Maureen Hallinan 

William P and Hazel B White Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology
University of Notre Dame

Research on Tracking and Ability Grouping

The long-standing interest of researchers in the topic of ability grouping (including tracking) continues unabated. The differential organization of students for instruction is a pervasive practice in U.S. middle and secondary schools. However, it is also a controversial practice, viewed by many as creating an inequitable distribution of learning opportunities by student background characteristics. Hence, grouping students by ability has been studied from both political and scientific perspectives. Research examines the determinants and consequences of assigning students to instructional groups by ability, differences in pedagogical practices and in curriculum content across ability groups, and effects of ability group assignment on student achievement. 

I see this work as influential for two reasons. First, it triggered the debate about school effects on opportunities to learn. This debate focused attention on ways in which institutional and organizational inequities exist in schools and how they can be eliminated. Some educators responded to the debate by detracking their schools or discontinuing ability grouping. Other educators continued the practice but implemented reforms to reduce or eliminate the inequitable aspects and negative consequences of grouping by ability. It is rare that educational research becomes part of the national conversation about school policy and practice. Second, the study of ability grouping was one of the factors that led researchers to adopt multi-method approaches to educational research. Many researchers now employ both quantitative and qualitative analyses to study the various dimensions of ability grouping. 

Research on the Black-White Achievement Gap 

The importance of research on the black-white achievement gap is seen in the growing body of studies seeking to document and explain test score differences between African American and white students, and more recently, between other minority and white students. Initially, this body of research was primarily empirical. The results were fairly consistent across several national, longitudinal surveys. More recently, with the achievement gap well documented, researchers are attempting to explain it from various disciplinary perspectives. We now have a better understanding of the effects of classroom and school context on student learning, of race and ethnic effects on learning styles, of the effects of social class on student outcomes, and other important issues. 

What is important about these studies is that they continually draw attention to the interaction of family, neighborhood and school effects on student outcomes. Moreover, they specifically address critical issues of equity in society. Study of the achievement gap identifies changes in the size of the gap over time which leads to efforts to explain the change and reduce the differences. This has become the goal of many reform efforts. In addition, empirical studies of the achievement gap have generated important theoretical analyses of the role of race and ethnicity in our society and, in particular, in our educational institutions. 

Invited or Commissioned Theoretical and Empirical Papers  

As editor of the Handbook of the Sociology of Education (2000), I had the opportunity to ask highly regarded sociologists of education to submit theoretical or empirical papers addressing key issues in contemporary education. The quality of the twenty-four chapters was impressive. The Handbook has received widespread positive feedback from both inside and outside the discipline, and an updated version is in process. In addition, a significant number of faculty use the Handbook in their graduate courses, allowing these outstanding papers to influence a new generation of researchers. While countless edited volumes are published each year, few are of the quality of Jim March’s Handbook of Organizations, which was the model for the Handbook of the Sociology of Education. Containing outstanding papers such as Bidwell’s classic, “The school as a formal organization,” March’s Handbook is still referred to by scholars. What I am suggesting is that educational research could be advanced by commissioning articles from scholars with reputations for outstanding work and by widely promulgating this research. The impact likely would be more far reaching than journal articles and regular edited volumes. The goal would be to engage scholars in intellectual discussion of educational theory and research and to provide models for exceptionally strong theoretically based and empirically rigorous scholarship on educational issues.