Background/Context: Recent sociocultural studies of detracking describe the ways in which notions of ability—local understandings of students’ intellectual capacities—are at play in these settings, shaping both the politics and the practice of the reform. This study extends this examination into the classrooms of detracking schools.
Purpose: This article considers the enactment of detracking in the ninth grade social studies classrooms of three public high schools. Through a detailed look at classroom life in racially and socioeconomically distinct public high school settings, it explores how local notions of ability shape the implementation of classroom practices in general and of detracking reform in particular.
Setting: The research took place in three public comprehensive high schools in a northeastern state with the following characteristics: 1) low income and predominantly African American and Latino; 2) high income and predominantly White; 3) socioeconomically diverse and predominantly African American and White.
Research Design: This study used an interpretive research methodology and a multiple case study design.
Data Collection and Analysis: Data was collected at each of the three schools over the course of an academic year in the following ways: 1) extensive observations of detracked ninth grade social studies classes; 2) interviews with students and teachers participating in those classes; 3) shadowing of students through the school day; 4) collection of school generated documents.
Findings/Results: At the low income, majority African American and Latino school, detracking reform was framed by a discourse of deficit that posited all of the school’s students as unwaveringly low in ability, and classroom practices provided little opportunity for students to either display or develop competence. In contrast, detracking at the suburban, homogeneous school spurred a creative curriculum targeted to the needs of individual students in the heterogeneous classroom, all of whom were presumed to be bright, motivated and college bound despite varied skills. At the racially and socioeconomically integrated school, a community and school system in which people were highly concerned with issues of equity and diversity, teaching practices in the detracked classroom emphasized flexibility and personalization, providing opportunities for students to examine social and cultural issues in a discussion-centered framework. Students, both within and among the three schools, experienced detracking reform in ways that were distinct and not equally beneficial.
Conclusions: Translating a structural reform into change that is meaningful for students is a complex endeavor. Effective detracking involves changes at multiple levels: in institutional structures, classroom practices, and teacher and student beliefs about ability.