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Neotracking in North Carolina: How High School Courses of Study Reproduce Race and Class-Based Stratification


by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson & Bobbie J. Everett - 2008

Background/Context: This article describes neotracking, a new form of tracking in North Carolina that is the outgrowth of the state’s reformed curricular standards, the High School Courses of Study Framework (COS). Neotracking combines older versions of rigid, comprehensive tracking with the newer, more flexible within-subject area curricular differentiation to form an overarching, multilevel framework for high school curricula.

The Course of Study Framework requires 8th graders to select one of three Courses of Study prior to entering high school: Career Preparation, College/Tech Preparation, or College/University Preparation. Exceptional children are enrolled in Occupations, a fourth COS. The COS reform was instituted, in part, to facilitate reaching North Carolina’s twin goals of equity and excellence for all students.

Purpose: The purposes of this article are to investigate if neotracking facilitates or hinders reaching these goals; if there is a relationship between district and school demographics, students’ racial backgrounds and their COS assignments; and if between- and within-school variations in COS placements result in greater or less race and social class stratification in opportunities to learn.

Research Design: Using aggregate data on COS enrollments among Class of 2005 high school seniors in the entire state of North Carolina and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), we evaluate COS enrollment patterns by student, school, and school system characteristics.

Findings: Results indicate that although a majority of students across North Carolina enroll in the College/University Prep COS, the variations in enrollment reflect the race, ethnic, and social class stratification in North Carolina. Students in affluent NC school districts are significantly more likely to enroll in the top COS than those living in less affluent school districts. COS enrollments vary by students’ race and ethnicity, too. Likewise, COS enrollments are related to the racial composition of a high school’s student body.

Conclusions: Neotracking tends to reproduce race and social class stratification of opportunities to learn, resulting in the worst of both worlds: the majority of North Carolina’s high school graduates are prepared neither for higher education nor for the workplace—one of the very problems that the accountability movement and the NC Course of Study program was intended to address.



The practice of tracking—whether elementary school ability grouping or within subject-area curricular differentiation among secondary school courses—continues to be one of the most common sources of race and class stratification of opportunities to learn in American schools. Despite the many changes in the practice and scope of tracking during the past several decades (Lucas, 1999; Oakes, 2005; Welner 2001), tracking still presents serious challenges to educators, parents, and policy makers who strive to meet the legal, educational, and moral imperatives to provide an equitable and high quality education to all students.


This article describes neotracking, a new form of tracking in North Carolina that is the outgrowth of the state’s reformed curricular standards, the High School Courses of Study Framework. Neotracking is different from previously described forms of secondary school tracking. It combines older versions of rigid, comprehensive tracking with the newer more flexible within-subject area curricular differentiation to form an overarching, multilevel framework for high school curricula.


The primary reform that underlies neotracking is North Carolina Course of Study Framework that was implemented in 2001. The Courses of Study curricular reform was enacted within the context of the state’s standards and accountability plan, the New ABCs of Public Education framework (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction [NCDPI], 2004a). Pressures from employers to improve the work readiness and skills of entry-level workers also shaped the policy environment in which the COS Framework was written. The COS framework requires 8th graders to choose a Career Prep, College Tech Prep, or College/University Prep Course of Study for high school.1 Neotracking was born when Courses of Study began to operate in conjunction with the pervasive within-subject area curricular differentiation that typically stratifies North Carolina secondary academic courses into Regular, Advanced, Honors, Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate levels. Together, the dual aspects of neotracking created a layered and highly structured curricular and instructional framework for secondary students.


In this article, we present findings from our investigation of Courses of Study enrollment patterns among 2004–2005 high school seniors in the State of North Carolina and in its largest school system, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.2 Using statewide, district-level, and school-level data, we evaluated COS enrollment patterns in relationship to the state of North Carolina’s mandate to provide all students with an equitable, high quality education consistent with the ABC’s of Public Education Framework and the sound basic education the North Carolina Constitution guarantees them (Leandro 1997, 2004).3  Because previous tracking research indicates that merit alone does not explain a student’s track placement, we examined if students’ race and socioeconomic status, as well as the structural features of their schools and districts are related to their COS placements. Finally, we explored whether a student’s racial and social class background mediates any relationships between COS enrollments and school characteristics.


Our findings suggest that the Courses of Study reform does not operate as North Carolina educational decision makers envisioned it would. Instead, we discovered neotracking —the COS framework operating in tandem with the widespread practice of within subject-area tracking—represents a multilayered tracking framework that stratifies educational opportunities by race and social class. Whereas the old and new forms of tracking each in their own way resulted in social class and racial stratification of opportunities to learn, the nesting of within-subject area curricular differentiation within an overarching Courses of Study framework forms a deeper, more complicated institutional structure of educational inequality. As a direct result of neotracking, most North Carolina secondary students receive neither an excellent nor an equitable education.


Prior to presenting our study’s methods and findings, we offer a brief background on the social, legal, and educational forces that contextualize North Carolina’s Course of Study reform, the backbone of neotracking.


BACKGROUND


STANDARDS AND HIGH STAKES ACCOUNTABILITY IN NORTH CAROLINA


Like many other states across the nation, North Carolina struggles to improve the quality of education provided to citizens—the excellence goal—while closing racial and social class gaps in educational outcomes—the equity goal. The state’s pioneering responses to the twin goals have been the reform of its curricular standards and high stakes accountability framework. Under the leadership of then-Governor Jim Hunt, North Carolina became one of the first states to implement a high stakes accountability system for public education. The centerpiece of North Carolina’s efforts was the 1996 school-based management and accountability program known as the New ABCs of Public Education framework (NCDPI, 2004a). Many of No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB 2002) standards-based reforms are foreshadowed in North Carolina’s reforms.


The ABC framework established growth and performance standards for grades K–8 beginning in 1996. Students in grades 3 through 8 are now assessed by annual End-of-Grade (EOG) tests in reading, mathematics, and writing. High school students are tested in five mandated subjects. Their assessments are called End-of-Course (EOC) tests. EOG and EOC tests are aligned with the state’s curricula standards in the tested subjects. Students’ scores on EOG and EOC tests are rated as 4 if they exceed proficiency, 3 if they are proficient, 2 if their test performance is below proficiency, and 1 for nonproficient performance (NCDPI, 2004b). Proficiency levels are regularly renormed.


Schools with students who meet growth standards are rewarded with accolades from the state and monetary bonuses for their staff. Schools failing to meet growth and performance standards receive help from assistance teams sent by NCDPI. After two consecutive years of low performances, parents may transfer their children to a high-performing school from their low-performing school. Ultimately, schools that do not improve can be taken over by the state.


LEANDRO AND EDUCATIONAL EQUITY


At about the same time that the governor and legislature were crafting the standards and accountability reforms of the ABCs of Public Education, the Leandro (1997, 2004) educational adequacy case brought the struggle for educational excellence and equity to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Since 1994, arguments and decisions in the Leandro case reminded policy-makers and educators of North Carolina public education’s charge to serve all students and the state’s persistent shortcomings in reaching those goals.4


In 1994, students and school boards in five low-wealth school systems in North Carolina filed a lawsuit against the State, charging that North Carolina failed to provide enough money for them to give all students a quality education. Six urban school systems subsequently became parties to the lawsuit arguing that the state funding formula did not provide them with sufficient resources to educate their many at-risk and limited English speaking student population. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system is one of those six urban districts.


In its 1997 Leandro decision, the NC Supreme Court held that the state’s constitution guarantees “every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.” North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Burley Mitchell then appointed Superior Court Judge Howard Manning to the Leandro case when the Supreme Court’s 1997 decision remanded the case to the lower court (Leandro, 1997). Following an appeal of the earlier decision, in 2004, the Court reaffirmed its ruling and empowered Judge Manning to implement the decision (Leandro, 2004). In May 2005, Judge Manning issued a report regarding “the high school problem in North Carolina” (Manning, 2005). With respect to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Judge Manning wrote that “the most appropriate way for the Court to describe what is going on academically at CMS’s bottom ‘8’ schools is academic genocide for the at-risk, low income children” (Manning, 2005, p. 23).


MEETING DEMANDS FOR WORKFORCE PREPARATION


A key impetus to the COS reform is the long-standing complaints from the North Carolina business community that public schools have failed to prepare entry-level workers with the technical skills and work ethic required for existing jobs (Mickelson, 1997; Noland & Bakke, 1949; Ray & Mickelson, 1990, UNC Charlotte Urban Institute Report 2001). Thus, in addition to the standards and accountability movement, employer pressure on the public schools to improve the school-to-work transition for high school graduates contributed to the policy context in which North Carolina developed the Course of Study Framework.


Contemporary North Carolina business leaders’ efforts to shape public schools into institutions that better meet their labor force needs have deep historical roots in US educational reform movements during the last two centuries (Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Carnoy & Levin, 1985; Kantor, 1986; Katzelson & Weir, 1988; Lazerson & Grubb, 1974). Business leader advocates for vocational education have long been convinced that a central task of the schools was to sort, select, and train youth for jobs, to Americanize immigrants, and to integrate all youth into the occupational and social structures (Kantor, 1986; Lazerson & Grubb, 1974). The practice of steering a portion of the secondary school student population into vocational tracks is rooted, to some degree, in this particular view of American public education.


Hoachlander (2005) observes that current national and state school reform efforts, while dominated by issues of achievement, also tend to focus on preparing students for postsecondary careers. In fact, North Carolina redesigned much of the state’s secondary curricula structure and graduation requirements in ways that sought to address employers’ needs for a better prepared entry-level workforce. Considered by the NCDPI to be work force development, the Course of Study Framework is explicitly intended to link high school curricular standards to opportunities in the real-world economy (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 2005a).


The actual education that workers need for current and future jobs is a subject of continuing debate. Fifteen years ago, then-Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich (1992) described three major job categories, their education requirements, and expected growth in the emerging economy. Reich forecast that routine production services will require basic literacy and numeracy, and a strong work ethic—especially the capacity to follow orders. These jobs will continue to shrink as percent of the total jobs in the economy. In-person services, the most rapidly growing sector of the economy, will require a high school diploma and some vocational education. Symbolic-analytic services will require a college degree or more and will grow as a percent of the total, but not as fast as the former.


If Reich’s analysis is correct, participation in career and technical education (CTE) during high school may have labor market benefits. But it is not clear that CTE contributes directly to improved academic achievement. In fact, according to the National Assessment of Vocational Education (NAVE, 2004), there is little evidence that career and technical education improves academic achievement (Hoachlander, 2005). The likely absence of a positive effect on achievement, the uncertain nature of the jobs current high school and college graduates will find, and vocational education’s history of reproducing race and social class stratification raise important questions about the potential of North Carolina’s COS to meet North Carolina’s twin goals of improved equity and excellence in public education.


THE COURSES OF STUDY FRAMEWORK


North Carolina’s Courses of Study Framework has three related components: the Courses of Study, Career Pathways, and Career Maps. The COS Framework requires 8th graders to select one of three Courses of Study prior to entering high school in 9th grade.5 In theory, each Course of Study is designed to meet the basic state curricular requirements in math, English, science, social studies, while differentially preparing students for higher education, the workforce, or both. Depending upon the Course of Study a student chooses, her or his high school curriculum will be differ from the curricula of students in other COS. Figure 1 presents the prescribed NC curriculum associated with each COS (NCDPI 2004b). These are the COS requirements of the population of students analyzed in this article.


Figure 1. NC Course of Study Graduation Requirements

[39_14605.htm_g/00001.jpg]
click to enlarge


The Career Prep COS is designed for students who intend to go directly into the work force or the military after high school; the College/Tech Prep COS prepares students for the work force and for community college; and the College/University Prep COS is designed for those who wish to enter a four-year institution of higher education. The Occupational COS is reserved for exceptional children. A comparison of the Career Prep, College/Tech Prep, College/University Prep curricula reveals differences primarily in required numbers of foreign language, mathematics, science, and elective classes. Students who begin high school in one Course of Study may elect to move to another; however, doing so puts them out of sync for graduation in four years because they may need to make up required elective or academic courses for their new Course of Study.


In November 2005 the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) presented its revised CMS/NC Course of Study Graduation Requirements for the Class of 2010, the students entering 9th grade in 2006 (CMS, 2005). The revised COS Framework is very similar to the original one. The new requirements add a fourth COS option named the Dual COS because it incorporates requirements of both the College/University and the College Tech Prep COS. The four COS’s requirements now differ in the number of foreign language, career/technical, and elective courses that are required. For example, only the College/University Prep and Dual COS require any foreign language courses. The new document does not mention within-subject curricular differentiation of the English, science, mathematics, and social studies courses into Regular through Advanced Placement level courses. However, it does note “changes [in COS] made after 9th grade may adversely affect the student’s ability to complete all course requirements within four years of entering high school” (CMS 2005, pg. 2).


Career Pathways


Within the framework of the four Courses of Study, North Carolina also developed a Career Pathways (CP) component. According to official state documents (NCDPI, 2005a), the ten CPs are designed to carry students through a planned series of educational experiences that culminate in careers that are best suited to the students’ interests and talents. Students in College/University Prep COS are not required to choose a Career Pathway. Only students in Career Prep and College Tech Prep Courses of Study must choose a Career Pathway. The ten Career Pathways are:


Agricultural and Natural Resources Technologies

Biological and Chemical Technologies

Business Technologies

Commercial and Artistic Production Technologies

Construction Technologies

Engineering Technologies

Health Sciences

Industrial Technologies

Public Services Technologies

Transportation Systems Technologies


Career Maps


Not to be confused with Career Pathways or Courses of Study, Career Maps (CM) provide further course selection guidance to students according to the actual occupations they hope to enter. There are fifty-three Career Maps across the ten Career Pathways (NCDPI, 2005a). Specific occupations are arrayed under every CM. For example, the Food Products and Processing Systems CM is suitable for students interested in occupations such as bacteriologist, biochemist, dietician, food and drug inspector, food and fiber engineer, food scientist, meat cutter, meat processor, nutritionist, produce buyer, or toxicologist. CM guidelines recommend elective courses students may take for the specific occupations.6


Despite the curricular complexity of the Course of Study Framework, the Career Pathways, and the Career Maps, they do not change the fact that within-subject area tracking continues to exist in North Carolina schools. The following sections explicate how secondary within-subject area tracking operates.


WITHIN-SUBJECT AREA TRACKING IN CMS AND NORTH CAROLINA


Within-subject area tracking is intimately connected to programs for academically gifted students in CMS and state of North Carolina. The state delegates to school districts the right to identify, certify, and develop programs for gifted students. CMS’s K–12 program for gifted and talented students is named the Talent Development and Advanced Studies Program. The academically gifted program is called Catalyst in the elementary grades. According to CMS (2004), “the Catalyst model is most effective when high achieving students are flexibly grouped together.”7 The academically gifted program for middle grades is called the Talent Development Program. Depending on scores on their End-of-Grade exams, students are placed into Accelerated or Scholars level language and mathematics courses. According to CMS (2004) “Students’ academic performance is essential in determining accurate Scholars or Accelerated course placement in the middle school program.”


Middle school placements launch students onto academic trajectories that most of them follow throughout high school (Kornhaber, 1997; Oakes, 2005). At the high school level, mathematics, social studies, English, foreign languages, and science courses are offered at the Regular, Advanced, Honors (in some schools courses at this level are called Academically Gifted), Advanced Placement levels, and select high schools offer International Baccalaureate courses, too. Whereas all CMS regular high school offer a variety of Advanced Placement courses, only a select number of high schools offer IB courses as well.  


Within subject-area tracking of academic courses in math, science, social studies, foreign language, and English results in courses that vary widely in the rigor of the instruction, the depth and breadth of the curricular coverage, and by the social relations of the classrooms (for example, discussion groups individual seatwork). In principle, there are no certification requirements for enrollment in honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate level courses. In principle, students can enroll in different level courses in various subjects; for example, a person could take AP English, Honors chemistry, and Regular French. Students ostensibly can enroll in any course for which they have taken the prerequisites. In practice, however, enrolling an academic course at one level frequently leads to enrollments in the other courses at similar levels, especially in middle schools. As one middle school principal told us, “Math placement drives a student’s schedule.”


Individual student characteristics such as race, gender, and social class background also affect track placement net of the other factors. In CMS, parental involvement, student choices, educators’ recommendations, and school structural features such as the availability of certain courses affect track placement decisions (Mickelson & Velasco, 2006). Kornhaber’s (1997) study of the process of identification of giftedness in CMS demonstrated how students’ certification as gifted during elementary school launched them onto higher track secondary school academic trajectories. As is true in other states (Oakes, 2005), the students of color and those from lower income families in North Carolina are disproportionately placed in lower tracks (Clotfelter, 2004). In many instances, the racially correlated track placements occur among comparably able students of different ethnic backgrounds (Mickelson, 2001).


Furthermore, the likelihood that a Black student will be placed in an upper-level track depends, to some degree on the racial composition of the school itself (Oakes, 2005). Mickelson and Smith (1999) examined the likelihood of high track placement among 12th grade English students in CMS during the early years of CMS’s desegregation plan. They found that in schools that were disproportionately White, the chances that an African American student was enrolled in a top level track were very small; however, as the number of Blacks in the school increased, the likelihood of placement in the higher track increased. Waits (1999) found essentially the same dynamic operating in CMS 15 years later: Only 3.7% of Black seniors in the most racially-isolated White high school were enrolled in college-prep English courses, compared to 60.7% of Black seniors attending the most racially-imbalanced Black high school. Southworth and Mickelson (2007) reported that the racial composition of CMS high schools has a particularly strong effect on Black female students’ likelihood of college-prep track placements.


WITHIN-SUBJECT AREA TRACKING AND RACE


The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is not the only school system where track placement is correlated with student race. In theory, tracking is a meritocratic process that allocates educational resources and opportunities commensurate with students’ prior academic achievement, ability, and interest, and with course availability. In practice, tracking rarely operates as theory holds (Lucas, 1999; Oakes, 2005; Welner, 2001; Wheelock, 1992). Non-meritocratic factors frequently informally influence track placement. These include the recommendations of educational gatekeepers such as teachers and counselors; parents’ pressure on school decision-makers; students’ race, social class, and gender; students’ prior exposure to segregated schooling; students’ desire to be with their friends or to be in a class with a welcoming social climate. Specific organizational features of schools—such as types and number of course offerings, seat availability in a given course, and the racial mix and socioeconomic level of the student population also contribute to placement decisions (Cicourel & Kitsuse, 1963; Gamoran & Mare, 1989;; Vanfossen, Jones,  & Spade, 1995; Lee & Bryk, 1988; Lee, Smith, & Croninger, 1997; Oakes, 2005; Riehl et al., 1999; Rosenbaum, 1978; Useem, 1992; Wheelock, 1992; Yonezawa, 1997). Consequently, the tracking process and its outcomes are far from meritocratic for many students.


National studies of ethnically diverse school systems indicate that minority and working class students disproportionately learn in lower tracks (Lucas & Berends, 2003; Meiers et al, 1989; Oakes 2005; Oakes et al., 2000; Welner, 2001). The origins of the social class-race-track correlation can be traced, in part, to historical efforts to separate recent immigrants, Blacks, and Hispanics from native-born Whites and to provide education commensurate with perceived ethnic, racial, and social class differences (Terman, 1923; Tyack, 1974). Racially correlated tracking in desegregated schools can be understood as second-generation segregation, a policy that recreates White (and middle class)educational privilege after a district undertakes mandatory desegregation (Meier, Stewart, & England, 1989; Welner & Oakes, 1996; Wells & Crain, 1994).


RESEARCH QUESTIONS


The previous literature review briefly described the educational, workforce development, and legal milieu in which North Carolina developed the Courses of Study Framework, and the prior tracking scholarship that contextualizes this study. We want to investigate the extent to which Courses of Study Framework is similar to and/or different from earlier forms of tracking. The two research questions that guided our investigation of relationships of COS to earlier forms of tracking are:


What is the relationship, if any, between district and school demographics, students’ racial backgrounds, and COS assignments?


Do between- and within-school variations in COS placements result in greater or less race and social class stratification in opportunities to learn?


RESEARCH DESIGN, METHODS, AND DATA


We used data from several sources to investigate these questions. First, we used North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) electronic data on student COS enrollment, student demographic characteristics, and the demographic characteristics of their school districts. Second, we made use of North Carolina and CMS archival documents and official reports regarding school reform, specifically the ABCs Framework, and the Course of Study policy. Finally, we used data from NCDPI Assessment Team reports on the eight CMS high schools that were designated as underperforming in 2005.


DATA


Electronic Data The North Carolina Education Research Data Center, housed at Duke University, provided us with 2004–2005 statewide school system, high school, and individual student population data collected by NCDPI. For our North Carolina statewide analyses, we use the 2005 population of 12th grade students (N = 68,817) and school districts (N = 117); for our Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools analyses, we use the 2005 population of 12th grade students (N = 5161) and high schools (N = 17). We supplemented NCDPI data with income data by county available from the Common Core of Data.8 The definitions of key variables we use in our analyses are:


Courses of Study: The four are the Career Prep, College/Tech Prep, College/University Prep, and Occupational COS.

LEA income ranking in quintiles: Local Education Agencies (LEA) are the school districts in the state. Because typically they are contiguous with counties (88 of 117 school districts are contiguous with county boundaries), we computed LEA income using county per capita income.9 The per capita income figures are calculated and periodically revised by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Dept of Commerce using the estimates of the civilian population and their personal income. These rankings use per capita income by county from 2002–2003 data. The income figure we employ represents income received from all sources and is measured before deduction of income and other personal taxes but after deductions for social security, government retirement, and other social insurance. Other non-money transfers are included such as food stamps, health benefits, and subsidized housing or other non-money income. The total personal income for the county is divided by the estimated population of the county to produce per capita income. The LEAs were matched with the corresponding county rankings. Once all rankings were assigned, LEAs were divided into quintiles representing the most to the least affluent LEAs in North Carolina.

Percent free and reduced lunch status: Qualification for free or reduced lunch is the proxy for family SES we employ in the article. We acknowledge that this is a crude measure of family background but we are limited by the data collected by NCDPI. The percent of students in a given school who qualify for free or reduced lunch was computed by adding the total number of students who qualified for free and reduced lunch status, and dividing by total enrollment of the school.

Racial composition of high schools: The school racial composition variable is a measure of concentration of ethnic minority students. After combining Black and Hispanic student populations10, CMS high schools were categorized as racially imbalanced White, racially balanced, and racially imbalanced minority schools based on a formula used by the school system when it was under a court order to desegregate. To categorize schools in this manner, first, we compare each school’s 2003-2004 racial composition to CMS’s overall racial composition in that year. In 2003–2004, 53% of CMS students were from disadvantaged minority groups (43 % Black and 10 % Hispanic). Extrapolating from CMS’s longstanding practice of using a ±15 % bandwidth around the disadvantaged minority population to categorize a school’s racial balance, we then classify a school as racially imbalanced White if it has 37% or fewer Blacks and Hispanic students (53% -15%); racially balanced if it has between 38 % and 68 % disadvantaged minority students; and racially imbalanced minority a school has 69 % (53% + 15%) or greater Black and Hispanic students (Mickelson, 2001; Swann, 1971).

Race: Students’ racial identification as White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, and Multi-racial follows the categories used by the state of North Carolina and CMS.

EOC Composite Scores: EOC Composite Scores are an overall measure of achievement on an array of academic courses that may include all or some of the following subjects: US History, Algebra I, Algebra II, Biology, Chemistry, English I, Geometry, Physical Science, Physics, and ELP ( a single course called Economic, Political, and Legal Systems—elsewhere known as Civics).


Archival Records The NCDPI’s website (http://www.ncpublicschools.org/) provided documents describing the state’s curriculum standards, the four Courses of Study, the 10 Career Pathways, and the 53 Career maps from which students (along with their parents and educators) ostensibly decide upon an educational and career trajectory for high school. Various Leandro documents were obtained from the World Wide Web.


NCDPI Assessment Team Reports Consistent with North Carolina’s ABC reforms, schools failing to meet growth and performance standards for two years in a row receive assistance from a team educators sent by the NC Department of Public Instruction. In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, after visiting an identified school, the Assessment Team writes a report that includes descriptions of what team members found and what they prescribe as a course of action for improvement. In the case of the eight low performing high schools in CMS, the Assessment Reports are part of the official Leandro litigation process and, as such, available to the public.11


DATA ANALYSIS


Electronic Data. Analysis proceeded in several steps. We used contingency table analyses (cross tabulations) to investigate possible relationships among 2005 North Carolina high school seniors’ Courses of Study, the relative per capita income of their school system, and students’ race. Next, we examined possible relationships among 2005 CMS high school seniors’ Courses of Study, students’ race, and the racial composition of high schools.


Archival Documents and Reports. Following conventional practice for content analysis of the documents and reports (Miles & Huberman, 1994), the analyses of the qualitative data involved three stages. First, the authors familiarized themselves with the data in order to identify, to select, and to define concepts that emerged across data sources. In the second stage the authors validated categories generated in the first stage through examining the frequency and distribution of concepts, and by integrating categories. In the third stage, the research team interpreted the categories in light of the core questions that guide this research. To enhance the validity and reliability of findings, we triangulated the findings across and between all the archival and electronic sources used in this article.


FINDINGS


SCHOOL DISTRICT PER CAPITA INCOME LEVELS AND COURSES OF STUDY IN NORTH CAROLINA


Table 1 High School Seniors’ Course of Study by School District Income in Quintiles, North Carolina (N=68,817) 2004-2005

Course of Study

 

Occupational

Career Prep

College Tech Prep

College/University Prep

Income Quintile

%NC

%NC

%NC

%NC

Highest

1.1

8.5

13.2

77.1

Mid-High

0.5

11.2

21.2

65.9

Average

1.7

11.1

27.5

59.7

Mid-Low

2.6

13.8

22.5

61.3



Lowest

2.7

10.5

30.0

56.8


X2  2247

df = 12  

p <.001


Table 1 shows that students’ course of study choices are related to the per capita income of the district (in quintiles) in which they matriculated. In more affluent districts, students are significantly more likely to choose College/University Preparation (X2 = 2247, p <. 001).12 As income declines, the likelihood of enrollment in the lower level COS (Career Prep and College Tech Prep) increases. For example, 77.1 % of students living in highest income school districts enrolled in the College/University Prep COS compared to 56.8% in the districts in the lowest income quintile. Even though the income of the school strict is a rather crude measure of average family socioeconomic status in the district, the relationship between mean community income and COS enrollment suggests the existence of SES-based stratification of opportunities to learn.


RACE AND PATHWAYS IN NORTH CAROLINA AND CMS



Table 2 Course of Study by High School Seniors’ Race/Ethnicity, North Carolina


(N = 68,817) and CMS (N = 5,161), 2004-2005


 

Occupational

Career Prep

College Tech Prep

College/University Prep

 

% CMS

%NC

% CMS

%NC

% CMS

%NC

% CMSa

%NCb

Asian

0.4

0.5

1.6

4.2

3.9

9.6

94.1

85.6

White

0.1

1.1

3.0

8.8

5.8

19.0

91.1

71.1

Hispanic

0.0

1.0

3.5

14.2

12.2

19.4

84.3

65.3

Black

1.3

3.0

5.5

13.6

11.4

20.7

82.1

62.7

American Indian

0.0

1.9

0.0

14.0

16.7

27.1

83.3

56.9

Multi-Racial

0.0

0.7

3.3

8.8

0.0

14.2

96.7

76.2


a X2  118   

df =15

p <.001

b  X2   1025

df =15

p <.001



We can see from Table 2 that across the state of North Carolina, students in all racial categories are more apt to be enrolled in the College/University Prep COS than any other. Even so, there are marked racial variations in COS enrollments (X2 = 1025, p <. 001). For example, 85.6% of Asians compared to 56.9% of American Indian students enrolled in the College/University Prep COS. This disproportionate enrollment is even more pronounced in CMS (X2 = 118, p <. 001). In North Carolina, Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians are more likely to choose Career Prep than Whites or Asians, and Asians are the least likely. In CMS, Black students are more likely to enroll in Career Prep than any other ethnic group, followed by Latinos and Whites. Asians are the least likely of any ethnic group to enroll in the Career Prep COS.


CMS STUDENT DEMOGRAPHICS BY HIGH SCHOOL RACIAL COMPOSITION


We begin presentation of the results of the CMS-specific data analysis with the district’s demographics. In order to examine possible relationships between school racial composition and COS enrollments, the schools are grouped into three categories based on the percent of Black and Hispanic students in their student bodies. Based on a ±15% interval around the overall CMS minority student population that was Black (43%)  and Hispanic (10%), we categorized schools as racially imbalanced White if they had 37% or fewer minority students, racially balanced if the school’s student body was between 38% and 68% minority, and racially imbalanced minority schools if the school’s population was 69% or more minority We then ranked schools by their percent minority within each school category.13


Table 3 CMS High School Demographics by School Racial Composition, 2003-2004


 

N Students

% Black & Hispanic

% Gifted

% Special Education

%FRL

% LEP

Mean  

SAT

% Passing** AP Exam

Racially Imbalanced White ( ≤ 37% Black and Hispanic)

Providence

2400

12

26

6

5

2.5

1094

66

Butler

2004

25

25

7.5

14

2.2

1024

52

South Mecklenburg

2154

26

22

7

15

7.3

1041

50

Myers Park

2537

27

32

8

18

3.4

1135

56

Hopewell

1990

30

14

9

12

1.2

1009

44

North Mecklenburg

2336

30

21

8

14

1.8

1059

32

Racially Balanced (38-68% Black and  Hispanic)

East Mecklenburg

2121

52

18

11

32

5.8

1026

54

Olympic

1349

54

7

10

29

7.4

918

14

NW Arts

1126

55

18

13

33

1.1

1011

58

Independence

2492

60

13

8

34

6.5

961

37

West Mecklenburg

1439

64

5

15

46

5.6

875

14

Vance

2331

66

10

9

32

6.4

956

28

Racially Imbalanced Minority (≥ 69% Black and  Hispanic)

Harding

1355

74

19

10

37

2.7

993

29

Waddell

992

76

5

14

46

13

848

21

Garinger

1408

81

4

15

57

11.1

802

12

Berry

1088

84

8

9

58

2.4

896

14

West Charlotte

1326

95

4

18

62

3.4

792

3


* Scores of 2004-2005 high school seniors (Helms 2005)



Table 3 presents data on demographic characteristics of CMS high schools that contribute to their academic climates: the size of CMS high schools’ student bodies, their racial composition, the percent of students certified as gifted and talented, certified for special education services, students who qualify for free or reduced lunch, students with limited English proficiency, mean SAT scores, and percent of students passing AP exams. Placing the schools in the categories of racially imbalanced white, racially balanced, and racially imbalanced minority permits us to compare the academic and sociodemographic climates in schools by their racial composition.


Results indicate that the size of a school’s student body is inversely related to the percent of Black and Hispanic students in it. Larger schools have greater percentages of Whites and students identified as gifted, and fewer students certified for special education, free and/or reduced lunch, and students who are limited in their English proficiency. An exception to this pattern is racially imbalanced minority Harding University High School, a math and science magnet with 19% gifted students. At the same time, mean SAT scores and percent of students passing AP exams increase as the percent of Black and Hispanic students in a school decreases. The relationship between size, academic climate, and school racial composition is not surprising given the resegregation and imbalanced utilization of schools since 2002 when CMS became unitary (Mickelson & Southworth, 2005).14


RACE AND COURSES OF STUDY AMONG CMS STUDENTS


Table 4 presents the Course of Study choices of CMS high school students by their race and their high schools’ racial composition (Phillip O. Berry High did not have a 2004–2005 senior class so is not in our analyses). Again, the schools are grouped into the racially imbalanced White, racially balanced, and racially imbalanced minority categories. Results from the contingency table analysis indicate that the vast majority of all students in CMS selected the College/University Prep COS. The Career Prep COS was rarely chosen by any student. The College/Tech Prep option is slightly more common than the former, but both are far less popular than the College/University Prep COS.



Table 4: CMS Seniors’ Course of Study by Race* by High School by Racial Composition of the High School 2004-2005**


 

Career Prep

College/Tech Prep

College/University Prep

Occupational

 

W

B

A

H

W

B

A

H

W

B

A

H

W

B

A

H

Racially Imbalanced White (≤ 37% Black and Hispanic)

Providence

3.6

9.1

3.1

11.1

4.6

18.2

0.0

0.0

91.7

72.7

96.9

88.9

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

Butler

6.4

7.1

0.0

0.0

12.0

9.5

0.0

20.0

81.6

82.1

100

80

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

S. Mecklenburg

2.0

10.6

0.0

2.9

4.7

8.5

5.3

8.6

93.3

80.9

94.7

88.6

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

Myers Park

0.8

8.2

0.0

0.0

3.2

16.5

0.0

13.0

95.7

63.5

96.9

87

0.3

11.8

3.1

0.0

Hopewell

4.0

5.4

0.0

0.0

8.1

14.0

11.0

25.0

87.9

80.6

88.9

75

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

N. Mecklenburg

4.5

24.6

0.0

16.7

4.8

11.5

0.0

0.0

90.3

62.3

100

83.3

0.3

0.3

0.0

0.0

Racially Balanced  (38-68% Black and Hispanic)

E. Mecklenburg

0.0

4.1

0.0

0.0

3.2

15.3

0.0

11.1

95.9

80.6

100

88.9

0.9

0.0

0.0

0.0

Olympic

3.6

5.7

5.9

23.1

2.4

10.3

5.9

0.0

94

81.6

88.2

76.9

0.0

2.3

0.0

0.0

NW Arts

1.0

9.1

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

99

90.9

100

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

Independence

0.6

0.5

0.0

0.0

11.2

16.1

6.7

21.4

88.3

83.4

93.3

78.6

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

W. Mecklenburg

9.5

10.5

12.5

0.0

13.5

17.3

6.3

20

77

71.4

81.3

80

0.0

0.8

0.0

0.0

Vance

4.7

5.1

0.0

0.0

5.8

12.6

6.7

9.5

89.5

81.8

93.3

90.5

0.0

0.5

0.0

0.0

Racially Imbalanced Minority (≥  69% Black and Hispanic)

Harding

1.4

0.0

0.0

0.0

2.8

2.0

0.0

0.0

95.

8

97.3

100

100

0.0

0.7

0.0

0.0

Waddell

0.0

5.2

0.0

5.6

7.7

15.5

16.7

16.7

92.3

79.3

83.3

77.8

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

Garinger

3.1

1.9

0.0

0.0

6.3

9.7

11.1

16.7

90.6

85.1

88.9

83.3

0.0

3.2

0.0

0.0

Berry***

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

W. Charlotte

10

2.7

0.0

0.0

10

6.3

0.0

28.6

80

90.1

100

71.4

0.0

0.9

0.0

0.0


*There too few American Indian and Multiracial students to include in analyses

** School racial composition based on 2003-2004 data; COSchoices based on 2004-2005 data

*** Berry had no seniors in 2005

X2 Whites  120

df= 48

p <.001

X2 Blacks 215

df= 51

p <.001


Even though the vast majority of all students in every racial category in every CMS school selected the College/University Prep COS, there are statistically significant racial differences in choices. Black and Hispanic students are significantly less likely to choose College/University Prep than are Asians and Whites. Within each COS, different racial/ethnic group patterns appear. For example, Asians are almost absent from Career Prep COS and almost always in the College/University Prep COS irrespective of the school they attend. Blacks and Hispanics are much more likely than Whites or Asians to choose the Career Prep COS.


While students tend to be in the College/University Prep COS irrespective of their race or their school’s racial composition, there appears to be an interaction between student race and school racial composition for African Americans’ and Hispanics’ COS selection. Among Black and Hispanic students, the more racially isolated minority their high school is, the more likely they are to be enrolled in a higher COS. For example, an average of 73.7% of Blacks in racially isolated White high schools, 81.6% in racially balanced schools, and 87.9% in racially imbalanced Black schools enroll in the College/University Prep COS. Conversely an average of 12.4% of Blacks in racially isolated White high schools, 5.7% in racially balanced schools, and 4.2% in racially imbalanced Black schools enroll in the Career Prep COS.


We found striking patterns of enrollment among Black students in two high schools serving distinctively wealthy communities. Myers Park High School is an academically respected school in an affluent section of the city of Charlotte. In Myers Park, Black students are the least likely of all ethnic groups to enroll in the College/University Prep COS (63.5%) and are disproportionately enrolled in the Occupational COS. Whereas only 0.3% of Whites, 3.1% of Asians, and no Hispanics are enrolled in Myers Park’s Occupational COS, fully 11.8 % of Blacks in Myers Park are in that COS.15 In none of the other CMS high schools does any ethnic group’s participation in the Occupational COS ever exceed 3.1% of that racial group’s population in a given school.


The second high school with a striking racial enrollment pattern is North Mecklenburg High. North Mecklenburg’s White families represent a mix of longtime county residents who enjoy the rural environment (altered by burgeoning suburban developments), and families who recently relocated to the suburban developments when their firms moved to Mecklenburg County (Mickelson & Ray, 1994). At North Mecklenburg, only 62.3% of Blacks enroll in the top academic COS, but 24.6% enroll in the Career prep COS and 11.5% enroll in the College/Tech Prep COS.


CMS ACHIEVEMENT IN HIGH POVERTY AND RACIALLY IMBALANCED MINORITY SCHOOLS


The previous analysis shows racially-correlated high school COS enrollment patterns in CMS that vary with the schools’ racial composition. While Black students are the least likely to enroll in the top track in racially imbalanced White schools, they have a much greater likelihood of enrolling in the College/University Prep COS in racially imbalanced minority schools. At first glance, it seems that racially isolated minority schools offer Black students greater opportunities to learn and prepare for post-high school education and employment. However, our analyses of stratified opportunities to learn within-schools by their levels of concentrated poverty and racial composition indicate otherwise.



Table 5: Percent Proficient North Carolina Statewide End-of-Course Tests Composite by High School Poverty Level, Student Poverty, and Student Race, 2003-2004   


Student Group

% Proficient by School Poverty Level

 

              High                            Moderate                           Low

           ≥ 40%                             40-21%                           ≤ 20%

 

High Schools

 

All Students

34

50

73

Low Income

21

35

37

Not Low Income

38

53

75

Black

32

42

46

White

57

67

81



Table 5 presents the percent of students whose North Carolina End-of-Course Composite score was at or above proficiency in 2004 by the mean level of free and reduced lunch (FRL) in the school the students attended. Overall, the findings indicate that students in low poverty schools are much more likely to be proficient than students in high poverty schools (73% compared to 34% respectively). Even though the level of achievement needed to reach proficiency is rather modest, CMS’s high poverty schools—which are also heavily minority as Table 4 indicated—have breathtakingly low levels of proficiency even for students who are not poor or minority themselves.16 For example, in high poverty high schools, only 21% of students on FRL compared to 38% not on FRL scored at or above proficiency. These data indicate that even though almost all students in CMS’s racially imbalanced minority schools—which are also high poverty schools— are enrolled in the College/University COS, at best, only 38% of them are at or above proficiency in core academic subjects.


While it is clear that the 62% of students in high poverty schools who fail to achieve at minimum levels of proficiency are not prepared for college even if they are enrolled in the College/University Prep COS, it is not necessarily true that the 38% who scored as proficient are prepared either. To further investigate whether College/University Prep COS students receive a sound basic education in racially isolated minority schools, we examined data on within-subject area tracking in four racially-imbalanced minority schools that also are characterized by concentrated poverty and low performance. We look within this subset of racially imbalanced minority schools identified by the NCDPI as priority schools.17 Data from this subset of schools illuminate the intersection of neotracking with opportunities to learn in racially-isolated minority low-performing CMS high schools (NCDPI 2005b). As a contrast, we include data from Myers Park, a racially imbalanced White high school.


Table 6. CMS Seniors’ Proficiency, College/University Prep COS Enrollment, and Selected Characteristics in Four Racially Imbalanced Minority High Poverty and One Racially Imbalanced White Low Poverty High Schools, 2005



 

% Proficient III EOC Composite

AP Exam Pass Rate

% EOC Underqualified

Teachers

% Math Courses Offered as College Prep

% Science Courses Offered as College Prep

% Black in Coll/Univ Prep COS

Harding

55.5

29

31

40

65

97.3

Waddell

47.2

21

38

24

31

79.3

Berry

45.7

14

29

36

40

n.a.

West Charlotte

34.5

0

40

21

23

90.1

Myers Park

81.2

56

9*

48

68

63.5


n.a.  information not available in 2004-2005

Source:  NCDPI 2005c.

*Estimated from Myers Park Master Schedule, Instructor Lists 2005



Table 6 indicates that even though a majority of students in the four racially-imbalanced, high poverty, low-performing high schools were enrolled in the College/University Prep COS, the subject-area tracking practices within three of the four high poverty schools meant few students had the opportunity to prepare for college entrance and success. Harding High School offered almost as many college prep level math and sciences courses as Myers Park but Harding had less than a third as many qualified instructors in core academic (EOC)  courses.  Advanced Placement exam pass rates are indicators of academic preparation for higher education. Myers Park students are almost twice as likely to pass their AP exams as students at Harding High, the racially-imbalanced minority math and science magnet school. Students at other racially-imbalanced minority schools are even less likely to pass their AP exams. Teacher resources are an integral component of any school’s structure of opportunities to learn. Teachers with licenses for the subject matters they teach are the most qualified instructors. Table 6 indicates that between 29 and 40 percent of the teachers at racially-imbalanced minority schools possess credentials for either lateral entry, emergency, or foreign licensure. In contrast, Myers Park high school has less than 10% of teachers who are underqualified.


Another important element of any high quality education is access to high school courses identified as college preparatory. In CMS, these include courses taught at the Advanced, Honors (also called Academically Gifted), Advanced Placement, and International Baccalaureate levels. Colleges, especially the more competitive private and public institutions, examine students’ transcripts for evidence that they challenged themselves during high school. The more college prep level classes students take, the more desirable the students appear to college admissions officers. But students cannot take courses not offered at their schools. At the low performing West Charlotte High School, where 90% of Black students were in the top COS, only 21% of all mathematics courses and 23% of the school’s science courses were offered at a college preparatory level.


Harding University High School is the highest performing of the four racially-imbalanced minority schools we examine in Table 6. The school’s full name suggests its college preparatory mission is consistent with the fact that 97.3% of Black students in Harding are enrolled in the College/University COS. Yet, even in this high school, only 40% of all mathematics courses and 65% of the school’s science courses were offered at the college-prep level.


The remaining data in Table 6 indicate that despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of the students in racially imbalanced minority low performing high schools were enrolled in College/University Prep COS, a substantial majority of them did not perform at a level of academic proficiency in the core curriculum, let alone at the level of excellence required for college success. Only 34.5% of West Charlotte students’ EOC composite scores were at or above proficiency in 2005; similarly only 55.5% of Harding University High School students’ EOC composite scores were at or above proficiency. Across these four schools, even though the vast majority students were enrolled in the top COS, most of these high schools’ course offerings were not geared for college preparation: with the exception of Harding University High School where 65% of science offerings were taught at the college-prep level, far fewer than half of science and mathematics courses in the four schools were taught at a general level. Given these facts, it is impossible to conclude that CMS’s racially imbalanced minority low performing high schools offer their students the sound basic education that the North Carolina constitution guarantees them, or the excellent and equitable education that the ABC’s of Public Education intended them to receive.


DISCUSSION


In this article, we report findings from a study of North Carolina’s reform of its secondary curriculum, the Course of Study Framework. Using data provided by the NCDPI and other public sources, we investigated the early results of the Course of Study Framework. We found that North Carolina’s Course of Study Framework, in conjunction with the existing practice of within-subject area tracking of secondary academic courses, created a new multilayered tracking system we call neotracking. Neotracking is an overarching framework that combines the older forms of comprehensive tracking that constrained the electives and required courses students took depending upon their track, with the newer forms of within-subject area curricular differentiation of core academic subjects. The Course of Study Framework was instituted, in part, in order to align secondary curricular standards with the more rigorous demands of the State’s ABCs of Public Education high stakes accountability program and to facilitate reaching North Carolina’s twin goals of equity and excellence for all students. Neotracking has, instead, contributed to race and class-based stratified access to opportunities to learn.


Before we discuss our findings and their implications, we note several limitations that make our findings and interpretations preliminary. First, we do not have individual student level data on within-subject track enrollments. This circumstance requires us to draw inferences about students’ likely opportunities to learn from aggregate school-level data. Given the nature of the data we presented in Tables 3, 4, 5, and 6, we believe it is still reasonable to cautiously draw preliminary inferences about the likelihood that students from various racial groups who attend schools with certain characteristics enrolled in specific COSs have equal access to high quality educational opportunities. A second limitation is the absence of data on between-COS mobility between 9th and 12th grade. Until we have such data, we cannot reach more definitive conclusions about the influence of neotracking’s multilayered framework on equitable access to high quality opportunities to learn. Additionally, any assessment of the effects of an innovation or reform program must await its full implementation. We did not investigate if, five years after the COS Framework became official policy, the infrastructure for its complete implementation is fully in place across North Carolina School districts. Thus, the third limitation of this study is the absence of data regarding the degree to which school systems and high schools within the school districts have the material resources, the counselor and faculty talent, and classroom schedules to fully offer the complement of classes required by the entire COS Framework. A final caution we raise concerns our inability to distinguish the contributions of race to COS placements over and above students’ prior achievement levels, the official basis of within subject-area tracking. In earlier work, Mickelson (2001) used multi-level modeling with CMS survey data to demonstrate that net of prior achievement, race contributed to 1997 students’ high school track placement. Later in 2001, CMS reassigned to higher track math classes several hundred middle school students, a majority of whom were Black, after it was revealed that they had scored III (proficient) and IV (above proficient) on their grade 7 EOG math tests.18 These incidents suggest race this study’s findings of racially correlated COS placements  are consistent with other well-documented correlations of social class and race with opportunities to learn in North Carolina (Clotfelter, 2004; Darity, Castellino, & Tyson, 2001; Rumberger & Palardy 2005). Clearly, future research is needed to address the limitations of this study before we can establish more definitively the relationship of neotracking to race and social class-based stratification. With these important caveats in mind, we offer several preliminary answers to the article’s research questions.


The Course of Study framework, introduced in 2001, reflects the conjunction of several educational reform themes that arise directly from the standards and accountability movement. Essentially, one of North Carolina’s responses to the demands for higher standards and greater accountability was the introduction of statewide tracking into the structure of the secondary curriculum framework. The Course of Study framework imposes curricular standards for secondary students, and it explicitly differentiates them into three streams directed at discrete outcomes: Career Prep is designed to lead students to the workplace; College Tech Prep is intended to prepare students for community college where they are likely to obtain technical certificates and jobs; and College/University Prep is designed to prepare students for success in four-year institutions of higher education. As designed, COS outcomes are updated versions of earlier comprehensive tracking frameworks whose curricular streams were labeled general, vocational, and college.


Our first research question asked if there is a relationship between Course of Study and student, school, and district characteristics. There appears to be a relationship between school and district demographics, students’ racial backgrounds, and their COS placements. Our examination of enrollment patterns after the first five years of the COS Framework’s implementation revealed that, even though a majority of students across North Carolina enroll in the College/University Prep COS, the variations in enrollment reflected the race, ethnic, and social class demographic stratification in North Carolina. Students in more affluent NC counties are significantly more likely to enroll in the top COS than those living in less affluent ones. COS enrollments also vary by students’ race and ethnicity. The higher the status of the Course of Study, the more likely the students enrolled are White or Asian. For example, Asian American student are the least likely to enroll in Career Prep and the most likely to enroll in the College/University Prep COS. Conversely, American Indian students are the most likely to enroll in Career Prep and the least likely to enroll in the College/University Prep COS.


Likewise, COS enrollments are related to the racial composition of a high school’s student body. Our analysis revealed curious inverse relationship between high school racial composition, students’ race, and COS enrollment patterns. Black students attending predominately White campuses are less likely to be in the College/University Prep COS than those who attend racially imbalanced minority schools. The combination of between- and within- school stratification of COS enrollments is similar to the national patterns in school racial composition’s relationship to minority students’ likelihood of being in the top track (Oakes, 2005), and the CMS patterns reported by Mickelson and Smith (1999), Southworth and Mickelson (2007),  and Waits (1999).


Our second question asked if COS reproduces or transforms social inequalities among students’ opportunities to learn. We found that neotracking—the COS framework operating in conjunction with within subject-area tracking and variations in school quality associated with concentrated poverty— tends to reproduce race and social class stratification opportunities to learn. Findings demonstrate that students in affluent NC districts are more likely to enroll in the more prestigious College/University Prep COS, and, with the exception of Blacks, students in racially imbalanced White CMS high schools are also more likely to be in College/ University Prep COS than students in racially balanced or racially imbalanced minority high schools. Race patterns of COS enrollments reflect North Carolina’s traditional racial fault lines. These patterns then tend to be somewhat exacerbated by the racially correlated variations in structural conditions of schools and districts.


CMS’s Black students’ COS enrollments illustrate how neotracking operates to undermine mandates for excellence and equity found in North Carolina’s  ABCs of Public Education and the Leandro decision. Black students face a double jeopardy. Our data show that Black students in racially imbalanced White CMS high schools are less likely to be in the top COS than are their counterparts in racially imbalanced minority schools where, despite being in the top COS, they are less likely to obtain a rigorous college preparatory education. Black students who attend a heavily minority school are more likely to enroll into the highest track than those who attend racially balanced or majority White schools. At the same time, their schools have fewer college-prep track offerings, fewer sections of these courses for them to choose among, fewer experienced teachers, and weaker academic climates than racially balanced or majority White schools. Together these factors result in a relatively weaker set of opportunities to learn. Whether by design or coincidence, in CMS the traditional White educational privileges that were supposedly dismantled by desegregation appear to be protected by neotracking’s racially correlated COS enrollment patterns operating in conjunction with old-fashioned subject-area tracking and the resegregation of CMS schools.


The two key finding of this study require further interpretation. The first concerns the strikingly disproportionate enrollment of students in the College/University Prep COS. All students preparing to attend college would not necessarily be a bad outcome. It would be an unparalleled advance if, irrespective of racial and social class background, North Carolina students actually left high school and succeeded in higher education. At first glance, the fact that a vast majority of students regardless of race state their intent to enroll in a university appears to be consistent with Leandro and the ABC’s goals of excellence and equity for all students. But our investigation revealed that, in reality, a high percentage of students enrolled in the College/University Prep COS do not even demonstrate minimal proficiency as measured by the EOC tests. Moreover, minimal proficiency on the EOC tests does not necessarily translate into workforce or college preparation. The mismatch between students’ stated intentions and the realities of their preparation to enact their goals is stark, but not unusual. Orfield and Paul (1993), Rosenbaum (2001), and Schneider and Stevenson (1999) show that students were not well-informed about the effects of their track placement on their post-secondary aspirations or their plans to enter the working force.


The second finding is the flip side of the former trend; that is, Career Prep and College Tech Prep COS are under enrolled, especially in CMS. This suggests that most North Carolina high school students do not perceive either of the two COS as viable routes to their postsecondary future. That a vast majority of high school students opt for the College/University Prep COS suggests that what Rosenbaum’s (2001) described as the “college-for-all” approach still prevails among North Carolinians. And like the Hoosier youth Orfield and Paul studied, Tar Heel youth appear not to have made realistic backup plans for alternative careers. Our preliminary findings suggest that neotracking in North Carolina results in the worst of both worlds: the majority of students are prepared neither for higher education nor for the workplace—one of the very problems that the accountability movement and the NC Course of Study program were intended to address.


CONCLUSION


North Carolina’s high school graduates will live and work in an economy and society that are very different from the ones in which their parents began their adult lives, although the precise nature of future jobs remains a matter of debate. Highly educated, scientifically and technologically sophisticated, cognitively flexible adults are likely to gain better jobs in the emerging information-based global economy. Whether there will be a sizeable number of future jobs for these symbolic analysts remains unclear. It is fairly certain, though, that in-person service jobs, especially in the medical field and social services, will rapidly grow in number. Incumbents in these jobs also will require some formal education beyond high school but not necessarily a college degree. All employees will need to function in culturally and linguistically diverse workplaces. Education policy makers at the federal, state, and local levels—as well as many parents and employers— explicitly expect public schools to have a central role in preparing all young adults for the kinds of cognitive, technical, and social skills the emerging economy will require of them. These same adults explicitly embraced the goals of equity and excellence as foundational principles of the public education system that they entrust to educate their children.


North Carolina was one of the first states to adopt standards, high stakes tests, and accountability as a central reform to achieve these ends for all students. The Course of Study framework is an explicit policy manifestation of the standards and accountability push. Yet the structure of neotracking implicitly undermines the twin goals of excellence and equity by sorting and selecting students into COS and tracks in very traditional ways. The three employment categories of symbolic analytic services, in-person services, or routine production services and their educational requirements map perfectly onto the educational and occupation descriptions of the Courses of Study: the College/University Prep COS is for students who plan to attend a four year university and plan careers requiring symbolic analytic skills; the College Tech Prep COS is for those who want further vocational certification from a two year college and will perform skilled in-person services; and the Career Prep COS is for those who want to enter the workforce directly from high school and will likely perform routine production services. Because COS enrollments, within subject-area tracking, and opportunities to learn a high quality, rigorous, college preparatory education are strongly related to students’ race, their schools’ racial composition, and school districts’ level of affluence, neotracking tends more to reproduce racial and social class stratification than to lessen it.


The findings reported in this article speak directly to the twin goals of equity and excellence embedded in the ABCs of Public Education. The preliminary evidence presented in this article suggests that neotracking, as an organizational feature of contemporary public education in North Carolina, is structurally at odds with the explicit goals of the accountability framework of the ABCs, and with Leandro’s mandate to provide a sound basic education to all students. Achievement outcome data indicate enormous race and social class gaps among North Carolina students, between high and low income school districts, and among schools with and without concentrations of poor, largely ethnic minority students. Our findings suggest that neotracking, as an overarching curricular and instructional framework, will only exacerbate these distinctions, distinctions that are painfully familiar to any one acquainted with the contours of traditional North Carolina education.



Notes


1 Exceptional children are assigned to an Occupational Course of Study.

2 An Appendix presents a brief history of CMS’s struggle to offer equality of educational opportunity during the past 35 years.

3 In this article, we operationalize a “sound basic education” as a public education that enables all students to pass their End-of-Course subject area standardized tests at a proficient level. We operationalize a “rigorous  college-preparatory education” as a public education that not only enables all students to score at or  above proficiency on their End-of-Course subject area standardized tests, but one that also presents the formal curriculum in a broad, deep, and complicated way, ensuring students will develop not only content knowledge but higher order thinking and problem-solving skills.  The overwhelming evidence from studies of CMS and other school systems across the nation indicates that lower track classes do not  present the formal curriculum in that manner. Our examination of access to tracked classes does not constitute an endorsement of the practice. At some future point in time, North Carolina may join  other educational jurisdictions and detrack its academic courses. Until then, so long as within-subject area tracking in all academic courses persists in North Carolina’s middle school and high schools, examining if access to college prep courses is available to students in them speaks to the issue of race and social class equity.

4 We do not claim that the Leandro case was a direct cause for the development of the Course of Study curricular reform; rather, we see it as part of the larger educational policy context in which decision-makers operated.

5 Findings from the first author’s Math/Science Equity Project (Mickelson, Cousins, Velasco, & Williams, forthcoming) indicate that many students and their parents are, at best,  bewildered by and, at worst unaware of the COS choices students must make.  As designed, 8th graders are supposed to select a COS in the spring prior to entering high school in consultation with their counselors and their parents.  But MSEP findings suggest that many students do not return their COS forms signed by parents, forcing counselors to complete the COS choice for them.

6 The self-selected sample of approximately 100 highly motivated African American parents participating in the  Math/Science Equity Program (Mickelson et al 2006), who were otherwise knowledgeable about their children’s education, were largely unaware of the operations of Course of Study Framework.  In addition, parents were bewildered by the complicated nature of the relationships among Courses of Study, Career Pathways, and Career Maps.

7 “Highly gifted” students in kindergarten through grade 8 who have either a measured IQ of ≥ 145  or a standardized test score in the 99th percentile enroll in CMS’s Horizons Program.

8 The  Common Core of Data (CCD) is a program of the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics that annually collects fiscal and non-fiscal data about all public schools, public school districts and state education agencies in the United States. The data include information that describes schools and school districts, including name, address, and phone number; descriptive information about students and staff, including demographics; and fiscal data, including revenues and current expenditures (NCES 2006).

9 Using county per capita income as a measure of school district wealth is potentially problematic because there can be per capita income variations among school districts in counties with more than one school district; for example, some counties have separate school disticts for the largest city within them. We therefore reran the wealth quintile analysis eliminating the city school districts.  The results were largely the same.

10 We categorize schools based on their combined Black and Hispanic populations because most CMS high schools have very few Asian and American Indian students.  Moreover, the Asian population in Mecklenburg County is bimodal: students from low SES southeast Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups and high SES Pacific Rim ethnic groups. The bimodal character of the Asian student population makes it difficult to accurately treat all Asian students similarly for data analyses purposes.

11 Mickelson is an expert consultant to the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights (NCCCR),  the counsel for nine plaintiff student intervenors, their parents and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Branch of the NAACP. The plaintiff student intervenors are all African American high school students consigned to CMS’s high poverty, largely racially imbalanced minority schools.  The authors are grateful to NCCCR attorney Ashley Murrow Osment for clarifying these points of law and other matters of fact related to the Leandro case.

12 We report X2 and p values for our contingency table analyses throughout the article even they are not necessary.  Because we use population data, any variations in COS enrollments by student race or school district income level, or by school racial composition reflect the actual differences, not a probability that the patterns we describe will occur in the population.  

13 In many respects, the concept of racial balance in CMS has become an anachronism.  As a unitary school system, CMS is no longer required seek racially balanced schools.  Moreover, on January 25, 2006 the school board unanimously voted to accept a new mission statement. The old mission “to become the premier urban integrated school system” was replaced by an emphasis on “academic achievement” (Smolowitz, 2006).

14 This relationship is, in large part, the consequence of CMS’s post-unitary pupil assignment plan that allowed families to choose either their neighborhood schools or other schools within their residential zone. The post-unitary assignment plan was based on guaranteed assignments to neighborhood schools even through the existing schools were not sited to accommodate neighborhood children; rather, the sitings were made while the school system transported students across the district in order to achieve the racial balance mandated by Swann. Consequently when inner city Black families did not choose their neighborhood schools and opted for magnets or transfers to suburban schools, inner city schools became under utilized.  At the same time suburbanites—who were overwhelming White and middle class—invariably selected their neighborhood schools where students were guaranteed a seat. Under these arrangements, within two years of being declared unitary, the suburban schools became so overutilized, CMS capped their enrollments and thereby excluded low income minority students from the inner city from transferring out of their low performing schools into the academically more rigorous and successful suburban schools.

15 The authors verified this statistic with Myers Park’s professional staff. (Sarah Marsh,26 January, 2006. Personal communication with first author).

16 Borman and Dowling (2006) and Rumberger and Palardy (2005) demonstrated that school-level poverty is a more powerful influence on student academic outcomes than students’ own SES.

17 As a consequence of failing to meet growth and performance standards, eight CMS priority schools received help from assistance teams sent by the North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI). Not all of them are racially isolated minority schools. During the months of October and November 2005, NCDPI assessment teams visited eight CMS priority high schools and made recommendations for improvement. One of the recommendations encouraged increased tracking (NCDPI, 2005b).

18 The superintendent explained that a number of decisions led to the misplacement of so many Blacks into lower-level math courses, including racial stereotyping: “I think people need to face that there are issues of bias and prejudice that play into this” (Cenzipur, 2001).



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APPENDIX


A Brief History of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools


Any discussion of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School’s experiences with standards-based reforms, testing, accountability, and neotracking must consider the district’s past and present struggles to provide equality of educational opportunity in the shadows of its Jim Crow educational legacy. In 1971 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Judge James McMillan’s orders to desegregate CMS using mandatory intradistrict busing along with other remedies (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 1971). From roughly 1974 to 1992, CMS used mandatory busing to achieve racial balance. As a result of the mandatory busing, almost all students in CMS attended a racially desegregated school during some portion of their academic careers, and a majority of both Whites and Blacks spent most of their education in desegregated schools. Widespread secondary tracking, however, resegregated many students within the desegregated schools (Mickelson, 2001).


CMS became a unitary school system in 2002. The political and social forces that succeeded in lifting the Swann court orders in 2002 began their efforts almost 15 years earlier when the broad social and political coalition supporting desegregation began to weaken. An indirect but important contributing factor was a successful Chamber of Commerce campaign to lure relocating firms to Charlotte (Mickelson & Ray, 1994). The Chamber’s campaign resulted in hundreds of firms and thousands of middle-class White families moving into the county’s sprawling suburban housing developments since the 1970s.


Discontented relocated suburban parents pushed their corporate leaders to “do something about the schools.” Corporate leaders’ efforts to end busing coincided with the initial development of the county’s new outer belt (which, in turn, assisted suburbanization), dynamic growth of the economy, and the hiring of a new superintendent in 1991. The new superintendent immediately began a sweeping reform program that included the dismantling of most of the mandatory busing plan and replacing it with voluntary desegregation strategies, the most prominent of which was a controlled-choice system of magnet schools (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 1992). The magnet program experienced mixed success in voluntarily desegregating the district for its first five years.


In 1997 the magnet plan’s racial guidelines for admissions became the basis of a lawsuit filed by White suburban parents who challenged the constitutionality of the entire desegregation plan (Capacchione v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, 1999). The original Swann plaintiffs and their counsel, fearing the White plaintiffs’ suit would end mandatory desegregation in CMS, reactivated the original case. Two young Black families with children in CMS, the Belks and the Collins, became the Black plaintiff-interveners because the original Black plaintiffs, Darius and Vera Swann, no longer had children in the district (Belk v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, 1999). The judge consolidated the two cases and heard them jointly during the spring of 1999. He declared CMS unitary later that fall. After several years of appeals, the legal battles ultimately ended when the US Supreme Court refused to review the lower courts’ unitary rulings (Belk, 2002, Capacchione, 2002).


In April, 2001, a year before the final disposition of the Charlotte desegregation case, CMS approved plans to end race-conscious assignment policies and to adopt a “choice” plan built around neighborhood schools beginning in the 2002-2003 school year (CMS, 2001). As designed, CMS’s Family Choice Plan offered students a guaranteed seat in a neighborhood school. From its beginning, the Family Choice Plan had several negative consequences. Due to neighborhood racial and social class homogeneity, the Plan resulted in resegregation of many CMS schools. Second, poor, low-performing students were concentrated in schools segregated by race and social class, making it even more difficult to educate them. Third, because sites for the existing schools were chosen to meet the needs of the 30-year-old desegregation plan, the guarantee of a seat in a neighborhood school lead to overcapacity in the suburbs and undercapacity in the central city. Fourth, the unbalanced distribution of highly qualified teachers in the schools, with the highest-performing students, new buildings, fully equipped labs and libraries, and other facilities in suburbs, largely benefitted middle-class White suburban students while it disadvantaged poor and minority students who live in the center city.


CMS’s political and legal struggles that culminated in the 2002 unitary decision left many citizens distrustful of people from different racial and social class backgrounds and highly skeptical of school reforms. By 2005, CMS was in crisis: Northern and southern suburbanites proposed the deconsolidation of the district, a move that would create a low-wealth largely minority school system sandwiched between two high-wealth, largely White suburban systems (Mickelson & Southworth 2005). As of 2007, CMS has not been deconsolidated.





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 3, 2008, p. 535-570
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14605, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:47:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Roslyn Arlin Mickelson
    University of North Carolina at Charlotte
    E-mail Author
    ROSLYN ARLIN MICKELSON is a Professor of Sociology and Adjunct Professor of Public Policy, Information Technology, and Women’s Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research focuses on the political economy of schooling and school reform, particularly the relationships among race, ethnicity, gender, class, and educational processes and outcomes. She is currently investigating how post-unitary status resegregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools affects educational equity and academic achievement for all students. Her article “Segregation and the SAT” appeared in the Ohio State Law Journal in 2006.
  • Bobbie Everett
    Central Piedmont Community College
    BOBBIE J EVERETT is a Senior Research Analyst at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, NC. She is interested in the school-to-work transition and the role of community colleges in workforce preparation. Everett is the author of “Changing Demographics of African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos in the Charlotte Region of North Carolina” published in Sociation Today, Fall 2005.
 
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