Understanding How U.S. Secondary Schools Sort Students for Instructional Purposes: Are All Students Being Served Equally?

By Mayer, Anysia | American Secondary Education, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Understanding How U.S. Secondary Schools Sort Students for Instructional Purposes: Are All Students Being Served Equally?


Mayer, Anysia, American Secondary Education


ABSTRACT

This article reviews the current research literature on how secondary schools sort students for instructional purposes. Current sorting practices are based on early American philosophies of schooling where the goal of school was to provide students with different curricula based on preparation for future occupations. The article reviews the research on the educational consequences of tracking as well as the processes school's use to place students in various courses. The article also considers the viability of alternatives to tracking. It concludes with recommendations for ways school personnel can make the process more equitable.

INTRODUCTION

Accountability measures, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), have put new pressures on secondary school practitioners and policy makers to close the academic achievement gaps between students from different ethnic and socioeconomic groups (Berends, Bodilly & Kirby, 2002). Administrators and policy makers often implement reform programs that focus on changing the organizational structure of secondary schools (Comprehensive School Reform Quality Center, 2006). It can be helpful for them to take a step back and examine some of the assumptions that serve as the foundation for the way secondary schools are currently structured.

One important assumption driving schools today is a "framework that emphasizes both equality and individual differences: Each student should be served equally according to his or her presumed, expressed and/or measured interests and capabilities" (Kilgore, 1991, p.191). This framework is manifest in schools as tracking. The purpose of this paper is to review research studies of the historical and ideological underpinnings of tracking. By doing so, I hope to help practitioners and policy makers examine their own beliefs about how schools sort students for instruction and whether this is the most equal way to structure our secondary schools.

Over the past three decades a great deal has been written about tracking. From 1960-2007 the ERIC database lists 809 records in the category "track system -education." Over 200 of these records appear in peerreviewed journals. The term tracking has two unique connotations: it refers to the process of grouping students for instruction both horizontally and vertically, as well as the existence of different course requirements for different programs (Powell, Farrar, & Cohen, 1985). For example, students in vocational tracks take general science, general math and metal shop. They often are not required to take as many math courses or foreign language courses as students in the college prep track. Students in tracks tend to end up in a similar sequence of courses for as many as four years and thus may spend the entire day together. Curricular differentiation refers to the ideology that students should be grouped based on some criteria like ability, intelligence, or interest, and then matched with the appropriate curriculum rather than a specific process of sorting (Oakes, Gamoran, & Page, 1992).

To be included in my review of research, an article had to be an empirical study published in a peer-reviewed journal. Also included are several studies that have been published in book form, written by scholars who are well recognized by the field. In order to represent several different types of perspectives, I specifically chose articles that represent examples of both qualitative and quantitative methodologies.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES OF SCHOOL ORGANIZATION AND EDUCATIONAL IDEOLOGIES

Schools did not always sort students into groups for instruction. In the mid-nineteenth century, most Americans lived in rural areas, and schools were organized into one-room buildings. Schools were not the institutions we know today; local school boards were in control, teachers were not trained, children's attendance was sporadic and lasted for a limited number of years. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, America had "schooling for more people than any other nation, and.

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