Senior Thesis

Tracking political impact of racial disparity in schools

by Eric Quiñones

As a high school student, Amira Karriem was keenly aware that she was the only African American student in her advanced classes. Now, as a Princeton senior, she is investigating the effects of the racial disparity at her own school and around the country.

For her senior thesis in the Department of Politics, Karriem is mixing scholarly research and fieldwork at two New Jersey high schools to study the impact of tracking systems, the practice of separating students based on their academic proficiency. She is examining how African American students’ experience in public school tracking systems — where they are disproportionately represented at the lower levels — affects their views on whether they will be able to exert political influence or to be treated equitably by government as adults.

Amira Karriem
Amira Karriem (photo illustration: Brian Wilson)

To compare systems, Karriem conducted surveys of 60 students at her own high school, Columbia High School in South Orange, where tracking is used, and at nearby West Orange High School, where tracking was eliminated more than three years ago. She also interviewed students and teachers to get their views on the effectiveness of these systems.

“I had the privilege of being in the advanced level at Columbia High School ... but when I looked around my classroom I usually wondered why I was the only black person in the class, while many of my friends were in classes with nothing but black students,” she said. “This observation prompted my interest, and I was driven to better understand the motivations behind the racial makeup of these classrooms.”

Karriem noted that tracking systems are used throughout the country in racially diverse schools such as the two she chose for her case studies. Nationally, the systems date back to the 1920s, but became more prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that desegregated public schools.

“A lot of times schools introduced tracking systems so that students would get broken up by ability — and ability usually meant race,” Karriem said. “That’s the kind of mentality that I think still goes on with racially diverse schools today in terms of implementing tracking systems. You still see segregation in classrooms based on ability, but more so based on race.”

Karriem said a major problem with tracking systems is that students are typically “locked in” at the elementary level. “I think it sells students short if they’re placed in a lower level at an early age and then aren’t able to move on when they get further along. The opportunities for success from that point are pretty limited,” she said.

From a political standpoint, these systems create negative feelings among many African American students, “which would have a big impact on the political structure of the country in terms of how political power is distributed,” Karriem said.

“One of the things I note in my thesis is that students’ relationship to their schools is the closest kind of ‘state’ relationship that they have growing up,” she said. “My hypothesis is that tracking systems have a psychologically detrimental effect, where black students feel they are less because most of them are relegated to lower levels — a lot of times unfairly so. That will be reflected in their political attitudes, where they feel they’ll be less effective in government,” she said.

In a preliminary analysis of students’ survey responses, Karriem said “almost everybody agreed or strongly agreed” that their views of the political system were influenced by their experiences in the public education system.

Karriem’s adviser Paul Frymer, an associate professor of politics, said she has conducted rigorous research on a timely, relevant project.

“She is asking us to return attention to an extremely important area of racial politics, inequality in schooling. And she is pointing us to the right place, pre-college,” he said.

“Tracking remains central to how America educates its youth and attempts to prepare students for college and careers. ... And yet, as Amira shows, it is hugely problematic, leading to racial inequalities in learning and racial segregation in the classroom and schools; this type of inequality in turn has huge implications for the student bodies at places like Princeton,” Frymer said. “Amira’s project stands out in terms of how she can take an important issue that is all around us and illuminate its dramatic costs.”

Karriem, who will work for Goldman Sachs after graduation and eventually plans to pursue a career in politics, said she believes tracking systems should be eliminated “but it won’t happen overnight.”

“In West Orange, the fact that they’ve been successful in de-tracking shows that it wasn’t only a policy put into schools, the norms of the community had to change in terms of people’s ideas about what makes somebody intelligent and what constitutes ability,” she said. “You have to completely alter the way we think about those things. A lot of times our perceptions of intelligence and ability are linked to race, and that would be really hard to fix because it’s built in there now in most tracking systems.”

For her senior thesis, politics major Amira Karriem is exploring the impact of public school tracking systems, in which students are separated based on their academic proficiency. From a political standpoint, Karriem has found these systems create negative feelings among many African American students, who are disproportionately represented at the lower levels.