Category Research

Given two separate tracks of academic placement—one upper, one lower—which track are parents likely to choose for their child?

The answers are not always easy.

A new study by researcher and associate professor Richard Lofton Jr. of the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Center for Social Organization of Schools explores how parents living in a segregated, high-poverty African-American community grapple with choices related to academic placement and other mechanisms that affect their children’s educational experiences in a racially diverse school.

More than four decades of research have shown that African-American students are overrepresented in lower-track classes, while their white peers tend to be in upper-level courses. In the past 20 years or so, school districts have implemented “detracking” reforms that present self-selection policies as an alternative to separate academic paths. Quantitative data still show, however, that most African-American students are not attending upper-level classes in racially diverse schools.

In his ethnographic study, “The Duplicity of Equality: An Analysis of Academic Placement in a Racially Diverse School and a Black Community,” Lofton interviewed 26 African-American parents of children attending a racially diverse suburban school. The parents, many of whom attended the same school district and experienced their own lower-track placement, were individually interviewed about their own educational experiences, children’s academic placement, family background, interactions with the school system, community issues, and perceptions of the middle school and city.

Investigating their experiences in navigating academic opportunities, Lofton identifies these parents and children as products of intergenerational tracking. Many of the parents believed, for instance, that they could not truly choose their child’s academic placement or that the choices offered were unlikely to improve their children’s life trajectories. Many also believed that choosing upper-track classes would involve significant sacrifice of their children’s social and emotional needs.

The families’ exposure to systemic inequalities in their community heavily influenced their academic placement and overall educational experiences. Lofton also found significant negative associations of academic placement in a school with one’s “placement” in a community.

Lofton concludes that although schools such as the one featured in his study provide access to upper-track classes, as long as communities remain heavily disinvested, students will have difficulty acquiring the knowledge and skills needed for college and upward mobility.

Based on his findings, Lofton makes five policy recommendations:

  • Understand that access is not enough. Schools must do a better job of protecting and supporting students in upper-track classrooms and communicating that support to parents.
  • Allocate resources to students’ communities. Schools have underestimated the extent to which neighborhood inequalities hinder parents from supporting, and students from achieving, academic success. Districts should redirect energies to partner with local, state, and government agencies to address neighborhood inequalities.
  • Clearly communicate with parents regarding educational reforms. Schools must develop meaningful relationships with community members, pastors, and parents to ensure current policies are understood and accessible.
  • Value the knowledge. Students and parents bring a wealth of knowledge to schools, which should be respected and valued.
  • Realize that representation at all levels is important. Racially diverse schools that are committed to detracking must do a better job of hiring African-American teachers, aides, and administrators.

Study Title: The Duplicity of Equality: An Analysis of Academic Placement in a Racially Diverse School and a Black Community
Researcher: Richard Lofton Jr.
Date: 2019
Direct Link:

Official Citation:  Teachers College Record (2019) Volume 121, Number 3;, ID Number 22579.

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