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The Duplicity of Equality: An Analysis of Academic Placement 
in a Racially Diverse School and a Black Community

by Richard Lofton, Jr. - 2019

Background/Context: For more than four decades, researchers have shown that African American students are overrepresented in lower-track classes, while their White peers tend to be in advanced courses. In the past twenty years, school districts have implemented detracking reforms that stressed self-selection policies as an alternative to separate academic paths, yet quantitative data still show that most African American students are not attending upper-level or advanced classes in racially diverse schools.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of study: This study explores how African American parents come to terms with academic placement, and the mechanisms that impact their child’s educational experiences in a racially diverse school while coming from a segregated high-poverty African-American community.

Setting: Research took place in a racially diverse suburban school and city. The suburban city is a microcosm of the United States, not only because of the racial and economic diversity of its school district, but also because its story encapsulates the plight of many African Americans in relation to the Great Migration, segregation, disinvested neighborhoods, and systemic inequalities.

Population/participants/Subjects: Participants included 26 African American parents, many of whom attended the same school district and experienced their own lower-track placement.

Research Design: Ethnographic methods, which include interviews and observations, were used to explore the research questions. African American parents were individually interviewed about their own educational experiences, children’s academic placement, family background, interactions with the school system, community issues, and perceptions of the middle school and city.

Findings/Results: African American students and their parents were a product of intergenerational tracking. Parents and their children had experienced lower-track courses. In addition, the exposure of African American students and parents to systemic inequalities in their home and community heavily influenced their academic placement and overall educational experiences. Moreover, tracking in this school was not necessarily about abilities and skills but also about separating African American students and creating a formal semblance of equality that actually reinforced systemic inequalities, a reality captured in the phrase “duplicity of equality.”

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 3, 2019, p. 1-48
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22579, Date Accessed: 1/28/2020 12:12:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Lofton, Jr.
    Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD LOFTON, JR., is an assistant professor at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education. His research explores how African American students and parents make sense of academic placement, neighborhood inequalities, and school reforms. Currently, he is the Co-PI of the National Evaluation of Student Success Mentor Initiative. He is also the co-author of “Toward a Black Habitus: African Americans Navigating Systemic Inequalities Within Home, School and Community,” which was published in the Journal of Negro Education.
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