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Study Claims Gifted Math Classes Promote 'Academic Apartheid'

A frustrated male in a classroom with two students in background

A math education professor is arguing that gifted math classes cause “academic apartheid” among students, claiming that the practice is rooted in “capitalist exploitations and settler colonialism.”

The study, “Understanding Issues Associated With Tracking Students in Mathematics Education,” was published in the new issue of the the Columbia University journal Mathematics Education by Cacey Wells, a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

In his article — which relies heavily upon social justice math theory — Wells takes aim at what teachers call “academic tracking,” which is the practice of placing students in different math classes (such as pre-algebra or gifted classes) depending on test scores.

Under the tracking system, for example, a student who scores in the top 10 percent of his peers may be placed into a precalculus course. On the other hand, a student who scores in the lowest 10 percent may be placed into a remedial math class, or perhaps pre-algebra.

While this practice is fairly common in high school, it has come under criticism by teachers who worry about the impact of the practice on the lower performing students. The confidence of some students may suffer at the expense of others, especially minorities, it is argued.

Not only that, but critics of the tracking system worry that standardized test scores may not fully encompass all of a students’ skills and abilities. This is especially true for students of color and children whose first language is not English, critics argue.

Math classes for students of different abilities  represent an “outgrowth of racial hierarchies that have developed over the nation’s history and that have privileged whiteness,” argued Wells.

“This is particularly true in schools. Many times students are pigeonholed into particular academic tracks based purely on socially constructed potentialities,” he added.