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Volume 19, Number 3
May/June 2003

The Construction of Low Achievement

A Study of One Detracked Senior English Class


The Harvard Education Letter's teacher research column profiles classroom or school-based research performed by practitioners to improve educational practice.

The Context

El Cerrito High School draws its population of about 1,450 students from a wide and economically diverse geographic area. Feeder schools include elementary schools with the highest achievement test scores in the district and schools with very low scores. The student body is racially diverse: 40 percent African American, 25 percent White, 18 percent Asian American, 13 percent Latino, 1 percent Pacific Islander, and 1 percent multi-ethnic.

The school is the site of a teacher-initiated detracking reform effort that began more than a decade ago. This initiative originally consisted of detracking all 9th-grade college prep English classes, opening up AP English classes to all seniors who were willing to do summer reading and writing, and allowing 10th, 11th, and 12th graders to choose their own classes. As our detracking reform has evolved, we have reexamined it and made adjustments. Once we saw, for example, that, after 9th grade, students retracked themselves into the tracks they had been accustomed to in middle school, we eliminated the self-selection option for 10th graders and moved to detracked, carefully balanced sophomore English classes. We also discussed the possibility of eliminating the honors English 3 class, but given parental opposition and the realities of competitive college admissions, we opted instead to recruit a wider diversity of students (especially African Americans and Latinos) for the class. Most recently, we voted to eliminate the generic college prep English 4 class and to offer in its place three electives: contemporary American literature, essay writing, and journalism.

The focus of this study is the heterogeneous English 4/essay writing class I taught in the 2001-02 school year. Of the 29 students in the class, 16 were female and 13 male, including 11 African Americans, nine Whites, six Latinos, two Persians, and one Southeast Asian. The highest (weighted) GPA in the class was 3.9; the lowest was 1.2.

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