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An Organizational Perspective on the Origins of Instructional Segregation: School Composition and Use of Within-Class Ability Grouping in American Kindergartens


by Anthony Buttaro, Jr., Sophia Catsambis, Lynn M. Mulkey & Lala Carr Steelman — 2010

Background: This investigation was sparked by research findings on secondary education showing school segregation to be closely associated with homogeneous grouping practices, such as tracking and between-class ability grouping.

Research Design: We conduct secondary analyses of national data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K).

Objectives: Using these data, we investigate the degree to which the racial and ethnic composition of schools is associated with use of ability grouping practices as early as kindergarten. We focus on within-class ability grouping for reading instruction because it is the most common form of homogeneous grouping for the early grades.

Results and Conclusions: We find that this form of grouping is practiced by a majority of kindergarten teachers and schools, although frequency of use is quite varied, and some teachers and schools use it only sporadically. The most intensive use of within-class ability grouping exists in schools that serve high proportions of minority students and in schools with high variability in students’ reading readiness. The association between student body composition and use of this instructional practice remains even after variability in student academic skills and other structural characteristics of schools are accounted for. Schools serving primarily minority students that use within-class ability grouping have higher average gains in reading achievement by the end of the school year than comparable schools that do not use this form of grouping. Use of this instructional practice is not associated with increases in average achievement gain scores for schools serving students of diverse or primarily White backgrounds. Our findings provide the foundation for further studies of the structural, cultural, and political features of schools associated with the use of ability grouping at the onset of schooling.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 5, 2010, p. 1300-1337
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15670, Date Accessed: 12/18/2017 3:36:26 PM

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About the Author
  • Anthony Buttaro, Jr.
    The Graduate Center, City University of New York
    ANTHONY BUTTARO, JR., is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. He received his BA and MA degrees in sociology from the University of Rome, La Sapienza. His areas of interest are research methodology, sociology of education, comparative analysis. He is coauthor with Juan Battle on “More Than Meets the Eye: An Ecological Perspective on Homophobia Within the Black America” forthcoming in Journal of African American Studies.
  • Sophia Catsambis
    Queens College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York
    E-mail Author
    SOPHIA CATSAMBIS received her PhD from New York University. She is professor of sociology at Queens College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She has also served as AERA Jeanne Griffith Research Fellow at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Her work addresses national equity concerns in education through the use of major longitudinal survey data. She is currently studying parental involvement in children’s education as well as issues of ability grouping in the early elementary grades. She is coauthor, with Belkis Suazo deCastro, on “Parents Still Matter: Parental Links to High School Seniors’ Behaviors and Future Outlook,” in Nancy Hill and Ruth Chao (Eds.), Family-School Relations During Adolescence: Linking Research, Policy, and Practice, Teachers College Press, forthcoming.
  • Lynn Mulkey
    University of South Carolina, Beaufort
    LYNN MULKEY received her PhD from Columbia University and was subsequently a fellow of the National Institute of Mental Health at UCLA’s Sociology Department. She is currently chair of the Social Sciences Department at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. Her scholarly interests are in educational inequality, and her latest work has been on NIH-funded research on ability grouping in the early grades. She is coauthor, with Sophia Catsambis, Lala Carr Steelman, and Melanie Hanes-Ramos, of “Keeping Track or Getting Offtrack: Issues in the Tracking of Students,” in L. J. Saha, A. G. Dworkin (Eds.), International Handbook of Research on Teachers and Teaching, 1059–1078. Springer Science. In press.
  • Lala Steelman
    University of South Carolina, Columbia
    LALA CARR STEELMAN received her PhD from Emory University. Currently she is the chair of the Sociology Department at the University of South Carolina, Columbia campus. Her scholarly interests revolve around the study of the family, education, and the link between the two. She is coauthor, with Pamela Ray Koch, of “Making Mountains out of Molehills: The Myth of Red State Morality,” forthcoming in Cultural Sociology.
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