The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, despite their reputation for quality education, have one of the widest achievement gaps in the Triangle. Minority students tend to score well below white students on end-of-grade (EOG) tests. Duke postdoctoral fellow Kamilah Legette ’15 (PhD) wanted to find out what was going on.
Earlier studies she had conducted in Greensboro schools pointed to several factors that warranted further exploration, including how racial and ethnic identity relates to academic identity; messages students absorb from parents and teachers; and the impact of tracking and sorting students into gifted, regular, or remedial classes.
“Tracking is endemic in all schools and can perpetuate disparity,” said Legette, a postdoc fellow in the Social Science Research Institute. “Students are aware that they are tracked. That impacts how they view themselves and how teachers view them. And that affects how they’ll perform in the classroom.”
Students who do well in school tend to consider academics an important part of their identity. The more connected they feel to the school, the harder they’ll try in class and the better they’ll do. Other influences might come from whether teachers think a child is smart and capable of learning the material, and whether parents emphasize a child’s innate ability (“You’re so good at math!”) as opposed to effort (“Your hard work paid off on that test.”).
Taking a multifaceted approach to understanding the problem made Legette’s research a good fit for Bass Connections funding. The Bass Connections program encourages interdisciplinary study that brings together researchers of different levels and fields to apply their unique perspectives to the study questions and to learn from one another in the process.
Legette contacted Jennifer Lansford ’95 (BA), a professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy who is affiliated with the Center for Child and Family Policy. Lansford’s research focuses on parenting as she looks at students’ academic achievement in diverse cultural contexts and the development of aggression and behavior problems. She and Legette found enough points where their research interests intersected that they decided to partner in a Bass Connections course they titled “Schooling and Parenting: Implications for Students’ Academic Identity.”
Bass Connections projects are structured to have a faculty adviser, in this case Lansford, who mentors a graduate student or postdoc, Legette, who designed and is implementing the study, and a group of undergraduates or grad students who collect and analyze the data. Legette and Lansford selected five undergraduates: senior Jennifer Acosta, sophomores Celia Garrett, Nia Moore, Victoria Prince and Trey Walk. Their majors range from psychology and public policy to education and global cultural studies.
From her prior research, Legette observed that tracking could have a negative impact on students shunted into the low-level track, whereas students in the high-level track might have possessed the ability and drive to succeed without extra enrichment. The issue of tracking becomes more salient because of a racial and ethnic divide: Minority students are over-represented in the lower tracks, while the higher tracks have more white students.
Tracking begins in the sixth grade, when students begin middle school. Changing tracks is virtually impossible, Legette said, because students are taught different material, depending on the track. In math, for instance, the non-compacted classes learn sixth-grade material, while the compacted classes move through sixth- and seventh-grade work.
“Compacted students learn critical thinking; they break into small groups and discuss the question of the day,” Legette said. “Non-compacted students are given worksheets that the teacher reviews in class.”
Legette designed a yearlong study that collected both quantitative and qualitative data. During the fall semester, her team of undergraduates administered surveys to middle-schoolers, their parents and teachers in Chapel Hill public middle schools. (At least one of the undergraduate researchers is bilingual and can proctor the survey in Spanish.) The Duke students will do a follow-up survey toward the end of the spring semester to catch any changes over time. In the interim, the Duke undergrads have conducted open-ended interviews to hear in the child’s own words how race and academics factored into the child’s identity.
Those responses have been eye-opening to sophomore Nia Moore, who grew up in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools and benefited from tracking.
“It’s interesting seeing complex issues like race and tracking from the perspective of sixth-grade students, and seeing the difference between the answers of kids of different races” she said. “And seeing how everything connects: the things I’ve read about and studied and how they play out in the real world.”
Senior Jennifer Acosta came to the U.S. at a young age as an immigrant. She went to underfunded Title I schools and watched many of her peers drop out. Collecting data for Legette’s study got her thinking about how her life might have been different had she not been placed in the gifted-and-talented track in the fourth grade.
“A teacher saw something in me and inspired me to do better,” Acosta said. “She changed my life. I saw a difference in the way students in AP classes thought about themselves compared to students in regular or remedial classes. I saw differences in how one is treated in the educational system.”
Acosta has worked on many research projects at Duke—at the Center for Child & Family Policy, Duke Immerse, a prior Bass Connections study, and she recently received the Jerome S. Bruner Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research—but interviewing participants was new to her.
“I learned how difficult it can be to talk with some of the participants or communicate effectively when scheduling changes come up,” she said.
The Duke students transcribe one another’s interviews, giving them a chance to hear how their colleagues asked questions and handled follow-up.
As the study is Nia Moore’s first research project ever, she appreciated that an entire class session was devoted to practicing interviewing skills, what to pay attention to and how to make sure they weren’t guiding participants’ answers. The entire team helps one another.
“We’re learning together,” Moore said.
After enrolling in the Bass project “with zero research experience,” she said, she now is designing a spin-off study to conduct in Cuba over the summer to compare students in the Communist versus capitalist society.
The Duke students are in the process of cleaning the survey data and coding the interview findings, learning to use NVivo software and looking for themes and patterns. The undergrads hope to get their work published or perhaps present their findings at a professional conference.
The researchers have offered to share their findings with parents at the schools, “to get the word out to parents,” Lansford said, “that there are things they could be doing at home that may not be obvious, like praising effort rather than ability.”
Legette has secured funding to continue the study next year, in another district that has a higher number of African American students and students of a lower socioeconomic status than the Chapel Hill middle-schoolers. Ultimately, Legette would like to be able to offer suggestions for changing the current practice of tracking, making it easier for students to move to a higher track or do away with tracking altogether. She hopes to test out her ideas in a pilot program, perhaps in a rural county that has fewer parents apprehensive that their child might miss out on any potential benefits of high-level tracking.
“If we can think of ways to help students learn the same material, there could be a way to reduce some of the disparities,” she said.