Combatting Inequities from Tracked Classrooms: The Possibilities of Detracking

This article identifies best practices for detracking to increase equitable outcomes in schools that previously grouped students by perceived ability.

Reviewed by Sabrina Wong


Grouping students in schools based on perception of their potential or academic ability, known as tracking, has been critiqued by educators for exacerbating educational inequities along race and class lines. Detracking attempts to remedy the negative effects of this widely-used practice in the U.S. by placing students in mixed-ability classes. In this article, the authors use their experience teaching and researching in detracked classrooms to illuminate the dilemmas and opportunities of detracking. They highlight a number of effective practices for detracked classrooms to reduce racial and socioeconomic disparities in educational outcomes.

Beth C. Rubin is a Professor of Education in the Department of Arts and Humanities at Teachers College, Columbia University. She has published several articles on detracking in publications such as the American Educational Research Journal, Curriculum Inquiry, and Teachers College Record. Pedro A. Noguera is the Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. His work focuses on K-12 Education Policy. Noguera was previously a tenured professor and holder of endowed chairs at NYU, UCLA, Harvard, and UC Berkeley.

Methods and Findings

The authors conduct a literature review on school improvement and organizational leadership for equity. They also synthesize takeaways from their own hands-on experience in over 25 public middle schools and high schools to explore the challenges and possibilities of detracking as an effective educational reform to address classroom inequities.

Challenges with Detracking

The authors highlight the challenges with detracking as a response to the inequities reinforced by tracking. When not executed properly, detracking can create social and academic challenges. For example, if students do not have assigned seats, they may re-segregate themselves within their classroom and reinforce perceptions of weaker and stronger students along race and class lines. Academically, students can become either uninterested or overwhelmed in detracked classrooms if teachers target their instruction to the average level of the classroom instead of creating differentiated instructions based on the varying abilities of students.

Best Practices for Detracking

Despite some unsuccessful approaches to detracking, the authors argue that detracking has great potential when executed in accordance with best practices. They find that “when asked about detracking as opposed to tracking, students from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds expressed the view that detracking seemed to be a more fair way to organize students for learning”.

Best practices include:

  • Curriculum that values and encourages students to reflect on their own life experiences in the classroom.
  • Seating charts that foster social relationships across students with varying socioeconomic statuses to combat narratives of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ students based on race and class.
  • Personalized support for students who were previously in lower tracked classes to build their ability and their own perception of their potential.
  • Support from leadership and training to teachers on how to teach detracked classes. Teachers should have spaces to share best practices with each other.
  • Strong communication with parents and teachers regarding the goals of detracking to avoid backlash.


Overall, the authors advocate for the potential of detracking to support educational equity in schools. Best practices of implementing detracking include using curriculum that values the differing experiences of students and seating charts that combat classrooms from being re-tracked internally. They emphasize that detracking must be a part of a broader reform effort that centers the needs of under-resourced students and reallocates resources to these students. Further research should focus on what resources teachers need to be effective in mixed-ability classes and how educators can prepare students to be in detracked classrooms.


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