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The Influence of Tracking on Students’ Math Identity

As students who have been given the opportunity to see the “secret world” of teachers, attending Leadership Coaching Lab (LCL) meetings has been in no way less than eye-opening. During one of the LCL meetings, we were able to learn from Lorianne Kalb’s students and their collection of math stories. Each story prompted us as a math community to evaluate and reflect upon our own experiences that have built the foundations of the math stories we shared at the April LCL.

By Wyatt Ogbin, Emma Sipes, and Abby Szeto

Emma’s Math StoryMy math story starts in elementary school, where I developed not only my love for math but my love for teaching as well. As elementary school transitioned into middle school, my love for math became dependent on my success in math. I noticed that my peers began to use me for answers, and I felt a constant pressure to always be good at math. At this point in my math journey, I struggled, believing that my worth was inextricably linked to my math success. However, as I transitioned into high school, I learned how to find my worth outside of my math success. Still, it was not until after I had attended LCL meetings that I fully understood the reason for the shift in my “math mindset” was due to the community of the classroom. Additionally, LCL meetings have helped me to learn how to effectively coach my peers through a math problem instead of just giving them the answer. That combined with the community of the classroom, has helped to drastically alleviate the pressure of always being right in a math classroom. Leadership Coaching Lab has helped me to see the math classroom as a place where true learning is possible. 

Wyatt’s Math Story In third grade, I fell asleep during a division lesson. Up until that lesson we covered topics like addition, subtraction, and multiplication. To me, these simple math problems practically solved themselves. In fact, I considered myself to be so good that I didn’t need to pay attention in class anymore! After solving problem after problem for myself and my fellow third graders, I deserved a break. My head fell onto the desk in pure bliss prepared for an amazing nap. When I reopened my eyes, lifting my post-nap head off my now condensation covered desk. I was confused reading the alien word “Division” in big red letters at the very top of the smart board. I sat in confusion as the teacher continued with the lesson and the entire class responded simultaneously. I had fallen behind. It seemed like the entire class got it but me; I felt alone. This isolating feeling was new to me. However I’ve always been determined. During recess I strolled to my teacher’s desk, looked up at her and asked, “What’s division?”. She responded with an outburst and a tone of disappointment that lingered in the air. The class fell silent. My face became flushed and I froze. My teacher loomed over me, which only made me sink further into my embarrassment. The consequence for not paying attention was to receive individualized, one-on-one instruction in lieu of my recess. I sat there dividing 6 blocks into 2 groups or 10 blocks into 5 like a child. As my classmates played they gave me judgemental stares, and taunted me from across the room.

Abby’s Math Story – In my fourth grade class, the students had been divided into 3 groups, separated into the different corners of the room. Each of these groups were assigned a different letter. Although the teacher never informed us the reasoning behind these divisions, it soon became clear when the difficulty of questions on Group A’s paper differed from Group C’s. It had taken us less than a week to notice how our teacher would teach each group independently from the others. Soon, the students from Group C became what the teacher had referred to as “lazy.” My fear of being “average” or “lazy” became my motivation to work harder. The teacher selected 4 students including me to be a part of Group A. Having been referred to as “gifted” and “smart”, I felt valued. I wanted to show my teacher my worth. To prove that I deserved to be a part of that group. Even today, I am forever labeled Group A. 

What trends did we find between all of our math stories?

A common theme that surfaced in all of our stories was how tracking shaped our math identities. Whether it was in middle school or even as early as elementary school, the educational system set the standards and limits on what we as students could achieve. We learned to define our identities based on course grades and academic success. Plagued by labels such as high/low achieving or “smart” vs “dumb”, we found it impossible to escape the responsibilities unintentionally given to us as elementary school children. What originally felt like a badge of honor, being labeled as “smart,” quickly became a burden. This translated to sleepless nights of cramming and early morning meltdowns right before an exam.  As “Group A” students, all three of us recognized the obligation to maintain the track on which we had been set. We engaged in mimicking or memorizing, allowing us to achieve a high score, but were we ever curious, “Why does a certain equation work?” The high scores reflected on our transcripts brought us a sense of academic pride. Consequently, when our scores began to plummet, what we questioned was why copying exactly what our teachers did in class did not produce the desirable 100s we thought we’d receive. We never made sense of how to solve any of the math problems, only how to get a final answer in the shortest amount of time. Therefore, abandoning the process of learning in exchange for the “right answer”.  

Not only does tracking affect the “Group A” students, but “Group B” and “Group C” have similar experiences as well. For these groups, tracking has served as a limitation on student potential. Students’ self worth had become intertwined with their track. Due to being assigned into a lower track, students identified themselves as “low-achieving” and “dumb”.  As a result, these students confined themselves to only producing the amount of effort that they were expected to give– a self-fulfilling prophecy.          

What does status in a competitive environment look like?


Tracking creates a highly competitive learning environment, one in which students stop seeing each other as peers trying to learn. There’s a lack of a support network, which can make learning feel alienating. At the beginning of the school year, we as students took turns flexing our comprehensive knowledge on a topic. As the school year progresses, competition escalates as tensions rise. The environment shifts from a simple showcase of knowledge to an overwhelming academic contest.  Questions like, “Did I get a higher score than you?” and “What did you get on the test?” are very common phrases that we have been asked or have asked others. What originally seems as a harmless question, transitions into a double edged sword. We three have experienced these questions personally. We had moments where we gave into competition. We have felt disappointed in ourselves when hearing our peers achieve higher scores, but feeling proud when we do better. However, not because of our achievement, but for the lack of our peers’. This ambition to be the “number one student” or the very best in the class, caused students like ourselves to see other students as obstacles in the way of the number 1 spot. There have been moments where other students finish the assignment earlier than anyone else, claiming “it was so easy”. All three of us can relate to moments like these in which we have felt discouraged to continue the assignment because we ourselves were not as smart as other students. During one of the LCL meetings, guest speaker Katrina Lindo spoke about the effects of language in a classroom. She spoke about how it is not the job of a teacher to label and name difficulty levels of math. This led us to take it one step further, that it is not the job of a student to label the difficulty levels of math for anyone but themselves. Lindo’s assertion resonated with us as students. We have given up when other students found questions to be “too easy” while feeling proud when other questions were “too hard”. The evaluation of “too easy” and “too hard” have ranked our positions in the classroom.

How do we move from seeing each other as competition to seeing each other as inspiration to help build a sense of community within a classroom?

Imagine a group of people carrying a large and heavy log up a hill together. Halfway up the hill, a person decides to leave the group. Following that person, are 3 more people who no longer wish to carry the log. A repetitive cycle of those who leave, creating a heavier burden for those still remaining. As  the weight of the log becomes heavier on each person, more people begin to leave. Soon, the log has been abandoned by all. This log represents the classroom, the hill represents the material, while the people represent the students. When we as students help each other and teach one another, the class pushes one another to continue. However, when we refuse to help each other, it becomes difficult to learn on our own. Carrying the log requires teamwork, and an equal effort throughout, or else some students will end up with the burden of the classroom’s weight. Students in a classroom all share a common goal: to learn. When students share a common goal, we can build off of one another to better our learning.  We want to inspire a community of learners in a classroom. Due to our experiences visiting LCL we were able to interact with numerous different math educators who greeted us with open arms. We were able to witness the community they had built and it’s astounding! They are constantly working together to form deep understandings of math concepts and building on each other, supporting each other, and helping each other in math discussions. In this setting everyone is considered experts, discussion is promoted, and people are happy and excited to be present. The experience has been awe inspiring to say the least. We’ve come to the conclusion that this way of learning math should be implemented into the classroom. It fully engaged us, the students, for over seven hours, and we walked away just waiting to return. Promoting community through speaking openly, having your ideas heard and valued, and increasing morale will lead to carrying the log perpetually. If students stop putting in effort to carry the log, it will only weigh down the students determined to carry it until they are too tired to carry any further and eventually drop the log completely. In conclusion this idea of “carrying the log” put into practice will promote unity through students, help build a sense of community, and allow students to finally learn math.

The three of us hope for the sake of future generations, developments in math education such as carrying the log, and promoting community are utilized in classrooms more. 

Shout out to Shellee Wong, Dave Maloney, Lorianne Kalb, and Katrina Lindo for inspiration through the writing of this article, and Thank you to Jamila Riser for the amazing opportunities to attend LCL. Finally thank you to the entire LCL community, you have been nothing but supportive and inspirational, and thank you for treating us as equals. 



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