Pedagogical decision-making in tracked classes
Shepard, Bryan Michael
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Public education in America has relied on testing students to ascertain their level of abilities; thus sorting them into academic categories referred to as tracking (Glaser & Silver, 1994). Students are then placed in these different educational tracks, which carry with them significant variations in instructional quality and teachers’ perceptions (Callahan, 2005; Gamoran, 2004; Gamoran & Nystrand, 1994; Oakes, 2005). The purpose of this study was to examine how a mathematics teacher’s perceptions of her tracked students informed her pedagogical decision-making. This study explored how tracking affected a teacher’s decisions and if the teacher acted against the structures of tracking, known as agency. To achieve this goal, the researcher designed a qualitative case study with three research questions: How does a teacher’s perceptions of groups of students she teaches compare to each other based on track level? What does teaching look like in tracked classes? Where does a teacher’s perception of her class intersect with the strategies employed? By using a single participant, the study focused on providing a “thick” description of the participant, given her unique experiences and interactions, as well as how her perceptions influenced her pedagogical decisions. The eleven-week study was conducted in a sixth-grade mathematics teacher’s room in a school in the southeastern United States. The theoretical framework used to guide this study was symbolic interactionism, which allowed for a focus on the interactions and their meanings. For data collection, the researcher employed semi-structured interview, audio/video recorded observations, field notes, and video-cued interviews. The semi-structured interview inquired about the background and philosophical beliefs of the participant in regards to tracking. The observations and field notes offered the researcher critical incidents to compare between the classes and context. The video-cued interviews provided the opportunity for the participant to view and reflect on these instances in her practice and give the researcher a more in-depth explanation of her decision-making. The findings of this study suggest that the gifted and lower-tracked students were placed in a constant state of comparison, with the gifted students being given a more favorable characterization.