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Tracking Identity: Opportunity, Success, and Affiliation with Science among Fifth-Grade Latina/o Youth of Santa Barbara, California

  • Author(s): Maas, Grayson Ford
  • Advisor(s): Stonich, Susan C.
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation is an investigation into the American public education system at the elementary school level. It highlights important factors that shape the organizational structure of schools and classrooms, and in turn, how they engender disparities in the ways students experience education, namely, in the opportunities made available to them to achieve and succeed at a high level. This dissertation operates at the confluence of notions about class, gender, language, and race, especially as they revolve around public education and the hegemonic meritocratic discourse on which it is founded. This dissertation engages and contributes to scholarship within the following areas: The political economy of education; discourse and the dialectical relationship between agency and structure; cultural perspectives on identity, voice, and learning; and, Latinas/os in science education.

The data that serve as the basis for the findings presented in this dissertation were collected throughout a three-phase yearlong ethnographic study of the two tracked fifth-grade classrooms at Amblen Elementary School, serving a socioeconomically disadvantaged Latina/o student population in Santa Barbara, California.

In classrooms all across the nation, while it remains true that Latina/o students disproportionally take up space in the lower-tracked courses and not in the higher ones, this study does not examine inequality in tracking assignments made along ethnic/racial lines (as 100% of the students that participated in this research identify as Latina/o), rather, it investigates the consequences of what happens when Latina/o students are tracked according to symbolic markers of their ethnic/racial identity, that is, their varying levels of English language competency.

Using data from participant observation, semi-structured interviews, students’ drawings, as well as free-list and rank-order exercises, I was able to answer the following central research questions: In what ways do the division of students into groups (based on academic ability [i.e., English language proficiency] and behavior) impact: (a) the number and types of opportunities for Latinas/os to succeed in school science? (b) how Latinas/os negotiate the concept of ‘success’ in school science? And (c) the ways in which Latinas/os claim and perform successful school science identities?

During my time with the fifth-grade youth of Amblen Elementary School, I found that not all students were necessarily expected to succeed in the same ways and with the same frequency. I also found that while there existed considerable overlaps, what it meant to be a “good” science student in one classroom was qualitatively different from what it meant in the other. Importantly, these differences in classroom expectations helped to mold (or inhibit) students’ individual understandings of self as capable and/or “smart” students. This dissertation endeavors to tell their story.

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