Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Detracking Reform in an Urban California High School: Improving the Schooling Experiences of African American Students

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Detracking Reform in an Urban California High School: Improving the Schooling Experiences of African American Students

Article excerpt

Using qualitative and quantitative methods, this article examines one large, racially mixed, urban California school community's response to the growing tension between excellence and equity in public education; and concurrently describes how African American students in this setting experienced school reform in general and detracking reform in particular. At the school in question, fundamental changes in the structure, curriculum, and instructional practices were effected for the ninth-grade class by eliminating tracking and heterogeneously grouping in English and history. The data obtained suggest that detracking reform has the potential to create intellectually rich and equitable learning opportunities for all students while easing some of the tension associated with this process.


Despite its importance, little is known about the impact of detracking reform on the learning opportunities, academic achievement, and academic engagement of students in American schools, particularly its impact on students of color. Can detracking reform contribute to creating intellectually rich and equitable learning opportunities for African American students, while easing some of the tension between excellence and equity in public education? With a growing belief among educators and policymakers that increased heterogeneity may be a viable alternative to tracking, further investigation is warranted.

This article attempts to answer that question by centering its analysis on the case of Liberty High School in Jefferson Town, California.1Liberty High is one of 10 racially mixed secondary schools that participated in a national, three-year longitudinal qualitative case study of detracking reform (Oakes & Wells, 1991). The restructuring of instructional grouping practices at Liberty represented one of the most comprehensive detracking efforts of all the senior high schools participating in that study. The support for such reform, which emanated from several key administrators and teachers at Liberty High, served as a catalyst for the launching of a pilot detracking program at the school. This event also coincided with the start of the Oakes and Wells study. As a result, the progress of the reform effort at Liberty High was documented from its inception.

Like those of an increasing number of communities in the state of California and elsewhere throughout the contemporary United States, Liberty High School's student population runs the gamut of racial and cultural diversity, with no one racial or ethnic group claiming a majority. Its student body also represents a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Within an urban multicultural setting such as that surrounding Liberty High, issues of race, class, and culture intersect with issues of excellence and equity to create conflict and compromise in school communities. Liberty illuminates some of the unique challenges these communities encounter.

In fall 1990, a group of Jefferson Town's educators, parents, and community members came to the realization that the tracking system at Liberty High served to institutionalize a mutually exclusive relationship between excellence and equity within their community. In their view, the grouping practices employed in the school served not only as a mechanism by which the academic achievement gap between students of color and their White counterparts was reinforced and widened, but also one by which divisive racial and socioeconomic stereotypes were perpetuated. Upon reaching this consensus, a bold experiment was initiated at Liberty High. Its goals: to eliminate tracking, to expose all students to the same rigorous academic curriculum in English and history, and to foster improved interracial/inter-ethnic understanding.

To better understand the complexity and magnitude of the influence of a multicultural and multiracial context on Liberty High School's restructuring effort, it is important to situate this reform within a broader social context (Wells, Hirshberg, & Lipton, 1994). …

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