Off the Track: The Impact of Homogeneous Grouping on Political Socialization and Social Capital in American Schools

Hallock, Jesse [Browse]
Senior thesis
137 pages


Katz, Stan [Browse]
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs [Browse]
Class year
Restrictions note
Walk-in Access. This thesis can only be viewed on computer terminals at the Mudd Manuscript Library.
Summary note
Schools in the United States are tasked with two responsibilities: ensuring the future economic viability of students and cultivating the essential skills necessary for the performance of civic duties. Given its use in up to eighty-five percent of middle schools, homogeneous grouping, the sorting of children into classes according to scholastic ability, is a substantial factor in the attainment of these goals. Nevertheless, while its impact on academic and career outcomes has been thoroughly examined, few researchers have investigated its influence on schools’ civic responsibility. For this reason, the present study analyzes the impact of ability grouping, most commonly known as tracking, on students’ development of the attributes necessary for productive citizenship. The current study utilizes a political socialization and social capital framework to facilitate this investigation. Political socialization theory emphasizes the school’s role in students’ acquisition of American attributes, beliefs and values. While definitions of the particular characteristics associated with socialization vary widely, students in the United States are generally expected to develop the competency and aptitude necessary for active political participation. In a related process, social capital theory emphasizes the importance of connections between citizens. Through iterated interaction in both organizational and informal arenas, individuals develop the relationships necessary for cooperation, trust and reciprocity. Together, political socialization and social capital development create a stronger, more efficient, and better functioning community, accruing benefits at both the individual and national levels. By shaping the educational resources received by students and the composition of their classmates, tracking has a substantial influence on the function of these processes. The current study utilizes the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88) dataset. Collecting a nationally representative sample of eighth-graders in 1988, researchers from the National Center for Education Statistics reexamined students during their tenth grade year in 1990, twelfth grade in 1992 and twice after graduation in 1996 and 2000. The NELS’ twelve-year duration allows investigation of both the intermediate and long-term effects of tracking on political socialization and social capital processes. Measuring group involvement and informal networks as indicators of social capital and political participation and the adoption of American values as indicators of political socialization, the current study develops a comprehensive picture of the relationship between homogeneous grouping and productive citizenship. The study finds that in intermediate-term political socialization and social capital accumulation, tracking generally increases inequalities between students without producing gains in overall school productivity. In other words, homogeneous grouping increases the gap between high and low-track students, without any overarching benefit. Furthermore, while the long-term social capital indicators follow the same pattern, the long-term political participation measures suggest that tracking both increases inequalities and decreases productivity. In short, homogeneous grouping disproportionately diminishes low-track students’ involvement in the political process, weakening overall rates of participation.

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