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					                                       Detracking Reform
                                            Karen Tyree
                                       November 17, 2008


Article: Cooper, R. (1996). Detracking reform in an urban California high school: Improving the
     schooling experiences of African American students. The Journal of Negro Education,
     65(2), 190-208. http://sitemaker.umich.edu/educationalequity/files/detracking_reform.pdf



       In this article, Cooper (1996) uses quantitative and qualitative methods to study the effect

of detracking “on the learning opportunities, academic achievement, and academic engagement

of students in American schools, particularly its impact on students of color” (p. 190). The

author’s study is conducted in an urban California school, Liberty High School, that is piloting a

program on detracking by selecting a group of classes in English and history comprised of a

“heterogeneous balance in terms of sex, ethnicity, and previous academic achievement in ratios

that reflected Liberty’s ninth grade population” (p. 199).

       Cooper (1996) interviews students, teachers, parents and administrators before and after

the detracking pilot program and surveys students after the pilot with questions pertaining to

academic outcomes and attitudinal measurements. His research question is “Can detracking

reform contribute to creating intellectually rich and equitable learning opportunities for African

American students, while easing some of the tension between excellence and equity in public

education?” (p. 190).

       Cooper’s (1996) interviews prior to the pilot detracking program provide insight into the

racial divide and the students’ general disdain for teacher’s low expectations. A teacher he

interviewed felt that African American students are angry because they are tired of feeling

stupid, and White students are scared of the African American students and appreciate the


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segregated classes and social spaces. When Cooper (1996) asked an African American student

how he felt about tracked classes he responded that, “…tracking wouldn’t be so bad if they had

good teachers. It wouldn’t be so bad if the teachers cared. They let the lower-track students run

wild. It’s like they are scared” (p. 195).

       In Cooper’s (1996) Liberty High School, he did find one “success amid the storm” within

the African American Studies Department which provides “focus on the constructive

accomplishments and achievements of people of African ancestry and serves to debunk cultural

stereotypes and myths regarding them” and discusses the “hidden curriculum” of the school (p.

196). The author finds that this program had a positive effect on African American achievement

outcomes and provides an example of one student so motivated by the African American courses

that he significantly increased his overall grade point average and transferred to the college

preparation classes.

       The author outlines the supports that were implemented to ensure the success of the

detracking programs as: smaller class sizes, maintaining the heterogeneous balance of the

classes, adding tutoring support for underperforming students, and a collaborative environment

between the English and history teachers. After these supports were implemented the school’s

parent community was convinced of the efficacy of the program and that everyone could benefit.

       After the first year of the pilot, Cooper (1996) found that the survey results of the test of

detracking at Liberty High showed mixed student outcomes. For example, 62% of the students

enjoyed being in the classes, but the achievement gap persisted. African American students

received 60% of all F’s given in the detracked classes while White students received 70% of all

A’s.   Cooper (1996) did not have independent data on students’ background information such

as family income and previous scores on achievement tests, so he relied on data from interviews

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to explain the persistent achievement gap. He does not provide quotes from the interviews to

support his explanation but does say that “several explanations emerge from the qualitative data,

ranging from a lack of motivation and skills on the part of the students to blatant racist practices

on the part of the schools’ educators” (p. 205).

       Beyond the mixed student results, Copper (1996) found that the detracking program ran

into barriers from veteran teachers and parents. The teachers were not prepared to differentiate

instruction within the heterogeneous class, and some also stated concerns about state standards

and accountability. The powerful parents of students in the higher-track classes worried about

the quality of education for their children and voiced strong concerns about the detracking

initiative. As discussed in a previous article, Cooper (1996) established that “the liberal ideals

and principles that serve as the cornerstone of this progressive community were challenged by

the reform idea of detracking” (p. 201).

       The author concludes that school reform efforts must consider the institutional and

community, political and social cultures to succeed. He does not provide any explicit ideas on

how to accomplish this feat, but does end the article on an optimistic note that perhaps high

schools within progressive communities will continue to strive for quality education for all

students and that we can learn from them.

       Cooper’s (1996) article was well written and gave me a visual image of the issues that

surround the need for detracking within schools, and the problems that occur when these initial

issues are not addressed during implementation of detracking reforms. Many of the articles that I

have read on detracking treat this school reform initiative as the answer to inequality within

schools. It is becoming obvious to me that issues of inequality need a more holistic approach

that works beyond the school and moves into the community. I would also like to see what other

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research says about the effects of African American Studies Departments within high schools on

student achievement.




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