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Lessons From A Teacher Inquiry Group About Tracking: Perceived Student Choice In Course-Taking And Its Implications For Detracking Reform

by Maika Watanabe - 2007

Background/Context: Given resistance to detracking and the need for strong professional development to support teachers that detracking research documents, it is interesting that little research has focused on teachers’ perspectives in the context of professional development. This study addresses this gap in the literature by closely considering the views of teachers participating in a teacher inquiry group for detracking reform.

Purpose of the Study: Six teachers at an urban public high school that historically disavowed tracking met monthly to discuss issues of ability, intelligence, and tracking in response to the challenge set forth by Oakes, Wells, Jones and Datnow (1997) to address deeply rooted notions of ability and intelligence for detracking reform. This article presents case studies of three of the six teacher participants, whose conceptions of tracking provide insight into some of the complex notions of tracking operating at the practitioner level in schools.

Research Design: Data sources for this qualitative case study primarily constituted partially transcribed fieldnotes from eleven teacher inquiry group meetings and two interviews with each of the six teacher participants.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The perspectives of teachers about tracking and detracking in the context of professional development reveal that there is disagreement in the practitioner community on how much tracking exists and what it looks like, even among teachers teaching at the same school. While teachers clearly articulated and exposed the constraints on student choice in course-taking, teachers frequently called on choice as a rationale for why tracking no longer existed. The emerging variation in these teachers’ conceptions of tracking parallels discourse over the shifts in the scope and complexity of tracking in the research community, and has important implications for the pursuit of detracking reform.

Among the specific recommendations the author presents for researchers and practitioners are the following: 1) Teachers and researchers need to unpack their definitions of tracking, 2) Teachers and researchers need to give student choice in course-taking more attention, 3) Teacher inquiry groups need to examine professional community literature, and 4) Teachers need structural support for this form of professional development.


Id like to have a discussion on what we mean by tracking because Id like to hear what other people have to say . . . I dont think I have ever taught in a school that has had tracking, or if I have, I dont know it. . . Now you have me interested, though, to have this conversation because some people think this school is tracked and some people . . . dont. Maybe its because of the grade level I teach ninth graders that maybe I dont see it that way, so I dont know&


Ive never worked in a detracked school. Ive worked in schools that think theyre detracked. A better question would be, Are the ninth and tenth grades tracked? because clearly the eleventh and twelfth grade classes are in a profound way different.


From your perspective it might be obvious that the eleventh and twelfth grades are tracked, but neither of us [referring to Lauren] have been in the eleventh and twelfth grade classes. I dont know what they look like.


I could argue that the eleventh and twelfth grade is not tracked.






We shouldnt make assumptions about what other people see here. Do you know what I mean?



(3/27/00 Meeting)


In response to the challenge set forth by Oakes et al. (1997) to address deeply rooted notions of ability and intelligence for detracking reform, six teachers at Meredith High School, an urban high school that has historically disavowed tracking, and a doctoral student in education participated in a teacher inquiry group for the 19992000 academic year to discuss issues of ability, intelligence, and tracking. For more than half a year, we had been discussing issues related to tracking under the mistaken assumption that all of us shared the same definition of tracking. It was only at one of our March meetings, seven months into our teacher inquiry group, that we realized that we had differing conceptions of tracking. In the excerpt above, teachers began the process of understanding their divergent pictures of their school as a tracked or detracked school. Student choice in course-taking emerged as a central component in their disagreement. In this paper I argue that the emerging variation in these teachers conceptions of tracking have important implications for professional development in the pursuit of detracking reform.

Despite the scope and breadth of research on tracking and the more recent attention to detracking reform, little research has examined the views of teachers in the context of professional development about tracking and detracking. The earliest body of research on tracking focused on the organization of course offerings and student placement practices (Cicourel & Kitsuse, 1963; Lucas, 1999; Rist, 1973; Rosenbaum, 1976; Schafer, Olexa, & Polk, 1972; Turner, 1960). This research has been supplemented by descriptions of the ways in which lower tracked classrooms differ from higher tracked classrooms (Cazden, 1988; Oakes, 1985; Page, 1991). Researchers have also studied the effects of tracking on student achievement, non-cognitive aspects, and future opportunities (Berends, 1995; Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993; Gamoran & Mare, 1989; Rosenbaum, 1978; Rosenbaum, 1980; Schafer et al., 1972).

More recently, researchers have examined the effects of detracking on student achievement as well as student aspirations, self-esteem, attendance, discipline and school retention rates (Argy, Rees, & Brewer, 1996; Kulik & Kulik, 1992; Mosteller, Light, & Sachs, 1996; Slavin, 1990; Wheelock, 1992). In addition, researchers have added descriptions of detracking schools and classrooms to the literature (Cone, 1990; Fine, Weis, & Powell, 1997; Oakes, Wells, & Associates, 1996; Rubin, 2003; Wheelock).

Finally, researchers have uncovered information on responses to detracking including resistance from teachers, class-privileged and educated parents and low and middle-track students (Cohen, 1993; Cone, 1990, 1992; Fine et al., 1997; Oakes et al., 1996; Page & Page, 1995; Wells & Serna, 1996; Wheelock, 1992; Yonezawa, Wells, & Serna, 2002). Oakes et al. (1997) argue that fundamentally, the ways in which teachers view ability and intelligence underlie their resistance to detracking. The lack of professional development, district leadership, and time to plan for multi-ability classrooms further contribute to lack of change (Oakes, Welner, & Yonezawa, 1998). Given the tremendous resistance to detracking and the need for strong professional development to support teachers that detracking research documents, it is interesting that little research has focused on teachers perspectives in the context of professional development. This study addresses this gap in the literature by considering the views of teachers participating in professional development for detracking reform.

This research will be of particular interest to school reformers, who want to enact similar models of professional development, as the study can help them anticipate the challenges we faced in our teacher inquiry groupteachers diverging definitions of tracking, the reluctance to embrace conflict, as well as organizational constraints on the inquiry group. This research will also help inform researchers on the current complexities of tracking and detracking as understood by practitioners.

This study is grounded in the view that schooling is an arena where students, parents, teachers, administrators, policymakers, and the public interact to produce shifts in school reform that move toward equality or social reproduction (Carnoy & Levin, 1985). Teachers hold a key role in the process by which these competing tensions play out at the classroom level. Whether the intent of a school reform initiative is to reproduce the existing occupational structure through sorting and training students or to support democratic principles of equality, research literature suggests that teachers can greatly alter the intent of school reform at the implementation stage by fully or partially rejecting (or accepting) school reform (Ball & Bowe, 1992; Cohen, 1996; McLaughlin, 1987). Thus, probing how teachers understand school reform can yield important insights into the process by which school reforms are accepted or rejected.

This article first describes the methods and the setting of the research. I then present three case studies of teachers, whose differing conceptions of tracking reflect the views of the other participants in the teacher inquiry group. The analysis focuses on how the definition of tracking has become muddled in both the practitioner and researcher community. The inquiry groups experience reveals the importance of unpacking conceptions of tracking and specifically perceived student choice in course-taking for detracking reform. Efforts to understand the uneven success of detracking ought to pay more attention to teachers conceptions of tracking and the way perceived student choice in course-taking operates in schools. In the final section, I discuss the implications of this research for practitioners and academic researchers.



Samantha, one of the teacher participants and teacher leader of the project, and I, a doctoral student in education at the time, co-wrote the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) grant2 that funded this teacher inquiry project with the support of two University of California at Berkeley professors. Samantha and I met through a former teacher/current doctoral student colleague of ours because of our shared interest in tracking and detracking.

Samantha and I wanted to respond to the challenge set forth by Oakes et al. (1997), who stated that examining deeply rooted perceptions of ability and intelligence was a crucial prerequisite to detracking reform. Unless teachers are convinced to rethink their notions of ability and intelligence, teachers will simply teach to traditional ability levels within heterogeneous classrooms and will not be willing to try new teaching methods for all students in heterogenous classrooms.

We were also influenced by Darling-Hammonds work that one-shot professional development days often imposed by districts rather than generated from the school site were not meaningful or challenging (1998). Her argument that professional development plans should be site-based, long-range, and focused resonated with us. With these ideas in mind, Samantha and I proposed an alternative professional development model, the formation of a sustained, year-long inquiry group to examine our theories of ability and intelligence, current research, the practice of tracking and teaching methods.


Samantha solicited participation in the inquiry group through an email sent to the 47 teachers at Meredith High School.3 She described the purpose of the group as providing a space to reflect upon current research and our own ideologies (about ability, intelligence, and tracking), alleviate the isolation teachers feel, and improve our practice to better meet the needs of all of our diverse students. The $2500 stipend we offered for year-long participation may have been an incentive for some teachers, who might not otherwise have sought out this form of professional development.

The six teacher participants were those teachers who responded to this initial email and who could make the time commitment to meet throughout the academic year. No one was turned away from the group if s/he could make the time commitment. The six teacher participants in the group were predominantly White, similar to teacher demographics at the school, and from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds, 4 as evidenced in Table 1. Teachers ranged in their teaching experience from the first year to more than 15 years of teaching experience and taught different subjects and grade levels.




Yr. of K-12 Teaching

Yr. of teaching at MHS

SES as child

Grade(s) and subject(s) taught

Graduate level work beyond teaching credentials

Rationale for joining the group






Upper Middle Class

10th grade Health/Drivers Ed/College Prep

MA in Special Education in progress

Reflect on research, specifically the nature of intellectual development






Middle Class

10th grade World Literature

MA in Education + 1 additional semester of graduate-level education classes

" Reflect on research and practice

" Create a community of teachers/learners

" Maintain connection with university and research






Upper Middle Class

11th and 12th grade AP Chemistry and Conceptual Chemistry

PhD in Chemistry

Reflect on research and practice, specifically how to make science accessible to everyone







9th grade science; 11th and 12th grade Principles of Marketing and Finance

MA in Education: Instructional Technology in progress

" Reflect on research and practice

" Attracted to university connection and interdisciplinary membership






Middle Class

9th grade Academic Literacy; 10th grade ESL


Reflect on practice through dialogue, how I learn the most






Didnt have to pay for college

12th grade AP American Democracy; 12th grade US Govt and Economics


" Create community of learners

" Reflect on practice

Table 1. Background information on six teacher participants in the inquiry group

With the exception of one former student teacher-cooperating teacher relationship between Zita and Samantha, none of the teachers knew each other well and had not had the opportunity to interact in other school forums before this group began. In fact, at the first meeting, one teacher participant requested that teachers introduce the subject and grade level they taught. Busy teaching schedules and a strong department culture did not lead to many interactions between teachers across subjects.


We met once a month from September 1999 to May 2000, and met twice per month in March and May 2000. In addition to attending the eleven meetings, teachers read research literature5 pertaining to issues of ability, intelligence, and tracking, and wrote journal entries. Teachers also decided on their own initiative to observe each others classes and debrief.

The inquiry group addressed the technical, normative and political challenges to detracking, the three dimensions on which Oakes (1992) believes detracking reform depends. We examined the technical aspects of detracking through discussion and creation of curricula and pedagogy. We explored the normative dimensions of tracking by discussing conceptions of ability, the purposes of schooling, and democratic practices (Oakes, 1992, p.18). We also discussed the political dimensions of change necessary to support detracking, which included building new relations among teachers within the school, as well as new relations between schools and parents to support detracking efforts.


My role was to be the link between the school and the university. I found and photocopied readings for the group (sometimes finding readings that teachers requested), and dealt with the logistics of the group (reimbursements, ordering food). I attended all meetings and took detailed minutes which I handed back to the participants after editing. At the end of our meetings, we always spent some time talking about next steps, and what we wanted to discuss at the next meeting. Thus, we jointly created the agenda. I facilitated most meetings by sending the tentative agenda to teachers before the meeting and making sure we had time allotted for each of our agenda items during the meeting.

The teacher participants gave me permission to conduct research on the inquiry group. I audiotaped all meetings and partially transcribed them in my fieldnotes. I also interviewed each of the six teachers twice during the course of the academic year to gain a deeper understanding of how teachers thought individually about ability, intelligence and tracking. Finally, I observed each teacher teach at least one class period during the academic year. My data sources for this article primarily constituted fieldnotes from our meetings and interviews.

Negotiating my role as a participant observer had its challenges. Before I first met the participants in September 1999, I had decided that since this project was built as a university-school collaborative project I wanted to participate in the discussions and not just observe. However, I had to consider the extent to which I should participate in discussions and express my opinion. I felt that I needed to monitor what I said because I was afraid that teachers might feel constrained to tell me how they felt if they knew what I thought. However, as a participant, I sometimes wanted to disagree with what people said. I found that this dilemma weighed less in my mind as I spent more time with the teachers, since I felt that they were comfortable enough with each other and with me to present opposing viewpoints. I took teachers varied definitions and opinions on tracking to indicate that I had succeeded in getting teachers to see me as another member of the group. I also believe that being the youngest member of the group and my experience as a former middle and high school teacher were factors in teachers viewing me as a participant and not an authority figure.


Since these teachers self-selected to participate in the study and all taught at one high school that was not chosen through a sampling process, the results of this study are not generalizable to other teachers. Instead, case studies allow researchers to build theory from the rich and complex patterns identified in the experiences of a case (Yin, 1989). The complexity in teachers definitions of tracking would most likely not have emerged without the depth of case study research that contributes to theory building.

This paper closely examines a particularly interesting group of teachers definitions of tracking. Why are these teachers at this particular school of interest? As described in more detail in the next section, Meredith High School is a distinctive setting, a college-preparatory school for inner-city students that has historically disavowed tracking and has attempted to enact a detracked curriculum. Our inquiry group offered a group of teachers a professional development experience around how to successfully offer students a detracked curriculum. Teacher participants, who are well-read on issues of ability, intelligence, and tracking through their participation in the teacher inquiry group, and who teach at a school that historically disavowed tracking, could be expected to have a definition of tracking consistent with other teachers, who are not interested in talking about tracking and who teach at a school that has not addressed tracking. Yet these teachers diverged in their definitions of tracking and specifically wrestled with the issue of student choice in course-taking. Differences in teachers definitions of tracking may be more pronounced in school settings that do not have a history of detracking and in which teachers do not self-select to participate in professional development about issues of ability, intelligence, and tracking. Thus, drawing from an analysis of one particularly interesting subset of teachers definitions of tracking, this case study research contributes a new way to approach teachers complex notions of tracking.


This section explores Meredith High Schools unique history as a high school that historically disavowed tracking as well as its demographics, requirements, and enrollment practices. These dimensions help situate how case study teachers describe their school as tracked or not tracked.

Meredith High Schools Unique History

Teachers in the inquiry group all taught at James Meredith High School, a public high school located in an economically depressed section of a city in California. District officials choose students by lottery from among those who apply. Preference is given to students who live in the area. The school was founded in 1994 and the mission statement of the school is to:

provide a high quality, college preparatory and academically rigorous program for inner city youths. One of our primary charges is to increase the academic achievement of historically underrepresented minorities in the fields of science and mathematics. Committed to equity, we will do everything we can to make top quality education accessible to all students regardless of their prior school experiences (school website, 1999).

While the mission statement does not explicitly state that the school is committed to detracking, several teachers in the teacher inquiry group separately stated in interviews that it was an unspoken philosophy of the founding teachers of the school. Samantha noted, When I came here [in the second year of the school], my understanding [of] the philosophy of the school was that there would be no tracking in any subject area and that all students would take the same things, that there would just be chemistry . . . physics and . . . English. Darren also noted that in the schools first year, when there was only a freshman class and only about fifteen teachers, I dont think it was part of the [official] philosophy of the school, like the tenets of the school, that it was going to be an untracked school, but I think that it was in the hearts of many of the people who worked here.

According to Samantha and Darren, vertical curriculum differentiation developed as the first cohort of students hit the 11th grade. Samantha noted that there was concern among faculty that not all students had the math skills to succeed in one level of science or math. Darren also stated that there was a call for honors classes for juniors and later Advanced Placement classes when some members of the school community became concerned with the competition students would face in university admissions. When the principal presented the decision to have different levels of classes in math at one faculty meeting using a euphemism for tracking, a student government representative [raised] her hand. . . and she said, But thats tracking! We dont track here! According to Samantha, I think the rest of us were thinking it, but the fact that a student called [the principal] on it [was significant]. Thus, Meredith High School was a school that historically disavowed tracking to the point that even students were aware of this unofficial philosophy.


Student demographics are important when considering how teachers talk about the diversity or lack of diversity in student enrollment within their classes. As I walked down the hall which echoed with boisterous voices during a passing period one day, the predominantly Asian, Black, and Latino student body moved around me in ethnically segregated groups down the stairs. During the 19992000 school year, the demographics at Meredith High School were as follows (see Table 2).





White, Non-Latino




























Table 2.Student demographics at Meredith High School

The student population at Meredith High School had a higher percentage of Black students and a fewer percentage of White students compared to the district. One of the reasons why Meredith High School had a lower percentage of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students (8.7%) compared to the district (21.7%) is that the district has a separate high school program for newly arrived immigrants/refugees. Meredith High School had a lower percentage of students who qualified for free/reduced lunch but a slightly higher percentage of students who qualified for special education services compared to the district.


Higher graduation requirements differentiate Meredith High School from other high schools in the district (see Table 3). Thus, teachers at Meredith High School face unique challenges in developing curricula, specifically in math and science, that address the needs of all students. In contrast, teachers at other schools that require fewer years of math and science do not have to address the needs of all students, since many students opt out or get pushed out of taking four years of math or science.


Total units

Years of Math

Years of Science

Years of Foreign Language

Meredith High










Table 3. Graduation requirements.

Currently, in the 9th and 10th grades, the school offers only one level of English, science, and history. Math is viewed as a sequence of courses where students progress from algebra to calculus; therefore, not all students at a particular grade level are enrolled in the same classes since their assignment is based on previous courses taken in middle school. In the 11th and 12th grades, the school offers various levels of courses including honors and AP classes. For example, the science department offers three levels of chemistry and physics to eleventh and twelfth grade students, namely conceptual, regular and AP.

Enrollment decisions are based on a combination of scheduling logistics, teacher recommendations, student and parent preference, previous academic performance based on grades and standardized test scores, pre-tests, previous courses taken, and the priorities of the staff involved in creating student schedules. In math, teachers require recommendations from teachers in their department for students to take a certain level math course beyond the 9th grade. In addition, all honors level classes in history and English require a teacher signature to enroll. In other subjects such as AP English and AP Chemistry, students can choose to take the AP level course if they complete a summer assignment and get teacher permission, and for AP Chemistry, if they pass the first class test.

With Meredith High Schools unique history, its demographics, requirements and enrollment practices in mind, we now turn to how teachers in the inquiry group characterized their school as a tracked or not tracked school.


In individual interviews before the teacher inquiry group began, I asked the teacher participants how they would respond to someone outside the field of education who asked them what tracking was. This question did not initially uncover the differences in teachers understandings of tracking as teachers generally defined tracking as the grouping of students by ability that affects future opportunities. The nuances in their definitions only became apparent during the second interviews, when I asked the teachers whether they would describe their school as a tracked school.

As Figure 1 illustrates, teachers disagreed on whether their school was tracked, even though they worked at the same school. Student choice in course-taking emerged as a central component in their disagreement. I focus in on three teachers, Jessica, Samantha and Roxie, whose conceptions of tracking, based on student choice in course-taking, represented the views of the other participants in the teacher inquiry group.

School is not tracked


School is partially tracked


School is tracked









Students have choice in course-taking (focus on access). Tracking means that students do not have choice in course-taking whereby educators assign students to classes without student input.


Students have choice in course-taking, but genuine choice is not often enacted in practice.


Students can not exercise genuine choices in course-taking. Student choice is not central to a definition of tracking; instead, the focus is on whether different levels of classes exist and whether class composition is heterogeneous (focus on outcome).

Figure 1. Continuum of teachers characterizations of their school as a detracked to tracked school.


Student choice in course-taking figured prominently in Jessicas discussion of tracking. Jessica defined official tracking or traditional tracking as a system in which students did not get to choose what courses they would take, and in which students were grouped by ability&so they could learn at the same pace together. In addition, in a tracked school, students were placed in a group and&pigeonholed there&that part of tracking I dont likewhere they hold the kid back. Jessica found the lack of student choice and the lack of mobility troubling in an officially tracked school.

Jessica believed that Meredith High School was not tracked because students had some say as to what classes they took, and mobility was possible through students selection of courses. She explained,

Here, if a kid wants to take an honors class, they let the kid take an honors class. They dont deny them because their test scores are low, or whatever. If they think the kid has a chance, unless of course they have all Ds and Fs&but if a kid really expresses a desire, theyll let them do that&That kind of structure, I think [is] good.

However, Jessica noted that math at Meredith High School was the one exception in that this subject area was tracked. Jessica believed that math was tracked at Meredith High School because it has to (be)&because you cant start algebra if you dont have a basic understanding of (math).6 She also identified how tracking existed at Meredith High School in the form of a support class like academic numeracy where some students had to take this class while other students took other electives. She explained, whether or not they have this extra support class is the tracking part since students do not have a choice. Nonetheless, despite tracking in math, Jessica maintained that Meredith High School was not a tracked school because students could exercise choice in other subject areas and because she believed that Meredith High School had no alternative but to track math.

Jessica acknowledged that lack of skills constrained students choices at Meredith High School. As Jessica stated,

I would assume if your reading scores are low, youre not going in [to a higher level class] but youre not going to choose to go in there either. The students whose skills are low, and whose grades are low arent going to voluntarily take a harder class.

In this quote, Jessica identified that students low reading scores or low skills may foreclose their range of academic choices. She further added,

Now, it may look like tracking, or the people who are saying, well how come this group of people are in this level class, and how come all these people are in the higher level class, howd that happen? but it was a personal choice. Maybe thats all that they expect in themselves, maybe thats what theyre used to their whole lives, maybe they dont know to speak up for themselves and take the harder class, maybe they want to be lazy. There are a lot of factors that go into why a student might choose a particular course to take as opposed to somebody else who would be a little more rigorous, whose parents are pushing them to [the University of California,] Berkeley since the day they were two, or whatever

Jessica clearly articulated that students skills, expectations, motivation, knowledge to request harder classes, teacher expectations, and a sequential theory of learning can preclude students from taking honors and AP classes. Nonetheless, Jessica placed responsibility on students if they did not exercise their right to choose in a school that she characterized as not tracked.


Like Jessica, Samantha believed that there were different degrees of tracking7 and that Meredith High School did not fall on the extreme side of tracking. However, Samantha believed that Meredith High School was tracked based on the homogeneity of her classes by race and ability, as well as by the number of levels of a course offered by the school. Samantha noted,

I think we are [a tracked school]. I don't think we are to the degree of say, for example, the school where I did my student teaching at, because freshmen and sophomores in English [at Meredith High] are in heterogeneous classes. But since [students at Meredith High] are in certain math classes, which is determined by their [standardized test] scores, their middle school math experience and the [pre-]test they take here [prior to the start of the school year], that determines which, how do I say this, a certain section of math meets at a certain time, which means that that student has English at another time, so the students that are in, for example, accelerated math class have to be in this particular family, 8 because they need math in this block, and it does tend to skew the structure of the families, and the ethnicities of the families. The family that Im teaching in, ethnically is different, very different from at least one other family in its population, so even though my class is heterogeneous in the sense that every tenth grader has the same English experience, whos sitting in your room is different.

Despite the fact that all freshmen and sophomores took the same level of science, English and history (only one level was offered), the heterogeneity of her tenth grade English class by race was largely influenced by scheduling logistics. In addition to math classes, Samantha later noted that language classes also tended to skew the heterogeneity of her classes. She stated, (i)f you look into a Spanish class, and a Chinese [language] class, theyre not [ethnically] heterogeneous, so&when French 1, Spanish 1, and Chinese 1 meet impacts [the heterogeneity of other classes].

In addition to basing the extent of tracking on the number of course levels offered and the heterogeneity in ethnic representation, Samantha also spoke of heterogeneity in terms of the skills that students brought with them to class. This was evident when she described detracking in an interview:

To me a detracked classroom at Meredith High School is a hypo-heterogeneous classroom. There are students at all different abilities and motivations in terms of my subject areareading, writing, communicating orally, even thinkingbut all of those students deserve access to the same kind of curriculum.

Furthermore, in contrast to Jessica, Samantha rejected the idea that students could exercise true choice. Even though students had some choice in their course-taking, Samantha believed that this choice was artificial. She noted during one of our meetings,

I guess the other thing is that, even though you can choose what you want to take, how much choice do you really have if your math skills are at a certain place? And if theyre at that certain place because youve been in a certain math track, for twelve years, [then] do you have the skills in order to succeed, in the course that you might want to take?

Thus, for Samantha, the extent to which a school was tracked was based on the number of levels of a particular course offered and the heterogeneity of the classes by race and skill.


Roxies understanding of tracking fell in the middle of the Jessica Samantha continuum and combined elements of both of their discourses. Like Jessica and Samantha, Roxie differentiated between varying degrees of tracking. According to Roxie, in a system that was all the way tracked, someone other than the student, an external school actor, predetermined the whole path youre on. There was no flexibility in course-taking, and as a result of what was taught and the way in which the subject was taught, students had different learning outcomes. Roxies description of all the way tracked mirrored Jessicas definition of official or traditional tracking.

In contrast, she described Meredith High School as sort of tracked. Meredith High was sort of tracked because students learned different content in various levels of chemistry. In addition, Roxie did not see much upward mobility in science course-taking, where students moved from a lower level to a higher level science class during their academic careers. In addition, Roxie was concerned with the student composition within the varying levels of science classes. She observed that her AP Chemistry class did not look like her conceptual chemistry class, which was the lowest of three levels of chemistry. Roxies AP Chemistry class, for example, was all Asian, and only four out of the twenty-two students in the class were female. She had one Black female student who dropped the class after she did not do well in the first quarter. Roxie explained in her interview, AP and honors classes, they dont reflect the student body population. However, Roxie said that students at Meredith High had choice as to what classes they took, and thus, Meredith High was not a school that was all the way tracked.

Students at Meredith choose courses in science after taking a math test in the tenth grade and speaking with science teachers or school counselors for recommended levels. Students could also look on the back of their math tests to see what courses science teachers generally recommended based on their math test scores. No one tells them you have to take conceptual, you have to take regular, you have to take AP. You give them a math test, and talk to them and advise them. [But ultimately, students] have say, Roxie explained.

Despite her emphasis on the choices students had, Roxie spoke of the de facto tracking that resulted at Meredith High School. She noted,

All kids have flexibility over which classes they can take and kids go back and forth between levels, all the time, but the reality is that we still get back to de facto tracking especially in science classes. AP Chemistry does not look like conceptual chemistry at all. Not at all. And why is that? Kids are deciding, but theyre still deciding based on tracking lines. They will decide that for themselves based on their self-identity.

Aspects of students identities, whether they be student perceptions of their ability levels or students sense of belonging or the complex interplay of both, maintain the status quo.

In addition to student self-identity, Roxie identified other factors that limit student choice in course selection such as the teacher-student relationship. At one meeting, Roxie described how she and another science teacher saw students with high math scores sign up for conceptual physics. Roxie and the other teacher strongly encouraged these students to take regular physics, and thus the students decided to try regular physics. However, these students were not confident of their abilities, and they also grew to dislike the teacher who taught regular physics. The students soon demanded, Get me out! and transferred down to conceptual physics. Thus, in this example, rapport between teacher and student constrained the choices students felt they could exercise.

Other factors limited student choices to select AP courses. When I first met Roxie and asked her how students enrolled in AP Chemistry, she explained that anyone could sign up, but that there were cut-offs that determined who would stay in the course. First, students had to do summer work out of a book. Secondly, students had to pass the first test. If they did not pass, youre out because it gets harder and harder. However, occasionally she gave second chances to students who really wanted to stay in AP Chemistry. The final cut-off, however, was that if the student did not have a C by the first six weeks, they were gone. In explaining the process of selecting and sustaining membership in the AP class, Roxie identified several factors that constrain student wishes to be in an AP course. First, students had to demonstrate effort by completing summer work. Secondly, the actual difficulty of the material conveyed by performance on the first test as well as their grades at the six week period limited their continued membership in the class. Third, students had to be skilled at navigating interpersonal relationships and conveying desire to the teacher that they really wanted to stay in AP Chemistry. Finally, the stakes for students were high since it would presumably be difficult to make a smooth transition to a new class at the end of the first six weeks. No student who was not already thinking about him or herself as AP material was likely to take this risk. While Roxie exposed the illusion of choice by identifying constraints on student decision-making, student choice in course-taking influenced her characterization of Meredith High School as not all the way tracked.


Two major strands frame the analysis of case studies described above. First, as the three case studies illustrate, the definition of tracking has become muddled for practitioners participating in this inquiry group, paralleling the shifts in the scope and complexity of tracking in the research community. Secondly, while teacher participants clearly articulated and exposed the constraints on student choice in course-taking, these teachers frequently called on choice as a rationale for why tracking no longer existed and why students held ultimate responsibility.


A key finding of this research is that the definition of tracking has become muddled since the unremarked revolution, when the nature of the grouping changed from overarching program to subject area (Lucas, 1999, p.7). Before the 1960s and 1970s, tracking took the form of placing students into separate, overarching programs designed to prepare them for various careers or postsecondary education. Cicourel and Kitsuse (1963) and Schafer et al. (1972) described such programs, where high school personnel separated high school students into the non-college or college track.

In the 1960s and 1970s, however, these programs began to be dismantled because of concerns for equity in education brought up by the civil rights movement, the challenge to the idea of intelligence as unitary, and a court case in 1967 which abolished this type of tracking in Washington, D.C. (Moore & Davenport in Lucas, 1999, p.6). Lucas termed this period the unremarked revolution, since tracking began to take a different form. It is unremarked because this change was not recorded in the historical literature. By 1980, few schools assigned students to overarching programs (Lucas, p. 7). After the unremarked revolution and continuing to the present, overarching tracking programs have been replaced by [tracking in the form of] course levels, with students typically being assigned to advanced, honors, regular, or basic courses (Hallinan, 1994, p.79). Thus, the unremarked revolution describes a change in the nature of grouping practices, whether through an overarching program or by subject.

Roxies description of all the way tracking, where an external actor predetermine(s) the whole path you are on most closely mirrors tracking by overarching program before the unremarked revolution (Lucas, 1999). Elements of Samanthas description of tracking reflect tracking described in the academic literature after the unremarked revolution, when students enrolled in different levels of classes by subject (Lucas, 1999). Samantha describes how freshmen and sophomores&are in heterogeneous classes for English, but may be enrolled in different levels of math classes.

In addition to differences in the nature of the grouping practices that emerged from teachers varying definitions of tracking, student choice in course-taking figured prominently in Jessica and Roxies characterization of their school as a detracked or sort of tracked school. Lauren, Zita, and Darren, three other members of the inquiry group, also invoked student choice in course-taking as a key feature in determining the extent to which a school was tracked or not. Lauren, like Jessica, also believed that Meredith High School was not a tracked school because students ha(d) the choice to select their classes. Zita, like Samantha, believed that Meredith was indeed a tracked school because there were different levels of classes and because, like Roxie, she believed that students selected courses based on their self-identity; however, Zita also believed that the gradation of tracking was based on student choice in course-taking, like Jessica and Roxie. Finally, Darren, like Samantha, believed that Meredith was a tracked school. On the other hand, for Darren, restrictions on access and student choice through required teacher recommendations and the inaccessibility of teachers teaching styles, determined the extent to which a school was tracked.

That student choice in course-taking was such a prominent part of the definition of tracking among five out of six teachers is interesting especially since this element of tracking is not emphasized in academic definitions of tracking. A closer look at the definitions of Oakes and Lucas demonstrates not only the nuances within academic definitions but also how choice does not figure prominently in academic definitions of tracking, even though academic researchers address how choice may or may not be embedded in the tracking process. Oakes defines tracking as the sorting of students into groups based on perceived ability that has the following characteristics:

First, students are identified in a rather public way as to their intellectual capabilities and accomplishments and separated into a hierarchical system of groups for instruction. Second, these groups are labeled quite openly and characterized in the minds of teachers and others as being of a certain type high ability, low achieving, slow, average, and so on. Clearly these groups are not equally valued in the school. . . Third, individual students in these groups come to be defined by others both adults and their peers in terms of these group types. . . Fourth, on the basis of these sorting decisions, the groupings of students that result, and the way educators see the students in these groups, teenagers are treated by and experience schools very differently (1985, p.3).

Oakes (1985) notes that regardless of the manner in which the sorting process is conducted, whether that is based on students achievement or IQ tests, teachers expectations, or student choice, the end result is tracking if the predictable characteristics apply. She specifically notes that students rarely in any genuine sense exercise choice to be in vocational, general, or academic programs (1985, p.3).

Therefore, even when students choose to enroll in an AP or honors class, the school is tracked, because students are still sorted into different groups, the school values these groups differently, and the educational experiences of students in these groups are markedly different. Other scholars definitions of tracking also mirror Oakes definition (Hallinan, 1994; Yonezawa et al., 2002). The emphasis Roxie places on students different learning outcomes as a result of what is taught and the way in which the subject is taught in her definition of tracking coincides with Oakes fourth predictable characteristic.

In contrast to Oakes (1985), Lucas (1999) calls attention to the scope of the grouping practice to define tracking. Lucas finds it important to differentiate between the terms tracking and curriculum differentiation. Curriculum differentiation concerns the division of students into groups for instruction (Lucas, p. 146). Though Samantha defines the existence of tracking based on the number of levels of a course offered by the school, Lucas would define this characteristic as curriculum differentiation and not tracking. According to Lucas, tracking concerns the extent to which the group assignment in one differentiated curriculum is associated with the group assignment in another differentiated curriculum. Tracking, then, concerns whether the students who take algebra are placed in the same English class, and whether the students who take arithmetic are placed together in a different English class (p. 146). Therefore, even if there are different levels of classes (curriculum differentiation), the school may not be tracked. While Oakes and Lucas definitions of the term differ, the salient point to note here is that student choice in course-taking does not play a definitive role in either scholars characterizations of tracking as it does for the majority of teachers in the inquiry group. The teachers emphasis on student choice in course-taking as a marker of tracking helps researchers understand the changing nature of the tracking and detracking debate as it is understood by practitioners.

Other nuances captured in the definitions of tracking by Roxie and Samantha that differ from these academic researchers definitions of tracking involve the heterogeneity in racial/ethnic representation and skills students bring with them to class. Samantha describes a detracked classroom as a hypo-heterogeneous classroom, where students of all different abilities and motivations and ethnic backgrounds learn together. Roxie describes the homogeneity in student background in various levels of science classes, for example, with Asian students overrepresented in her AP Chemistry class, as indicative of de facto tracking. Thus, heterogeneity in student racial/ethnic backgrounds and skill level come to signal detracking for teachers like Samantha and Roxie while these characteristics do not appear as central to definitions of tracking for academic researchers such as Oakes and Lucas.

In sum, across academic researchers and teachers definitions, the all-encompassing term tracking masks the nuances in the point of contention or agreement. The scope and complexity of tracking has changed, making it far more difficult for researchers and practitioners to define what tracking is. Lucas (1999) emphasizes that when these terms are not defined, the terms of the debate allow well-meaning persons to talk past one another as occurred in our teacher inquiry group (Lucas, p.146).


This section explores the seemingly contradictory nature of how teachers inquiry group members placed responsibility on students for their course-taking even though they clearly articulated the many constraints that preclude students from enrolling in and successfully completing higher levels of courses. According to these teachers, perceived level of student preparation and skills to pursue advanced coursework, from the perspectives of both teachers and students, determine whether students enroll in higher level courses. Whether students stay in the higher level courses is dependent on a match between teachers teaching and students learning styles as well as passing further gatekeeping cut-offs based on student performance in the higher level class.

Perceived level of preparation and skills.

Jessica, Samantha, and Roxie noted that teachers, school administrators, and students view grades, prior coursework, standardized state test, or school pre-test scores as indicators of students level of preparation and skills. Teachers and school counselors often rely on these measures to encourage or deny students choices for courses. For example, Jessica noted that teachers can refuse students placement in an honors class if they have all Ds and Fs. Samantha spoke of how teachers consider students prior coursework, particularly students middle school math experience, to assess students preparation and skills. Roxie further mentioned that science teachers and counselors recommend certain levels of science courses based on students performance on math pre-tests. Whether teachers and school counselors believe the kid has a chance, as Jessica explained, influences the recommendations they make to students for course selection. Yonezawa et al. (2002) describe the constraints on student choice in course-taking that focal teachers in this study highlighted as examples of institutional barriers. In their study of six racially mixed high schools undergoing detracking reform, students were confronted with hidden prerequisites, such as prior coursework and screening tests, when they tried to exercise their choice in course-taking. In addition, teachers responded selectively to students requests for higher placements, where teachers were willing to make more accommodations as far as course offerings and higher track placements to White, Asian, and&upper-income, high-track, high-achievement students than to low-track and low-achievement students, many of whom were from low socioeconomic, and Black and Latino backgrounds (Yonezawa et al., p. 48).

Students also made decisions about whether to pursue a higher level class, as Roxie explained, based on their self-identity. Jessica had noted that students whose reading scores are low&whose skills are low, and whose grades are low arent going to voluntarily take a harder class because thats all that they expect in themselves, maybe thats what theyre used to their whole lives. Teachers discourse about how students are deciding to take courses based on their self-identity mirrors a finding that Cone articulates. Cone (1992) calls attention to the need to consider students own conceptions of their fit with and likely success in advanced courses. In Cones experience as a high school English teacher, she finds that many students choose courses on the basis of long-standing identity issues. For example, Cone describes a student who initially does not believe she belongs in an AP class and is hesitant about her decision to take an advanced level class. Nurtured by Cones teaching practices, the student gains a voice and gradually transforms into a more confident student in her AP English class. The nuances of students choosing levels of courses on the basis of their self-identity are examined in more depth by Yonezawa et al. (2002), who describe the leveled aspirations of students who have been in low track classes as well as these students desire to be in classrooms where their peers and teachers respect them (p. 50).

In addition, Jessica and Roxie speak of the interpersonal skills that students must exercise in order to communicate their desire to enroll in or stay in higher level courses to their teachers or school counselors. Jessica mentions that some students dont know how to speak up for themselves and take the harder class and/or in many cases, students do not have parents who are pushing them to [the University of California,]Berkeley since the day they were two and who speak up for their children. Yonezawa et al. (2002) document how information about implications of student choice in course-taking as well as information about how to enroll in advanced courses is uneven and advantages students with cultural capital. Lucas (1999) further elaborates that because students and their families in part make choices after the unremarked revolution, middle class students, who are better armed with information about college and the implications of course-taking, will have advantages that other students lack. Perceived level of preparation and skills, both from the perspective of teachers/counselors and students, as well as knowledge of how to communicate a desire to enroll in and stay in advanced courses, are factors that constrain student choice in course-taking, making true student choice in course-taking illusory.

Match between teaching and learning styles.

Even when the student enrolls in an advanced level class, further barriers can continue to constrain students choice in course-taking. Roxie described students who begged to be moved to a less advanced class because they were not confident of their abilities, and because they disliked the teacher. This story speaks to the importance of a strong rapport between teachers and students. Darren explicated how some teachers make it very difficult for kids who dont learn in a particular way to learn in those classes. The inaccessibility of their teaching style serves as another barrier for students to choose and succeed in higher level classes. Moreover, students may have to complete prerequisites to stay in a course, as Roxie described, such as summer work, passing the first test, and earning a grade of C in the first six weeks of school. Teachers expectations and their approach to teaching, specifically whether they believe in offering accessible entrypoints to students with varying skill levels, as well as prerequisites while enrolled in the course serve as additional constraints to students completing the advanced course.

Teachers still place responsibility on the student for their choices.

Teachers in the inquiry group clearly understood the limits on student choice in course-taking, as evidenced in their talk about constraints on student choice. Nonetheless, the majority of teachers in the group continued to rely on student choice in course-taking as a marker of whether their school was tracked or not, a characterization which still places responsibility on students for exercising or not exercising their choice.

Data limitations do not permit a nuanced analysis of why this might be. However, one might speculate that on one level, students at Meredith High School did have more choice in their course-taking options than students before the unremarked revolution, despite the fact that these choices may be artificial and still lead to defacto tracking. In addition, one reason teachers may be less concerned about the persistence of constraints is that Meredith High School is a school that emphasizes higher academic standards than other high schools in the district. Even students who face constraints in enrolling in higher level math and science classes at the eleventh and twelfth grades are still getting a more rigorous education compared to other students in the district who have fewer graduation requirements.

Moreover, contradictory themes within an understanding of an event or process are not unusual. For example, American schooling is an arena which reproduces the social relationships necessary to perpetuate the existing social class structure in capitalist society (Bowles & Gintis, 1976) and which simultaneously serves to equalize (e.g., desegregation, Title I). Thus, schools can simultaneously act to perpetuate social inequality and promote democratic ideals of equal opportunity. Similarly, one could suggest that the constraints on student choice in course-taking at Meredith High School keep students in their places for the sake of efficiency while offering some students the means to pursue individual social mobility (Labaree, 1997). Teachers could be describing these dual, conflicting processes that they see enacted at Meredith High School.

With all of the demands placed on teachers work lives, teachers might also find it easier to negotiate this contradiction by placing more responsibility on students than to acknowledge the schools complicity in limiting student opportunities through constraints on student choice. This placement of responsibility on students and their families makes it appear that teachers and the school system are less at fault for academic consequences since student choice is involved in course-taking decisions. If teachers adopted Oakes (1985) definition of tracking as the sorting of students with certain predictable characteristics (p. 3) regardless of the process by which students were placed into different levels of classes, Meredith High School would still be considered a tracked school, the implications of which would be enormously troublesome to those who believe schools should work towards the principle of democratic equality (Labaree, 1997).

The teachers emphasis on student choice in their dialogue about whether their school is tracked or not reflects the ways in which current educational policy frames issues of equity and access with the themes of accountability and choice. For example, school choice advocates would like parents to be able to exercise choice as to where their children go to school. This change in school assignment practices shifts some of the responsibility for students educational achievement from schools to parents. Research indicates that less-educated parents from low-income backgrounds are less likely to exercise choice compared to their more well-educated, higher-income counterparts in areas where school choice is available (Fuller, Burr, Huerta, Puryear, & Wexler, 1999; Martinez, Godwin, & Kemerer, 1996). When their children perform poorly in their default schools, parents are held accountable for not transferring their children from a low-performing school to a higher performing school. The schooling system is absolved of full responsibility, as the blame shifts to the parents.

It is ironic that the early research on tracking framed the issues more around problems with the system of tracking, inequitable sorting processes, educational experiences and educational outcomes, as opposed to the current context, which places more of the blame for the problem of tracking on students and their families. As the nature of tracking has changed over time and the policy context has shifted to emphasize choice and accountability, choice in course-taking, even if the choice is illusory, appears more acceptable than difficult discussions about structural inequality and institutional racism, well documented in earlier research on tracking.


The variation in teacher inquiry group members conceptions of tracking has important implications for the pursuit of detracking reform. The following section discusses four major implications from this research for the practitioner and research communities.


As discussed in this paper, members of the inquiry group discussed issues of ability, intelligence and tracking for seven months under the mistaken assumption that we all defined tracking similarly. It was only when we specifically addressed whether Meredith High School was a tracked school or not that we uncovered the nuances in our definitions. Detracking reformers can not assume that their definitions of tracking are the same as teachers definitions. Teacher educators or detracking reformers might consider asking teachers, Is your school a tracked school? If yes, in what ways? If not, why not? to uncover differing notions of tracking before further discussion of tracking.

For researchers, the variability in teachers conceptions of tracking and changes in the nature of tracking since the unremarked revolution reflect a need to define what researchers mean when they use the term tracking in their work. Even among current researchers, as was illustrated with Oakes and Lucas, there were differences in definitions of tracking. Teachers flexible use of the term tracking to connote various phenomena may reflect the ambiguity in academics use of the term as well.


The centrality of choice in teachers definitions of tracking makes the unequal instructional opportunities available to students across tracks, well-documented in the academic literature, seem acceptable and could hamper efforts to make student choice in course-taking genuine. Teachers should be encouraged to thoroughly examine whether students can make real choices in course selection if teachers invoke student choice in course-taking to describe the extent to which their school is tracked. Detracking advocates may now in fact have a harder time untangling the hidden nature of tracking to school actors on the ground after the demise of formal, overarching tracking programs (Lucas, 1999). In our inquiry group, teachers discussed how student choice in course-taking did not easily translate into heterogeneous classes. Students level of preparation and skills to pursue advanced coursework, a mismatch between teaching and learning styles and scheduling all served as constraints to student choice in course-taking.

The practice of examining constraints on student choice in course-taking can help teachers identify the dimensions of tracking that are troubling to them. For example, teachers in our inquiry group thoughtfully considered how teaching style could constrain students from choosing and succeeding in higher level courses. During one of our meetings, all of the teachers shared their thoughts about strategies they could use in their classrooms to make their teaching more accessible to all students, in particular, how to move low status students (defined in multiple ways by teachers) to a higher status. While this discussion was in large part triggered by an article we read by Lotan (1997) on complex instruction, our discussion mirrored what Darren found to be a troubling dimension of tracking in his talk about Meredith High as a tracked school, namely, that some teachers limited access to their curricula by making their teaching inaccessible to all students. A more nuanced understanding of the complexity of tracking, including constraints on student choice in course-taking, led many of the teacher participants to think about how to provide more entry points to their curricula for all students.

For researchers, the significance of a more nuanced understanding of student choice in course-taking for teaching practice and student learning outcomes is an area that requires additional research. While data limitations do not permit a refined analysis, I was intrigued by a possible connection between teachers articulation of constraints on student choice in course-taking and the degree to which they tried to change their classroom practice to provide accessible entry points to challenging curricula, based on observations of teachers classes and their descriptions of their classroom practice.


Examining literature on characteristics of professional communities in the year after the project ended revealed a weakness of our teacher inquiry group, which I raise here so that other practitioners may avoid similar pitfalls. Our inquiry group had not addressed group norms, specifically around conflict and collective responsibility over individual participants learning. This was one of the reasons why teacher inquiry group members did not come to consensus on the definition of tracking during the meeting highlighted at the beginning of the article.

Inquiry group members built on each others ideas and challenged each other by presenting opposing viewpoints. We therefore moved beyond the poker model of discussion, whereby participants throw ideas, much like poker chips, into the center where they lie inert, untouched by discussion (Grossman, Wineberg, & Woolforth, 2001, p. 983). However, we did not achieve a mature communal responsibility for individual growth, whereby there was a collective commitment to colleagues growth (Grossman et al., p. 988). While not entirely avoiding conflict, our group did not embrace conflict by push(ing) hard, and confront(ing) one another (Achinstein, 2002, p. 436). For example, we did not press each other to articulate our individual definitions of tracking that would have uncovered disagreements. As Grossman et al. (2001) articulate, silence goes unquestioned because the rules of interaction militate against direct interrogation or unexpected exchanges, such as publicly turning to the person next to you and asking, what is your position on that last point? (p. 956).

Another reason that our group did not come to a consensus on a definition of tracking had to do with the groups open-ended focus. As stated previously, our threefold purpose was to reflect on issues of ability, intelligence and tracking, to alleviate the sense of isolation teachers felt, and to improve our practice to better meet the needs of the schools diverse student body. Within this broad area of inquiry, conversation moved fluidly. Though there were at times attempts to focus on an essential question, such as on the definition of tracking, we had established an unexamined norm of allowing for members to shift the course of discussion, which is what occurred during the meeting highlighted at the beginning of the article.

Reading literature on professional community would have encouraged us to scrutinize our group dynamics and perhaps would have influenced our group to develop a mature professional community that embraced conflict and exhibited a collective commitment to colleagues growth more quickly (Grossman et al., 2001, p. 988). In addition, this literature might have prompted members to be more explicit about goals for particular meetings. As such, practitioners should consider including literature on professional community to spark discussion on group norms in teacher professional development.


(B)eing in the group, and studying those things that weve read, has definitely made me pause and really think about how my judgments of students abilities affect the students performance, how much my opinion of kids performance really impacts their performance and their ability to perform.

Lauren, who taught ninth grade science classes, expressed a common sentiment among teacher inquiry group members on the value of unpacking deeply rooted notions of ability and intelligence. Roxies commitment to detracking grew stronger as she thought about ways to actualize her dreams to provide all students, and particularly girls and minority students, with greater access and more support in the sciences, to open up science for all instead of just science for the elite. She told our inquiry group that [her] dream [was] to merge [conceptual and regular chemistry] back together. She gradually realized as she experimented with her curricula that each year I can get my [conceptual chemistry] kids further up along doing regular stuff. This year, I had conceptual chemistry kids, a few, for extra credit, doing the basic stoichiometry questions from the regular chemistry book. So if you can do that, then what cant you do? As science department chair two years after our group met, she reduced the number of levels in chemistry from three to two by combining the conceptual chemistry and regular chemistry classes to offer regular chemistry and AP Chemistry during the 2002-2003 year. 9 The regular chemistry class incorporated the approaches used in conceptual chemistry to ensure that all students had access to the curriculum.

While Lauren and Roxies experience suggests that teacher inquiry groups about issues of ability, intelligence and tracking hold promise for some teachers to reflect on their expectations of students and instructional practices, teachers in the inquiry group identified many constraints on their participation in the group. One of the biggest problems was lack of time. Teachers continually remarked about how unusual and important it was for teachers across subjects to discuss educational issues such as ability, intelligence and tracking and how they only wished this type of a forum was a regular part of their work lives, not something they participated in on their own time. Samantha noted that:

Even though theres a stipend, money doesnt buy time, and what a group like this needs to reach its potential and I think this has been Darrens frustration [too], is time. I have a friend who taught in Santa Monica for a year, and [teachers there] were in groups like [ours], but&it was built into the day&every Wednesday or every other Wednesday that they met&[a time when you] read and [did] research. Thats what needs to happen, so its been frustrating to find nonexistent time in the day to do the reading you want to do and the writing that you want to do, and the thinking you want to do.

Our experience underscores a need for structural support to cultivate these types of discussions. Reformulating school schedules so that teacher professional development meetings are scheduled into the work day is one way in which policymakers, school reform advocates and school administrators can provide structural support for teachers participating in professional development. For example, at Central Park East Secondary School, teachers meet during the school day while students engage in community service or work internships off campus (Meier, 1995). Teacher participants recommendation is in line with previous research that suggests that inquiry groups appear to be most sustainable and productive if granted opportunities to meet within the school day rather than after school on teachers personal time (Curry, 2003, p. 289). Creating new structures for professional development within teachers workday may increase the potential for its success.


The momentum of the detracking movement appears to be waning in the wake of debate and implementation of current accountability reform efforts. As Lauren stated during an interview, tracking is seen as something somewhat passé, not something that is seen anymore in schools today because students have choice. Though teachers in our inquiry group, which focused on issues of ability, intelligence and tracking, clearly articulated the many constraints on student choice in course-taking, choice served as a marker for many of these teachers understandings of what constituted tracking. The disagreement in teachers characterization of their school as a tracked or detracked school, discussed in this research, helps inform researchers, school reformers and practitioners of the changing nature of the tracking debate. As the scope and complexity of tracking has changed over time and the policy context has shifted to emphasize choice and accountability, it has become more difficult to identify the structural inequity and institutional racism associated with tracked classes now hidden beneath the illusion of choice.

In addition to examining deeply rooted notions of ability and intelligence (Oakes et al., 1997), this research underscores the importance of teachers closely examining their definitions of tracking and their conceptions of how placement occurs. In particular, detracking reformers need to create professional development opportunities for teachers to unpack student choice in course-taking before todays tracking practices can truly be challenged.

Special thanks to Judith Warren Little, Samuel R. Lucas, Beth Rubin, Kim Bancroft, Marnie Curry, members of the teacher inquiry group, Amy Stuart Wells and two anonymous reviewers for their detailed feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.


1 All names are pseudonyms to protect the confidentiality of the people involved.

2 The UCOP grant supported stipends for participants and money for food, books and supplies.

3 Meredith High Schools student population, with a total of 1077 students, fell at the median of high school enrollment in the district, excluding two continuation high schools and the high school for new immigrants/refugees. High schools in the district ranged in size from 330 to 2543 students (district enrollment figures).

4 Teachers self-reported their background information. 60% of teachers at Meredith High School were White, similar to the district teacher population (58.1%) during the 1999 2000 school year. Meredith High School had a higher percentage of Black (18%) and Latino (12%) teachers, but fewer Asian teachers (8.7%) compared to the district as a whole (8.8% Black, 8.9% Latino, 18.7% Asian).

5 Throughout the year, we read chapters from Caine and Caine (1990); chapters from Cohen (1994); Cone (1990; 1992); Davidson (1996); chapters from Fischer, Hout, Jankowski, Lucas, Swidler and Voss (1996); Heath (1982); chapters from Herrnstein and Murray (1994); Hull, Rose, Fraser and Castellano (1991); Krechevsky, Hoerr, and Gardner (1995); Lotan (1997); a chapter from Lucas (1999); chapters from Oakes and Lipton (1999); Oakes, Wells, Jones and Datnow (1997); Pinkerton (1994); and Rosenbaum (1999).

6 Reform curricula such as IMP (Integrated Math Program) integrate the traditional math subject areas by using a problem-based approach. While it is becoming more common to have integrated math classes such as the IMP curricula, schools in the U.S. tend to teach math as isolated classes, namely, geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus. In contrast, European countries and Japan have "integrated" courses where they combine the traditional math subject areas such as algebra and geometry in one class (National Research Council, 1999).

7 I use the term degrees of tracking to refer to the extent to which teachers perceived the existence of tracking. Samantha stated that Meredith High School was tracked, but not to the degree of her student teaching placement. In addition, Zita suggested that there was a gradation of tracking.

8 Students are grouped into one of three families at the ninth and tenth grade levels. Students in one family have a core team of English, history, math and science teachers, who meet periodically to discuss students progress across subjects.

9 Detracking chemistry at Meredith High School took place in two stages. Initially there were four different types of chemistry (conceptual, regular, honors and AP). During the 1999 2000 school year, honors chemistry was removed from the list of course offerings, leaving three levels of chemistry instruction. During the 2002-2003 school year, Meredith High School offered two levels of chemistry, regular and AP.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 109 Number 9, 2007, p. 2136-2170
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14488, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 1:23:01 AM

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About the Author
  • Maika Watanabe
    San Francisco State University
    E-mail Author
    MAIKA WATANABE is Assistant Professor in the Department of Secondary Education at San Francisco State University. Broadly speaking, her teaching and research interests focus on the sociology of education, urban school reform with a focus on equity, and educational policy. Two forthcoming publications include: “Displaced Teacher and State Priorities in a High-Stakes Accountability Context,” in Educational Policy, and “Tracking in the era of high-stakes state accountability reform: Case studies of classroom instruction in North Carolina,” in Teachers College Record.
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