07 SES 12 B, Inclusion, Exclusion, Interculturality
This paper seeks to understand the impacts of ability grouping on students’ experiences at school, identifying not only the effects but also the mechanisms that can explain those effects. The objective is to explore how students’ experiences are shaped in ability groups and how they perceive their interactions with significant others (i.e. teachers).
Student grouping practices, and specifically ability grouping, have been widely studied and discussed both in research and educational policy debates (Gamoran, 2009; Ireson et al., 2002; Oakes, 1985, among others). In general terms, ability grouping is the practice of classifying students, inside schools, in different teaching groups according to their performance or their supposed abilities (Dupriez, 2010).
Ability grouping has effects not only on academic performance, but also in emotional and attitudinal terms. Research reveals that students’ attitudes and experiences towards their schools and education differ according to the grouping system they have experienced and, in case of ability grouping, according to the group they have been allocated to. Some authors have developed the ‘polarisation-differentiation’ theory, which asserts that the differentiation of students into tracks or groups can lead to a polarisation into ‘anti-school’ and ‘pro-school’ cultures (Abraham, 1989; Ball, 1981; Hargreaves, 1967; Lacey, 1970; Van Houtte, 2006). While most research (Boaler, 1997; Ireson & Hallam, 2005, among others) has identified ability grouping effects on students’ self-perceptions, aspirations or school experiences -being less positive for those students who are allocated to the ‘lowest’ groups-, the explanatory mechanisms of those effects on school engagement have been less explored.
School engagement is a key concept that allows us to capture the process by which students disconnect from school or, on the contrary, feel committed to school. According to different authors (Appleton et al., 2008; Demanet & Van Houtte, 2014; Fredricks et al., 2004; Tarabini et al., 2015), school engagement is a multidimensional construct made up for three dimensions: 1) behavioural engagement, which refers to those behaviours that students display at school (e.g., positive conduct, effort, participation); 2) emotional engagement, which encompasses positive and negative reactions to and feelings about school (e.g., identification, belonging, relationships with others); and 3) cognitive engagement, which draws on the idea of motivation for learning, effort in school work, and self-perception as students.
The purpose of this paper is, thus, to explore the mechanisms that can explain ability grouping impacts on school engagement, and the hypothesis is that ability grouping is a strong determinant of school (dis)engagement.
The research draws on an ethnographic approach focused in secondary schools with high percentages of ethnic minority and working-class students in Catalonia (Spain), although the paper is based exclusively on the fieldwork developed in one of the schools. 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. The second criterion was their social composition, that is, the socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural characteristics of school population. 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. This paper focuses on one of the schools, where students were grouped by ability in all courses and subjects. Fieldwork was carried out during a long-term (one academic year, 2014-2015) and periodic stay (two days a week) in each school. 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, such as analysis of school documents, semi-structured 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.
Results are oriented to identify differences in school engagement between students allocated both in high and low groups, and to recognize explanatory mechanisms of these differences. Results show that tacit meanings of each group and daily interactions that occur in different ability groups explain the polarization in terms of school engagement. Moreover, the paper evidences that unequal distribution of students (in terms of social backgrounds) in ability groups makes socially disadvantaged students more likely to disengage from school, showing the relationship between ability grouping and social and educational inequalities.
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