Thursday, February 7, 2008

Tracking and School Inequality

The elementary school I described yesterday in ED175 provides us with an example of within-school inequality as well as tracking. To recap, the student population is highly diverse, with 70% Latino, 16% White, 10% Asian, 2% Filipino, and 2% African American students. However, achievement, as measured by the 2006 California Standards Test (CST) in English Language Arts (ELA), shows that groups of students are much more successful than others. Specifically, 83% and 70% of Filipino and Asian students, respectively, are achieving at the proficient or advanced levels, however only 57%, 42%, and 34% of White, African American, and Latino students, respectively, are proficient or advanced. Which sociological concepts could explain this disparity?

Sorokin would argue that schools in the U.S. serve to sieve students into their proper place within our stratified society. Thus, highly successful Filipino and Asian students are meant to fill jobs as doctors, lawyers, and the like. White students will fill white collar jobs, such as managerial positions. African American and Latino students will take menial positions that reflect their low status. Bourdieu would concur with Sorokin that this school is effectively doing its job of reproducing the social classes.

Another possible explanation lies within the distribution of human, social, and cultural capital. As we have seen, these forms of capital are distributed unequally within our society. More specifically, Coleman would say that it is likely that Asian, Filipino, and White families have a higher level of social capital. It may be that these families have closed social networks in which many of the mothers know each other and can serve as a support system for their children. The parent-teacher network is more likely to be closed as well; when a problem arises for a child at school, the parent has access to speak to the teacher about it and come up with solutions. Schultz would say that higher levels of human capital are also at work in this example. The highly successful children most probably have parents who possess skills and knowledge that are conducive to school learning, such as literacy, computer skills, and math skills. If the parents don’t possess the skills themselves, they probably have access to outside resources, such as tutoring, to help their children. Finally, cultural capital comes into play as parents provide their children with what Bourdieu calls “cultural wealth”, in the form of exposure to literature, the arts, science, etc. This cultural knowledge provides children with a rich background knowledge from which to draw that helps them to be successful in school.

Oakes would argue that the summer achievement gap probably also comes into play in this particular example. Only 33% of the students on free lunch (economically disadvantaged) achieved at the proficient or advanced levels on the ELA CST. It is highly likely that the high- and possibly middle-SES students at the school have access to enriching summer activities, such as museum visits, summer library reading program, science camp, etc. that enable them to continue their cognitive growth. The lower SES children probably don’t have access to these activities, resulting in flat growth over summer, and this is reflected in lower test scores at the end of the academic year. We don’t know this for sure, because this school, like most schools, only tests students once per year (in May).

The outcomes of this inequality are evident in the numbers of students represented within the gifted (GATE) classes at the school. Rather than mirroring the general student population of the school, the 5th grade gifted class is comprised of 38% Latino, 35% Asian, 21% White, 3% African American, and 3% Filipino students. We can see that early tracking in 1st grade occurs, with English only (EO) students tracked into 2 classes (one high achieving) and English Language Learners (ELL) tracked into 4 classes by their English language abilities (beginning, middle, or high ELL). The EO classes are comprised of White, Asian, African American, and Latino students. Virtually no White students and very few Asian students are enrolled in the ELL classes. This tracking actually begins in Kindergarten; all children are assessed on skills such as alphabetic knowledge and counting in the summer. This data is used by the teachers to sort students into Kindergarten classes that are distributed roughly by language status and Kindergarten readiness. The tracking continues in a less prominent way in 2nd and 3rd grades. The students are all tested for gifted in 3rd grade, then in 4th grade tracking become much more prominent again, with students sorted very clearly by achievement into 4th grade GATE and regular education classes. Students are retested in 4th grade and any newly identified students or “gifted potential” students join the GATE students in the 5th grade GATE class. 6th grade also has a GATE class. We know that school readiness, such as phonological awareness (e.g., ability to rhyme words, knowledge of letter-sound relationships), is predictive of later reading success. Thus student differences in pre-Kindergarten may account for achievement gaps later on in students’ academic careers. Don’t forget only 20% of all ELL at this school achieve at the proficient or advanced level of achievement. So language is clearly an important factor.

This example brings up some very interesting issues. Oakes’ (1985) research questions related to her study of tracking within high schools seem appropriate here. Namely,

· Do the children at this school have the same opportunity to learn content (e.g. math, science, social studies, and literature)? Or are the differences only in terms of pace of instruction or mode of presentation?

· Do some groups receive more instruction than others?

· Are some children exposed to more highly valued content?

· What is the role of school opportunities in determining how much students learn?

Food for thought…


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