Leadership snapshot: Why detracking is Superintendent Dianne Kelly’s No. 1 priority

Competency-based learning that levels the playing by giving students at different stages of academic progress access to the same curriculum in the same classroom.

Detracking is how Superintendent Dianne Kelly and her team at Revere Public Schools intend to overhaul the ways students have been selected for rigorous coursework throughout the history of K12 education.

Diane Kelly
Superintendent Dianne Kelly

The traditional grading system has left plenty of students behind because they were not considered “honors material”; this has favored some students while excluding kids in special education, English learners and other marginalized groups from access to advanced coursework, explains Kelly, Massachusetts’s 2023 superintendent of the year.

“Somewhere along the line we decided that around fifth grade is where we should decide who ‘can’ and who ‘can’t,'” says Kelly, who has worked in the urban, Boston-area Revere Public Schools since 1995. “When we drew those lines hundreds of years ago, a lot of kids fell into the ‘can’t’ category for reasons that have nothing to do with their abilities or their work ethic.”

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A big key to detracking is shifting to competency-based learning that levels the playing by giving students at different stages of academic progress access to the same curriculum in the same classroom.

To promote detracking, Kelly has added instructional support specialists to provide more assistance to students who need it most and given teachers time over the summer to develop honors-level coursework that’s accessible in every single class. For example, Revere’s history students can demonstrate their understanding of the Revolutionary War through more typical assignments or seek an honors credit by comparing the U.S. Revolution to uprisings in other countries.

“I’ll be honest about how I taught—when I got my class rosters in August, I looked my roster that said this is the honors level geometry class and this is the standard level geometry class and I was already thinking about those kids differently and making decisions about how I was going to teach before I ever met them,” she recalls. “Kids labeled as honors get far more opportunities to think critically and develop those skills than kids who are not labeled as honors.”

Good behavior is rebounding in Revere

Beyond detracking, another big shift Kelly looks forward to is a continued decline in behavioral problems that have surged in the two years since students returned to in-person learning after the COVID lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic. Younger kids have had difficulty self-regulating while fights are occurring more often in high school because, in part, students lost track of behavioral expectations.

“We’ve been lenient with our expectations because everybody has so much going on emotionally and that leniency has maybe given some kids the impression that maybe this behavior is OK,” she says. “That, of course, has made teachers who are already fatigued even more fatigued, and their patience and ability to de-escalate and take time to calm situations probably aren’t at their peak.”

Despite a resurgence of the culture wars and what she described as “continued vitriol” directed toward K12 schools from social media and mainstream news reports, student behavior did improve over the 2022-23 school year. Another priority for this fall will be inviting families back into the schools so they can gain firsthand knowledge of what’s going on in the schools, rather than relying on misinformation they may be encountering out in the community.

The exciting things happening in Revere Public Schools include using state urban education grants to add more academic interventionists and to fulfill a student request to revive the district’s theater program. Revere staged its first 30 years with a production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights while the district’s robotics team recently placed second in an international competition held in Texas.

“As we get back to celebrating things like that, we’re going to get back into a space where people understand the great work that our teachers are doing, the great work that our students are doing, and the great things happening in our schools,” Kelly concludes.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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