Responding to Educational Inequality

Re-segregation and Tracking Undermine Educational Opportunity and Achievement

Re-segregation and Tracking Undermine Educational Opportunity and Achievement

Key Findings

  • Re-segregation and tracking practices impede students from accessing robust learning environments.
  • Fierce resistance to desegregation and detracking serve to maintain systemic inequities and white privilege.
  • Racial biases about student ability, knowledge, and learning practices reproduce inequitable learning contexts and impede students access to deep learning.

While aspects of policy creation and enactment contribute to the perpetuation of educational inequity, local practices, such as tracking and re-segregation also play a role. Structural patterns of racial and class-based inequity are reflected in classroom, school, and district practices. Low-income and minority students are often systematically denied access to robust and culturally relevant learning environments through tracking and disciplinary practices. They also encounter implicit bias with respect to student ability and behavior that harm and impair student learning and participation. These factors shape learning environments and undermine educational opportunity and achievement. The research in the following section highlights these dynamics to reveal how these local practices impede the advancement of educational equity.

Marginalized students have less access to robust learning environments.

Many students of color, low-income students, immigrant students, including English-language learners have minimal access to high quality learning environments. Structurally, access to these schools and classrooms is impeded by patterns of re-segregation and tracking. Racial, socioeconomic, and linguistic segregation in schools have long been documented (Mickelson, 2001; Orfield & Eaton, 1996; Wells & Crain, 1997). Even more alarming socioeconomic and linguistic segregation has rising in recent years, especially for Latino students (Frankenberg & Lee, 2002; Orfield, 2001). The high levels of segregation are exacerbated by within school tracking practices, which reproduce inequality along racial and class lines, providing some students with rigorous instruction, and others with much lower quality “drill and kill” types of instruction (DarlingHammond, 2009; Oakes, 1992). Structural practices of re-segregation and tracking systematically block access to such schools and opportunities to engage with high status knowledge. 

While there are efforts to transform these structural practices, these systems are deeply entrenched and are often met with fierce resistance. For instance, Michael J. Dumas, a Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster member and Professor of Education, described the long and systematic political efforts of Seattle’s more affluent, white community to delegitimize and dismantle the city’s school desegregation efforts. Noting how both class and race were invoked in their efforts, he suggests that middle-class and affluent White Seattleites used the language of rights and justice alongside structural mechanisms like school choice to preserve their own privilege and reproduce inequities (Dumas, 2011). Efforts to minimize tracking practices are also met with resistance. For example, in her case study of one school district instituting a rigorous, equityoriented instructional approach, Tina Trujillo, a Professor of Education and Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster member, demonstrates how district and school actors undermined efforts to advance the reform. She notes how teachers and leaders, often articulating their underlying beliefs in student ability to explain their positions, resisted increased pedagogical rigor and detracking practices that would provide nondominant groups like English Language Learners more robust learning environments. Resistance to the reform often led district leaders to prioritize district harmony over the equity-oriented policy (Trujillo, 2012). 

Marginalized groups encounter racial biases about their abilities.

Beyond resistance to detracking and integration, implicit beliefs regarding the ability of African American and Latino students take shape in schools and classrooms. The character of racial inequities in school discipline practices have been well-documented in recent years. Black students, boys and girls, are much more likely to encounter harsher discipline and to be suspended and/or expelled (Crenshaw, Ocen, & Nanda, 2015; Gregory, Skiba, & Noguera, 2010; Noguera, 2003; Skiba, Michael, Nardo, & Peterson, 2002). Recent research by Na’ilah Nasir Suad, the Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster Chair and Professor of Education and African American Studies, also interrogates this dynamic. Examining an all-Black, allmale class providing an alternative space for school discipline practices, Nasir and her colleagues note how educational experiences in this context contrast with prevailing disciplinary practices, which are often based on perceptions of Black males as defiant and thus deserving of harsh punishment (Nasir, Ross, Mckinney de Royston, Givens, & Bryant, 2013). 

Relatedly, Nasir also illustrates how youth of color and other marginalized groups encounter beliefs about their academic ability and intellectual assets in classrooms. Nasir and Shah (2011) note how racialized narratives that denote African Americans as low-achieving in math and other racial groups as high achieving were invoked and utilized in classrooms to explain academic achievement and justify the allotment of learning opportunities to particular students. 

Beliefs regarding student ability, and knowledge impact teachers’ instructional practices, which can impede students from engaging in deep learning. Jabari Mahiri, Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster member and Professor of Education, reveals this dynamic in his work comparing school-based and out-of-school literacy practices of African-American youth. In particular, he notes how the out-of-school literacy practices, in which students frequently engaged and expressed a deep commitment to, were marginally present or validated in traditional school settings, serving to alienate students who might otherwise be fully engaged in robust literacy development (Mahiri & Sablo, 1996). Kris D. Gutiérrez reveals similar trends when considering the deep learning practices and knowledge assets of English Language Learners. In revealing the social and academic constraints inherent within traditional approaches to the ELL community that prioritize English learning as the primary goal, Gutiérrez suggests that teachers’ assessment and activation of students’ full linguistic toolkit actually enables more literacy-based exploration and development in robust learning environments (Gutiérrez, 2009; Gutiérrez, Morales, & Martinez, 2009). In new work funded by the MacArthur Foundation, Gutiérrez and colleagues have studied the new media practices of Latino and lowincome communities. This work examines how youth and families develop and leverage their repertoires of practice (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003) across the home and after-school programs. Studying youth and families across settings has highlighted the disconnect between new media/technology initiatives and practices proliferating across federal, state, and local levels and the everyday media practices of families. There are many threats to the “connected learning” necessary for rich engagement and equitable forms of learning (Ito, Gutiérrez, et al., 2013). For example, the pre-adolescent youth studied engaged collaboratively with siblings, peers, and parents in new media activities. This stands in stark contrast to the preferred and normative 1-to-1- participation structure that characterizes technology use in schools.

This disconnect is further exacerbated by English only or English dominant practices in new media activity, rather than using youths’ full linguistic toolkit to engage in consequential learning. In contrast, Gutiérrez found that children’s interaction with parents and siblings and the tools they use play an important role in socializing children into technology use and for the development of children’s digital practices. Mothers, in particular, play a significant role in children’s access to new media, as mothers’ mobile phones provide a hub of access to information and communication among family members. 

A key contribution of this work lies in its reframing of families’ in general and their new media practices in particular. Gutiérrez’ team found that the Latina/o families with whom they worked employ creativity and ingenuity to expand the possibilities of their current circumstances through their use of technology in the home. The parents, specifically mothers, orchestrated what they deem as the responsible use of digital technologies in the household in order to ensure the academic success and safety of their children. This orchestration included setting of parameters, as well as organizing opportunities to interact with digital media that facilitate learning. Of interest, mothers in this study also reorganized ordinary practices with digital media to re-purpose tools and their possibilities, engaging in process of “inventos” (Schwartz & Gutiérrez, 2015), or the way in which nondominant communities engage their creativity and ingenuity to create everyday objects for learning. This work aims to contribute to a shift in public discourse about the role of Latino/a parents in their children’s learning and to educational policy and practice around technology.