Tracks as emergent structures: A network analysis of student differentiation in a high school

                         Price, Carol Lei; PhD

                         UNIVERSITY OF HAWAII, 2001

                         High schools no longer formally assign students to college-preparatory, general, and vocational tracks.
                         Consequently, whether or not tracking emerges from the differentiated curriculum of schools has now
                         become a valid empirical question. This study offers a unique way of thinking about tracks by treating
                         them as emergent structures in loosely-connected complex high school organizations. In order to
                         capture their structural aspects and bring to light a feature normally invisible to those who inhabit these
                         organizations, tracks are reconceptualized as sociocurricular positions that emerge from student
                         coursetaking patterns. This study examines the phenomenon of student differentiation in high schools
                         through a microanalysis of coursetaking patterns in a particular school. Since all students in a high school
                         take courses, an examination of their actual coursetaking behavior over four years reveals a most
                         fundamental form of sorting and stratification in these organizations. Using social network methods,
                         students' linkages with course-teacher-time events are analyzed. Sociocurricular positions are
                         mathematically-derived, then the manner in which these positions differentiate students on status
                         characteristics, academic achievement, and post-high school plans is examined. Seven distinct
                         sociocurricular positions emerge bearing marked variations in member students' characteristics,
                         accomplishments, and future plans. This array of positions constitutes a hierarchical structure similar, if
                         not identical, to a system of tracks. This structure embodies the curricular organization of the school and
                         reveals a social structure that privileges those of higher socioeconomic status, Japanese ancestry, and
                         female gender. The results of this study provide strong evidence that informal tracking operates in high
                         schools where professionals believe that they do not intentionally track. The study suggests that both
                         researchers and policymakers direct attention to the role that student choice plays in erecting emergent
                         track structures, the likelihood that the high school trajectory actually begins at the earliest levels of
                         schooling, and the inequitable allocation of knowledge resources that results when students are
                         differentiated according to gender, ethnicity, and SES.


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