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Institutional Ambiguity and De Facto Tracking in STEM

by Cassidy Puckett & Brian E. Gravel - 2020

Background/Context: Many schools no longer track classes to increase access to courses at all levels, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects. However, informal processes can “de facto” track students, placing them at the same level across subjects. Research shows that de facto tracking is prevalent in STEM, especially between mathematics and science course placements. Less is known about the relationship between mathematics and engineering—the focus of this study.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Mathematics placement is likely to shape participation in engineering given its position under the STEM umbrella. Yet, de facto tracking does not occur all the time. This may depend on the categorization of courses as “academic” or “vocational,” but there is little research about this aspect of course-to-student matching. Therefore, we investigate an unexpected case of equitable participation where mathematics placement does not de facto track students in engineering. We ask: How do institutional and organizational factors shape the absence of de facto tracking?

Research Design: We used qualitative data drawn from a two-year mixed-methods study in a public high school district with one large comprehensive high school. The school is in the lower third of per pupil spending in the state of Massachusetts, yet has significant engineering-related course offerings. Located near Boston, it serves an economically and racially diverse student body of ~1,800 students. For this article, we analyzed 998 hours of observations during and after school, in engineering-related elective courses and extracurricular activities, and interviews with 29 students, 31 teachers, six guidance counselors, two district administrators, and the principal.

Findings/Results: We find competing vocational and academic logics equally frame engineering, which we call “institutional ambiguity.” This dual framing is present at the institutional level and is supported at the school level by three organizational factors: 1) courses and activities that occur in both vocational and academic spaces, 2) teachers who link vocational and academic fields, and 3) an organizational commitment to support the integration of vocational activities.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Overall, this article contributes to educational and organizational research by identifying the institutional factors and organizational processes that shape the categorization of courses and student-to-course matching. Our research reveals the conditions under which schools and the actors within them have greater agency, where ambiguity in the broader environment allows for contestation and renegotiation of status hierarchies. We argue that by leveraging ambiguity, schools may avoid contributing to inequity in STEM.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 8, 2020, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23379, Date Accessed: 1/25/2021 9:38:46 AM

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About the Author
  • Cassidy Puckett
    Emory University
    E-mail Author
    CASSIDY PUCKETT, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Emory University. Using a mixed-methods approach, she examines the relationship between technological change and inequality in education and healthcare. Her work appears in Social Science Computer Review, Harvard Educational Review, and Qualitative Sociology. Her research has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
  • Brian Gravel
    Tufts University
    E-mail Author
    BRIAN GRAVEL, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and director of Elementary STEM Education in the Department of Education at Tufts University. He uses qualitative approaches and design-based research to explore the relationships between representations and STEM learning across different STEM contexts. Dr. Gravel recently published a book with Routledge and has papers in Instructional Science, the Journal of Science Education and Technology, and the Journal of Adult and Adolescent Literacy. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the LEGO Foundation.
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