022 as chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. “It was a disaster.”

Andrew Farkas, who's white, said his detracked 10th-grade "honors" class was very different from his 9th-grade enriched class.

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.”

Teachers are supposed to be trained in how to teach students at very different levels in the same classroom, writes Meckler. However, the first group to be trained, middle-school math teachers, said there was a lot on why to detrack and not much on how to make it work.

By summer 2023, district officials reported AP enrollment was up, with the number of black students nearly doubling from 53 in 2018-2019 to 98 in 2022-2023.

Fifty-one percent of black students demonstrated competency in Algebra 1 in end-of-year testing in spring 2023, compared to 44 percent in spring 2021.

In California and elsewhere, "equity" advocates argue for moving Algebra 1 to ninth grade, which makes it difficult for students to qualify for AP Calculus. By contrast, Shaker Heights' equity changes made eighth-grade algebra the norm. "Before the change, very few Black students took Algebra 1 in eighth grade; afterward, almost everyone did," writes Meckler.

It's likely that more challenging classes will improve achievement for "regular" students. It's also likely less challenging classes will limit achievement by students who'd formerly been "enriched."

I was in untracked classes through eighth grade. I survived by reading in class: For many years, I read a book a day. Tracking started in high school. I loved it so much.

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Aug 21, 2023

I would say that the chance of these being “real” honors/advanced level is zero. Admit unable, unprepared and/or unmotivated kids who can’t handle the real work, who belong to a politically preferred group which cannot be failed. The only acceptable solution is to water down the material and assignments, give unearned grades and pretend “all” are successful.

Differentiated instruction is a fantasy; it just cannot work at any significant scale. No teacher should be expected to teach kids who vary across 4-6 grade levels.

Also, the disinterest in, and perhaps disdain for, the most academically talented kids goes back almost a hundred years (if not more). When my mother and father-in-law started teaching HS, in 1930, the attitude that…


Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Aug 18, 2023

These distinctions only differentiate between leaving American teens either one or two years behind their peers participating in the eighth grade Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, which shows the international norm is to study the equivalent of Algebra I (for example, linear equations) in seventh grade, and geometry (for example, trigonometric ratios) in eighth; now there is an equal chance, among all American families taught as in Shaker Heights or California, that your child will be left behind, unless you transfer them into a school whose tuition provides the opportunity for all children to get ahead.

Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Aug 20, 2023
Replying to

Both of my sons passed Algebra I in seventh grade; Irvine Unified has switched (wisely) to integrated mathematics, but I still regularly teach students who pass AP Calculus in tenth grade (sometimes earlier, although that seems to be going away, another trend to be thankful for).


Aug 17, 2023

"By contrast, Shaker Heights' equity changes made eighth-grade algebra the norm. "Before the change, very few Black students took Algebra 1 in eighth grade; afterward, almost everyone did," writes Meckler. "

In other words, by contrast Shaker Heights is doing what California did for 10 years before it decided to completely flip from mandating 8th grade algebra to almost banning it.

Might want to consider what that means.


Aug 17, 2023

Once again, a school district struggles with the concept that all students cannot master algebra, calculus, Latin, or any of a variety of topics. What should be the most obvious issue in American education is that high standards and rigorous academic education comes with higher failure rates.

Either a school teaches some students well while tolerating a certain number of failures or lowers standards to lower the failure rate and masks the lack of rigorous academic education. .

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