23 SES 08 D, Responses to Student Need
This paper seeks to understand the ways teachers frame and conceive lower secondary education within the idea of ‘comprehensiveness’ and, particularly, their beliefs regarding student grouping practices. The research draws on an ethnographic approach and focuses on secondary schools in Catalonia (Spain) where students are not formally separated in different educational tracks until the end of lower secondary education.
The structure of educational systems –whether students are placed in different educational paths–, varies greatly from one country to another. In European countries, the debate between comprehensive systems and differentiated ones is still open and live. In comprehensive systems, all students are expected to achieve the same objectives by pursuing equivalent curricula in a single institution (Pedró & Puig, 1998). On the contrary, differentiated systems (Germany, Flemish-Belgium, among others) are organized in different educational programs (usually vocational, technical and general or academic) during the lower secondary education, promoting a curricular differentiation among students of the same age.
Research has shown the structure of school systems has effects in terms of educational efficiency and equality. Although evidence is somehow inconclusive, overall research has identified adverse consequences of differentiation for low-performing students. Moreover, studies in the topic also conclude that a higher level of differentiation reduces social equality, since in more differentiated systems there tend to be higher performance gaps among different social groups (Dupriez & Dumay, 2006; Dupriez et al., 2008; Duru-Bellat, et al., 2004; Gorard & Smith, 2004). In order to avoid the consequences that early selection has in terms of social inequalities, a significant number of school reforms in Europe throughout the twentieth century were guided by the ‘principle of comprehensiveness’ (Husén, 1973). In the US, detracking reforms are also considered as an attempt to remedy the negative effects of tracking differentiation (Alvarez & Mehan, 2006; Oakes et al., 1997; Rubin, 2008). Both comprehensive and detracking reforms, although in different contexts and moments, pursue placing students in mixed-ability groups to promote equal opportunities for all.
Even though in comprehensive systems students should be formally placed in mixed-ability groups, there is international evidence showing that, de facto, in some comprehensive systems there are practices of student differentiation (Mons, 2007). This is the case of Catalonia (Spain) where the formal comprehensiveness of the system cohabits with an extended use of ability grouping in secondary schools. Although there is no official data available on this field, according to the latest edition of PISA (2015), 26% of the students in Catalonia are enrolled in schools where students are grouped by ability in all subjects, while the Spanish average is 6%.
The purpose of this paper is to put into debate student differentiation and grouping as problematic and not neutral aspects of schooling. The paper addresses this debate focusing on secondary schools in Catalonia (Spain) where, despite recognizing the comprehensiveness of the system, the official normative calls for school autonomy in decisions regarding the student grouping. It means that schools, and particularly teachers, are key political actors in the processes of decision-making regarding how to group students at secondary schools.
This research evidences the important role of teacher beliefs to effectively implement comprehensive and equity-geared reforms, investigating why teachers advocate for grouping their students by ability even being in a formally comprehensive school system and despite the evidence that these practices have negative effects in terms of efficiency and equity.
This research draws on an ethnographic approach and focuses on two secondary schools with different models of student grouping located in a city in the metropolitan area of Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain). The selection of the schools was based on two criteria that reflect the theoretical considerations in consonance with the object of study. The first criterion was the type of student grouping practices carried out in each school. Considering that the typology of student grouping is articulated in a continuum of possibilities, two “extreme cases” (Goetz & LeCompte, 1998) were considered to make a comparison between them: mixed-ability grouping and ability grouping in all courses and subjects. The second criterion used to select schools was their social composition, that is, the socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural characteristics of school population. We understand social composition as the degree of concentration of specific social groups in the schools (Agirdag et al., 2012). Social composition was estimated considering available data from educational authorities regarding the percentage of socially disadvantaged students, the percentage of students with foreign nationality, and the percentage of students receiving financial help for books or school supplies. While the first criterion was defined with the objective of obtaining extreme cases, the second criterion defined two similar cases. This is because one of the interests of the study was to explore the dynamics that are developed in highly disadvantaged schools, and how students’ opportunities and experiences are configured in these contexts. Fieldwork was carried out during a long-term (one academic year, 2014-2015) and periodic stay (two days a week) in each schools. Participant observation in school activities and spaces (classrooms, playground, teachers’ meetings, etc.) was the main data-collection technique. However, during the period of ethnographic observations, other techniques were used to collect information. In particular, we analyzed school documents and conducted semi-structured, face-to-face, in depth, audio-recorded interviews with school actors (students, teachers, principals, academic coordinators, school inspectors and support staff) and questionnaires to the students. Data analysis started from field notes and transcriptions of recorded interviews. Computer software was used to facilitate the comprehensiveness, and triangulation was used to ensure the reliability of data interpretation.
Findings show that, although having different student grouping schemes, teachers in both schools share similar beliefs about student grouping practices: overall, they criticize mixed-ability grouping and advocate for ability grouping and differentiation. Teacher beliefs based on individualization, meritocracy, and the view of lower secondary schooling as a selective stage, support their arguments for ability grouping. These beliefs are deeply rooted in teachers’ mindsets and challenge directly the principles of comprehensiveness. This research shows that decisions regarding student grouping practices are not technical and neutral, but imply philosophical and political debates. It also evidences the important role of teacher beliefs to effectively implement comprehensive and equity-geared reforms.
Agirdag, O., Van Houtte, M., & Van Avermaet, P. (2012). Why Does the Ethnic and Socio-economic Composition of Schools Influence Math Achievement? The Role of Sense of Futility and Futility Culture. European Sociological Review, 28(3), 366-378. Alvarez, D., & Mehan, H. (2006). Whole-School Detracking: A Strategy for Equity and Excellence. Theory into Practice, 45(1), 82-89. Dupriez, V., & Dumay, X. (2006). Inequalities in school systems: effect of school structure or of society structure? Comparative Education, 42(2), 243-260. Dupriez, V., Dumay, X., & Vause, A. (2008). How Do School Systems Manage Pupils’ Heterogeneity? Comparative Education Review, 52(2), 245-273. Duru-Bellat, M., Mons, N., & Suchaut, B. (2004). Caractéristiques des systèmes éducatifs et compétences des jeunes de 15 ans. L’éclairage des comparaisons entre pays (Cahier de l’IREDU No. Les Cahiers de l’IREDU, No.66). Gorard, S., & Smith, E. (2004). An international comparison of equity in education systems. Comparative Education, 40(1), 15-28. Husén, T. (1973). Implications of IEA Findings for the Philosophy of Comprehensive Education. Harvard University, Cambridge: Paper presented at the Conference on Educational Achievement. Mons, N. (2007). Les nouvelles politiques éducatives: La France fait-elle les bons choix? Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. Oakes, J., Wells, A. S., Jones, M., & Datnow, A. (1997). Detracking: The Social Construction of Ability, Cultural Politics, and Resistance to Reform. Teachers College Record, 98(3), 482-510. Pedró, F., & Puig, I. (1998). Las reformas educativas: una perspectiva política y comparada. Barcelona: Paidós. Rubin, B. C. (2008). Detracking in context: How local constructions of ability complicate equity-geared reform. Teachers College Record, 110(3), 646-699.
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