See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more) books we recommend

Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us

Making Difference Matter:
Teaching and Learning in Desegregated Classrooms

by Alexandra Freidus and Pedro A. Noguera
New York, New York and Los Angeles, California

About the authors:

  • Alexandra Freidus -- Department of Teaching and Learning, New York University
  • Pedro A. Noguera -- Department of Education, University of California, Los Angele


In this ethnographic study, we look closely at everyday classroom interactions in order to examine the complex process of creating equitable classroom communities in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. We use the lens of relational difference (Abu El-Haj, 2006) to examine how students negotiate social boundaries within their new school; how students and teachers use small group work to co-construct expectations of academic ability; and how teachers communicate and students navigate the social significance of differentiated instruction and assessment. We find that assumptions that some students are more competent than others permeate the classroom, and these perceptions of ability are frequently tied to students’ race and socioeconomic status. We provide suggestions for teachers and teacher educators who wish to challenge these unspoken classroom norms.

Previously published in The Teacher Educator, 2017, Vol.52, No. 2, 99-113.


To me it’s a priority that kids talk to kids that are different than them in a classroom. I genuinely believe it is one of the best things about this school and about the opportunity to teach these groups, and something they will not get a chance to do in their lives outside of these classrooms. ... It trumps everything else. I can work with a kid to have longer independent work stamina. And they will get better over time at all of those things. They’re only eleven. But I can’t guarantee in the future that they’ll have an opportunity to talk to a kid from a completely different background and experience. So I just prioritize it.
-- Mr. R

Mr. R is a Social Studies teacher at MS 000,1 one of a handful of recently desegregated schools in New York City. As one of the most racially segregated school systems in the nation (Kucsera & Orfield, 2014, p. iii), New York City is now in the midst of a renewed effort to desegregate its schools. In a system known for a dearth of quality middle school options, MS 000 has garnered considerable attention from both families and teachers because of its commitment to racial and socioeconomic diversity. The decisions facing teachers like Mr. R are subject to a high degree of scrutiny as efforts to desegregate more schools increase.

Proponents of school desegregation argue that all students, particularly low-income students and students of color, benefit academically and socially from heterogeneous school environments (Wells, Fox, & Cordova-Coba, 2016). However, a growing body of research on middle-class involvement in urban public schools suggests that efforts to promote educational equity are quite complicated (Cucchiara, 2013; Freidus, 2016; Posey-Maddox, 2014; Posey-Maddox, Kimelberg, & Cucchiara, 2014). In schools that have recently experienced changes in the demographic make-up of their student populations, questions related to race, class, and power intersect with classroom pedagogy and practice (Wells et al., 2016). In this article, we explore some of the questions related to how increased student diversity influences classroom learning environments in the hope of generating useful insights for teachers, school and district leaders and teacher educators.

This article is part of a larger research project on school desegregation in New York City. In this article, we examine social interactions, instructional decisions, labeling, and sorting practices in desegregating schools. We draw on observations and interviews during the crucial first eight weeks of the school year to explore how teachers and students respond to perceived differences within newly diverse classrooms. In particular, we explore how students negotiate social boundaries within their new school; how students and teachers use small group work to co-construct expectations of academic ability; and how teachers communicate and students navigate the social significance of differentiated instruction and assessment. By looking closely at everyday classroom interactions, we examine the complex process of creating equitable classroom communities in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools.

Related literature and theoretical framework

Pratt (1991) uses the metaphor of the “contact zone” in her analysis of classrooms where “cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical contexts of power” (p. 34). In this article, we draw on Pratt’s framework and supplement it with sociological research related to race and differentiated teacher expectations, labeling and sorting practices, and the emergence of “self-fulfilling prophecies,” to examine the role of students and teachers in both shaping and responding to the classroom environment. We then turn to Thea Abu El-Haj’s (2006) work on relational difference in diverse schools, employing relational difference as a lens through which to analyze the norms and values implicit in classroom interactions and the lessons that community members derive from them.

Social interactions in the classroom contact zone

While there is a large body of literature documenting the academic and social benefits of diverse schools and classrooms, absent from most of the existing research is a detailed analysis of pedagogical issues that arise as classrooms become racially and socioeconomically diverse (Mickelson & Bottia, 2010; Wells et al., 2016). In all classrooms, the texts or activities being explicitly taught are intertwined with the implicit lessons students learn based on their social interactions (Abu El-Haj, 2009; Fine, Weis, & Powell, 1997; Wortham, 2006). Pratt (1991) argues that when teachers are ready, willing, and able to teach students from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, classrooms can become “contact zones” or spaces within which all students learn from the full “range and variety of historical relationships” between themselves, their peers, and the texts they study (p. 39). However, the skills of the classroom teacher, her past professional and life experiences, and the explicit and implicit ideologies she embraces are key factors that influence her ability to accomplish this goal. Research on culturally relevant pedagogy demonstrates that successful teachers pay careful attention to who their students are, where they come from, and how they learn and interact within the classroom as they devise strategies to guide children’s growth (Banks et al., 2005; Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 1995, 2009).

In newly diverse classrooms, the “social intimacy” of the classroom (Jackson, 1968) may become particularly loaded with race and class signifiers that inform teachers’ instructional priorities and decisions. While it can be said that in all classrooms students learn not only the “official curriculum” of academic material, but also the “hidden curriculum” that communicates what is expected of students and what they can expect of themselves (Anyon, 1980; Jackson, 1968; Ladson-Billings, 2009), these lessons can be especially complex in recently desegregated schools. Often unconsciously, teachers develop expectations of their students that are heavily influenced by ideology: “common sense” understandings of the relationship between race, class, and intelligence that provide “students from white and wealthy families with considerable advantage, but under the guise of their ‘natural’ abilities, not their social location” (Oakes, Wells, Jones, & Datnow, 1997, p. 486). Despite their best intentions, teachers might base their expectations for students on race- and class-based assumptions. Differentiated expectations often lead to differential treatment within the classroom, which is likely to become apparent in the ways teachers sort students into ability groups, allocate their time and attention to individual students, and develop (or fail to develop) nurturing relationships with individual students.

Differential treatment frequently contributes to the phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy -- the process through which children come to see themselves as less capable, less intelligent, and ultimately as weaker students than their more advantaged peers (Weinstein, Gregory, & Strambler, 2004). Negative self-perceptions can in turn decrease student engagement and inhibit academic achievement, creating a vicious cycle wherein low-income students and students of color perform at lower levels than their more advantaged peers and confirm teachers’ low expectations of their performance (Brophy, 1983; Rist, 2000; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Weinstein, 2002). In racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms, children as well as adults may develop leveled expectations based on implicit (or occasionally explicit) assumptions about race and class. As social beings, students see themselves through the eyes of their peers as well as their teachers. Students of all races frequently expect White students to be placed in higher ability groups (Lewis, 2003; Oakes, 2005) or position students of color as academically “weak” (Lewis, Diamond, & Forman, 2015; Rubin, 2003).

Of course, adults are not the only influential people in the classroom. As any teacher knows, students do not simply respond to the classroom environment; their behaviors profoundly influence it. Writing about the experiences of Black boys in urban schools who are frequently labeled as behavior problems, Ferguson (2001) argues that children are not “humans-in-the-making” but “resourceful social actors who [take] an active role in shaping their daily experiences” (p. 15). They have objectives of their own, agendas that they pursue at times by either contributing to or resisting their teachers’ agendas for the class (Mehan, 1980; Thorne, 1993). Furthermore, students make a series of decisions about whether to accept or resist how their peers and teachers position them in the classroom, both academically and socially, over the course of the school year (Wortham, 2006). Like adults, kids draw from a contextually bound “cultural toolkit” (Swidler, 1986) as they develop interactive strategies to work toward their goals. Students make choices in how they respond to the influences of teachers, peers, and school structures -- and these choices are often influenced by race, class, and gender (Calarco, 2011; Carter, 2007; Ferguson, 2001; Fine et al., 1997; Pugh, 2011; Thorne, 1993).

Relational difference and educational equity

Studies that explore the link between teaching, learning, and school desegregation make clear that both educators and researchers frequently view poor students, students of color, and their families through overlapping, deficit-based lenses (Lipman, 2008; Milner, 2015; Noguera & Wing, 2006; Rubin, 2008). In Elusive Justice: Wrestling With Difference and Educational Equity in Everyday Practice, Abu El-Haj (2006) offers an alternative approach. Drawing on the work of legal scholar Martha Minow (1990), anthropologists McDermott and Varenne (1995) and others, Abu El-Haj argues that all too frequently, discussions of classroom difference, integration, and diversity are marked by one of two stances. The first is a “sameness approach,” which argues, “We are all human” and therefore assumes that educational equity rests on offering the same opportunities to all students. This approach is not unlike the “colorblind” stance adopted by many teachers in diverse schools (Pollock, 2005; Sleeter, 1996). The second approach described by Abu El-Haj is the “difference approach,” which asks schools to respond to students based on their different values, cultures, or learning styles. While such an approach might appear more attentive to the needs of children, it runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes that all students who share certain characteristics learn in a particular way and treating differences as deficits.

To counter these tendencies, Abu El-Haj (2006) offers a third way, which she describes as the lens of “relational difference.” This relational view of difference focuses on “how differences become differences only in relation to institutional norms and practices that often remain unexamined” (p. 197). Based on this approach, a critical interrogation of difference must explore not only how differences related to race, class, language, and gender are related to social structures, but also how school and classroom practices make some differences matter more than others. Such an approach calls on educators to reflect on, and take responsibility for, how school and classroom practices influence student learning.

In the analysis that follows, we embrace Abu El-Haj’s (2006) invitation to shift “our scrutiny from the child to the invisible norms and assumptions of the classrooms” in order to search for new “ways to build inclusive practices that account for the wide variability in human learning” in the contact zones of increasingly diverse schools (p. 100).

Setting, data, and methods

As part of a larger study on teaching, learning, and school desegregation in gentrifying New York City, we conducted ethnographic fieldwork in several schools, including MS 000. Although MS 000 is located in an affluent community, the school until quite recently served an almost exclusively African American and Latino student population, most of whom commuted to the school from low-income neighborhoods nearby. Several years ago, a group of White, professional families who lived near the school decided to enroll their children in the school for sixth grade. In prior years, there had only rarely been even one White student at MS 000. That year, 14 out of 42 students of the MS 000 sixth graders were White. By the fall of 2015, only 45% of MS 000 sixth graders were eligible for free- or reduced-price lunch.

Our case study of this increasingly diverse school focuses on the experiences of one cohort of sixth-graders during the first two months of the 2016–17 school year. Sixth-graders traveled as a group to all their classes throughout the day; observations took place in all their classrooms (English Language Arts, Math, Social Studies, Science, Physical Education, and Art) as well as social spaces such as hallways and the lunchroom. Drawing from the literature on racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms (e.g., Lewis, 2003; Metz, 1979; Noguera & Wing, 2006; Rist, 2000; Tyson, 2011; Wells et al., 2016), observations and field notes paid particular attention to academic, socioeconomic, and racial labeling and sorting practices used by teachers and students, as well as how teachers and students interacted with instructional texts and activities. We also sat in on sixth-grade team meetings at which teachers discussed student challenges and concerns. As part of our observations, we checked in informally with teachers and support staff about how the year was progressing on an ongoing basis. In addition, we conducted brief semi-structured interviews with all sixth-grade teachers in early November 2016, 2 months after the beginning of the school year.

This study uses tools from interpretive and critical qualitative research (Mehan, 1992; Weis & Fine, 2012). Through the findings derived from our observations and interviews, we analyzed the data we collected through an iterative process of coding and recoding (Saldaña, 2015). Analysis began with descriptive codes based on the research questions. Once data collection was complete, the codebook was revised to include analytical codes, including emic categories derived from the data such as “student comfort level” and etic categories based on the theoretical framework such as the use of “coded” language to discuss race and class inside the classroom (Cucchiara, 2013; Pollock, 2005). Throughout the process, we wrote analytic memos that later became the basis for our findings.

Findings and discussion

Boundary work in the classroom

Both kids (2) and adults at MS 000 seem at times to emphasize and at times to deny the salience of race and class differences within the sixth grade. We were not surprised by this fluctuation as it is a pattern that previous related research has identified in great detail (Carter, 2012; Fine et al., 1997; Lewis et al., 2015; Noguera & Wing, 2006; Pollock, 2005; Rubin, 2003). One of the first questions we explored in our fieldwork at MS 000 was the nature of the “boundary work” that marks, conceals, and redefines categories of race and class in the classroom (Lamont & Molnar, 2002; Tabib-Calif & Lomsky-Feder, 2014). Specifically, we looked for moments in which classroom actors (both kids and adults) highlighted or erased racial and socioeconomic differences within the sixth-grade cohort. As others have reported in related studies (e.g., Noguera & Wing, 2006; Pugh, 2011; Thorne, 1993), we found that teachers and students at times maintained and at times directly crossed social boundaries as they navigated school and classroom structures. We observed this type of boundary crossing and maintenance in student-student interactions and teacher-student interactions. What most interested us, however, is that it was in the spaces in which racial and socioeconomic difference were more explicitly acknowledged that students appeared most able to cross those boundaries.

For example, in the more unstructured social spaces of the school (such as hallways or the cafeteria), the kids in Cohort 6A seemed to locate themselves in reliable patterns: groups of White boys who had attended the same affluent elementary school clustered together and relatively diverse, multiracial groups of girls gathered in other clusters. These patterns appeared and re-appeared during the first 2 months of school. We observed them consistently in the hallways between classes, during the “open play” portion of Physical Education, in the school cafeteria, as students mingled during fire drills, and when students were initially invited to seat themselves in academic classes. Yet when we stopped to examine these trends more closely, we realized the groups were a bit more complicated than they initially appeared. While White boys who had attended elementary school together often gathered together in boisterous play, attracting attention from other kids and adults, there were also social groups of Black and Latino boys that included one or two White boys as well as racially mixed groups of Latina, Black, and White girls. While it is difficult to generalize from these observations of informal interactions, it appears that when given a choice, some students readily crossed racial or ethnic borders. Other students, however, chose the company of more familiar peers, carrying the residential and educational segregation of their elementary schools into their new, more diverse middle school. Rather than embracing contact with others unlike themselves, these students avoided it, thus leaving intact the social boundaries the school hoped they would cross.

There was a noticeable difference in how boundaries were marked in the classroom. At times, teachers and students worked together to build a sense of shared identity by ignoring differences within the group. For example, during an English Language Arts discussion of The Circuit by Francisco Jiménez, Ms. N paused to emphasize the significance of socioeconomic status for students who may have missed the message in the text. She pointed out to the class: “Francisco has to work to survive” and went on to elaborate that “this is a very common feeling for immigrants in the United States. Other kids have the luxury of summer vacation, but kids like Francisco don’t.” Ashley, an eager participant in class discussion, raised her hand and said that this was a good reminder of “how lucky we are to have homes and to have everything we have because not everyone does.” Ms. N affirmed Ashley’s point, saying that the story can help to give students the ability to empathize with others.

In this brief interaction, Ashley and Ms. N asserted a class identity for the entire class without acknowledging that it is one that others may not share. There are kids at MS 000 who have the luxury of summer vacations and who might forget how lucky they are to live in nice, comfortable homes. However, there are several kids at MS 000 (including students in 6A) who are living in temporary housing, and others who are recent immigrants themselves. Fifty-five percent of MS 000 sixth-graders are from households with incomes at or below the poverty level. Rather than explicitly naming the differences within their classroom community, students and teachers at times avoid them by implicitly suggesting that “we” are all the same. It is interesting that even when drawing from a text that highlighted the significance of social class, the teacher did not use the instructional moment as an opportunity to address issues of difference among students in the classroom. Instead, the class discussion subtly affirmed middle class norms and sensibilities. This moment of instructional misfire (Youdell, 2006) not only denied the relevance of poor students’ lived realities -- it made class one of the differences that mattered in the classroom.

However, we also observed classrooms where teachers prioritized boundary crossing as a goal in its own right. In social studies, Mr. R uses the strengths of students he called “gapbridgers” to nurture contact zones in the classroom. During our interview, Mr. R defined gap-bridgers as students who are “more at ease talking to people that we would think of as different from them.” He explained:

Kids with really strong speaking and listening skills, basically, are really good in a group like this because they’re more patient, they’re open to new ideas, they’re comfortable expressing, they’re comfortable with themselves, so they’re less judgmental of others. ... When it comes to race in class, kids usually find it much easier to talk to kids that look like them or they see as like them and have signifiers that they do or whatever, and so I think kids that are more comfortable sharing have an easier time crossing and communicating, and opening up lines of communication which fosters more engagement.

In this conversation, Mr. R implicitly suggested that the differences that matter the most are whether kids are “patient,” “open to new ideas,” and “comfortable with themselves.” He further questioned the inevitability of the boundaries that divide students along race and class lines, by questioning what Scott (1988) calls the utility of “fixed oppositions” that “conceal the extent to which things presented as oppositional are, in fact, interdependent” (quoted in Abu El-Haj, 2006, p. 16). He identified difference as a social construct, calling attention to how “we would think of” some students as different from others, and believed that classroom instruction can help students cross boundaries. As we show below, it was in Mr. R’s classroom that we saw the most intentional use of instructional practices such as heterogeneous grouping to support student learning across perceived boundaries of race, class, and academic skill levels

Student collaboration and instructional priorities

All of the sixth grade teachers at MS 000 use collaborative group work as an instructional strategy. While the frequency of group work varied, it was clear that 6A students and teachers alike understand that small group collaboration is a regular feature of teaching and learning at MS 000. However, various teachers framed the purpose and role of these groups in very different terms; these differences have important implications for how students interact with the curriculum, their peers, and their assigned classroom roles.

Mr. R, who believes strongly that part of his work as a teacher is to facilitate border-crossing, saw heterogeneous small groups as an essential part of his classroom instruction. He explained to us how he forms table groups:

Making sure there’s different kids with different races and backgrounds at each table is what I try to do [first]. And I start there, and then I think about, who would have trouble working with someone, like who’s the kid who’s really strong with speaking and listening who will be patient with the kids not as strong at speaking and listening.

When we asked why mixing students based on categories like race and family background was Mr. R’s first priority in creating student table groups, he explained that “racism is profoundly ingrained in everything we do, and especially in school, so if I don’t prioritize integrating in any way that I can, it gets lost.” It is important to note that Mr. R sees students learning “to talk to a kid from a completely different background and experience” as an important part of what students learn in his classroom. He emphasizes that this is an opportunity for “social development” that his students might not have at other points in their lives.

Small groups that are heterogeneous in terms of race and class, as well as skill level, are an essential part of the instructional toolkit Mr. R uses to achieve his goals. Whereas in other classrooms students at times seemed to avoid working with select low-status peers or to disengage from cooperative learning activities altogether, Social Studies table groups generally worked as a team to support each other’s learning. This is not to say that small groups in Mr. R’s classroom are always effective. At times, students distract or simply ignore each other in small group discussions. At other times, the discussion barely skims the surface of the academic content and it is difficult to assess how much students are learning. For example, when a table group was supposed to discuss the statement, “Walls are built to keep people safe,” in an introductory lesson about Mesopotamia, the following conversation ensued:

Axel looks at Juan and Mia. Juan begins talking about different kinds of walls and the materials they’re built from. Mr. R walks by and pushes him further, saying they could be talking about any kind of wall, including the classroom walls. Juan looks around and comments that walls can be racist but they also can be useful in a lockdown. Mia nods, saying that if there were no walls, the building would collapse. Axel says something sarcastic about that being so sad and wishing there were no more school.

It is not clear that Mr. R was aware of the missed instructional opportunities that popped up during this brief group interaction. He is hopeful that as students discuss and cooperate, they will listen and learn from each other. While this hope may not always be fully realized, students in Social Studies frequently engage each other in challenging tasks, listen to each other, and treat each other as peers from whom they have something to learn.

Unlike Mr. R, who intentionally uses small groups to foster boundary crossing, most of the other sixth grade teachers primarily focus on small group instruction as an academic scaffold. They utilize cooperative learning strategies to support students’ skills and understanding of content-area knowledge. For example, Mr. Y, the Math teacher, described the goal of collaborative group work as supporting lower-skilled students with word problems. He explains that more “straight up work” is done individually, but group work is useful with problems where students are asked to apply skills “because some kids are not very strong at reading and even trying to picture a problem.” Similarly, Ms. T, the Science teacher, explained that for collaborative projects, she seeks to group students together who can “really balance each other out.” She went on to explain: “I tried to get partners where one is stronger than the other or has some type of strength that they could bring to the other partner that the other partner could use and vice versa.” Likewise, in English Language Arts Ms. N groups students heterogeneously based primarily on her assessment of reading levels and writing skills.

This approach to heterogeneous small group instruction operates from the assumption that cooperative learning is unidirectional: lower-skilled students benefit from the support of their more highly skilled peers (Rubin, 2003). We observed occasions when struggling students were allowed to opt out of the challenges of cooperative work, such as when a struggling student requested another seat in English Language Arts. Our field notes captured a teacher’s reflection on her decision to allow him to leave his table group:

Ms. A [the Special Education teacher in the English Language Arts room] laughs and says Axel told her, “I don’t want to sit with Felicity and them because they’re going to make me do the work” ... Ms. A says Axel started writing once he was moved to the teacher’s desk, and that’s all she cares about, that he writes. She told him, “If you don’t do any work in the front where you’re supposed to do work, we’re not going to move you. You do the work and I can help you maybe move to another location. As long as you’re doing work, that’s fine, as long as you’re doing work you can sit at my desk.”

Ms. A’s decision makes perfect sense, according to the logic of the English Language Arts classroom. Group work offers lower skilled students peer support; if those students work better on their own, removing them from the group harms nobody. However, this logic assumes that the other students in the group have nothing to learn from Axel. It follows from this assumption that students’ skills are the differences that matter most in the classroom.

Given the model of collaborative group work as an instructional support for low-skilled students, it is not surprising that adults and kids frequently position some students as experts within their small groups, while others are assumed to be less competent --- they take from, rather than give to, the group. An example of an interaction in a Science lab illustrates this pattern:

Debra, Juan, and Derek are all at the same spot on their lab worksheets. Carmen isn’t close. But she doesn’t give up as the group repeats the procedure. She says to them,

“I don’t get it. Why do we subtract?” Debra says, “We need to take away the amount of the petri dish.” Carmen looks at her and says, “Last time I didn’t know ...” Ms. C [a classroom assistant] wanders over and tries to help out --- but she actually interrupts Carmen as she’s just managing to express her question. She says to Carmen, “Why are you confused?” Carmen shrugs and Ms. C turns to Debra, saying, “You got to teach your friends here how to do it too. ... You need to show them. ... Three of them are confused.” Debra whined to Ms. C, “I told them!” Juan asks (and I can’t quite tell if he’s honestly just focused on the work or if he’s trying to demonstrate his competence to Ms. C), “So now we do two of them?” Ms. C says to him, surprised, “Oh, you know what you’re doing, too?” Soon after Ms. C moves away, and Carmen sinks lower in her seat.

In this moment, Ms. C has positioned Debra as the expert and Juan, Derek, and Carmen as her less-capable peers. However, as we observed the students participate in the lab, Juan had actually matched Debra in terms of focus and problem-solving skills. Derek eagerly participated and kept pace with the group, although he occasionally became distracted. Carmen struggled to keep up; she acknowledged that she found the work more difficult than the others and asked for the group’s support. Kids and adults alike accepted the same basic premise: some of the students were there to teach and some of them were there to be taught. The question that Ms. C got wrong was which students fell into which category.

Similarly, during a group exercise in Math class, the key question was which kid would play the role of the teacher and which would play the role of the student. Early in the class, Ashley raised her hand to show Mr. Y a problem she was working on and ask if it was correct. When he shook his head and said, “Jabari, can you help her?” Ashley looked outraged and said, “I want to figure it out myself!” Later, near the end of the period, Ashley looked over at Susan, who was way behind the others, and ostentatiously said to the others, “Let’s go back and help Susan out.” Ashley sees herself as a teacher and other kids as students. It is clear that Ashley cannot imagine what she might have to learn from an academically “weaker” peer.

What complicates the question of whether student skills or student demographics matters more in 6A’s group work is that these two variables are not entirely independent. As Abu El-Haj (2006) contends, although human learning varies widely, our understanding of whether specific types of variance matters is “deeply embedded in relationships and mark the axes along which power is organized in society” (p. 16). When Ms. C came over to help during the Science lab, she assumed that Debra, the only White student in the group, was the group leader. In general, the students seen as most highly skilled by kids and adults in 6A -- those who are positioned as the teachers within the groups -- are often (but not always) White. There are many ways to explain this pattern: teacher expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies (Brophy, 1983; Rist, 2000); the social construction of racialized academic identities (Lewis et al., 2015; Rubin, 2003; Tyson, 2011); and the reality of the segregated landscape of New York City elementary schools, in which the schools with the most experienced teachers and the smallest class sizes serve predominantly White, affluent families, likely all play a part.

The outcome, however, is clear. By making differences in student skills matter—by placing perceptions of student competency at the center of grouping and instructional decisions— these classroom contact zones are also teaching students implicit lessons about the correlation of race, class, and academic ability. As Oakes et al. (1997) might have predicted, we found that in classrooms where ability is understood as innate, fixed, or unidimensional, both kids and adults are most likely to reproduce racialized skill gaps within the student cohort. In contrast, Mr. R thinks of skill levels as context-based and shifting in the Social Studies classroom; he argues that “the skill stuff fluctuates” and “it changes day to day who’s going to be at ease doing that work.” He therefore sees it as logical to focus first on racial and socioeconomic, rather than skilled-based, heterogeneity. In his classroom, difference does not have to “double as deficit” (Abu El-Haj, 2009, p. 411); all kids are assumed to be learners who need the support of their peers in order to succeed, both academically and socially.

Differentiated instruction and assessment as public displays of competence

In the contact zone of Cohort 6A, as in many classrooms, students and teachers frequently make sense of academic differences by attributing them to individual merit. Variations in how much academic support students need to complete an assignment and in the outcomes (e.g., the grades earned or the quality of work produced) are understood as indicators of personal strength or weakness, intellectual acumen, or effort. Typically left unconsidered are the hidden sources of support -- help with homework from college-educated parents or the fact that some students had been previously introduced to curricular concepts in elementary school. It is even more likely that the unexamined classroom norms, values, and practices that “allow some students to accrue knowledge, skills, credentials, and power at the expense of others” will be ignored (Abu El-Haj, 2006, p. 197). By differentiating instruction and assessment, teachers may consciously or unconsciously end up differentiating students themselves, identifying some children as competent and others as failing to meet an explicit or implicit standard. This differentiation occurs as part of a ranking and sorting process that assumes students can and should be placed on an academic spectrum of success and failure.

In New York City, the mandate to place students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) in the “least restrictive environment” has led to the creation of Integrated Cooperative Teaching (ICT) classes. At MS 000, this means that 10 of the 24 students in 6A receive “Special Education” services, while 14 are considered “General Education” students. Ms. A, a Special Education teacher paired with the English Language Arts and Social Studies teachers, and Ms. H, a Special Education teacher paired with the Math and Science teachers, work to support student access to the classroom curriculum. They provide students with graphic organizers, vocabulary cards, typed notes, and other instructional scaffolds. In addition, two students in 6A have dedicated paraprofessionals (or “paras”) who provided individualized attention and support. Although these teachers and paraprofessionals are provided for the benefit of students with IEPs, they provide an improved student–teacher ratio and offer support for all students. At the same time, the presence of these Special Educators creates additional opportunities for both adults and kids to mark differences among students in 6A.

In general, students rarely commented on the presence of paraprofessionals or the ways in which the two Special Education teachers target certain students for support. However, they definitely noticed differences in instructional scaffolding. These observations became particularly pointed when some students receive modified assessments, as during a Science test:

Josiah says to his para, “They got a different test!” and she replies, “Don’t worry about them, you work on yours.” ... Meanwhile, Axel is saying loudly, “I don’t know any of this.” Carey has snatched Nathan’s paper, I’m not sure which it is -- maybe a study guide, maybe a modified test. He says, “She took my paper!” Carey says, looking innocent, “He just dropped his paper!” Ms. H frowns to Carey that she should focus on her own work. When Axel returns, Carey looks over at his quiz and says, “How come you got a different one?” He doesn’t answer. Ms. H comes over and Carey asks, “Can I get that one?” Ms. H doesn’t respond.

Carey and Josiah are clearly concerned with questions of equality in the classroom. However, they are largely oblivious to the notion of equity: the principle of giving students the support needed to be successful (Blankstein & Noguera, 2015). These students are operating from what Abu El-Haj (2006) calls a “sameness approach.” They want to know why some students get different treatment and how this can be fair. Because they are wary of naming differences in how students learn, teachers avoid explaining even the most obvious instances of differentiated instruction, leaving students to draw their own conclusions and “to wonder about either the ‘deficits’ or particular needs of some groups of people” (Abu El-Haj, 2006, p. 196). By refusing to respond to students’ questions about differentiated assessment, the teachers deny even obvious differences. Their silence only serves to make the difference matter all the more.

Because teachers and students see differentiated instruction as a modification of the norm -- a test with some answers completed or the use of graphic organizers while other students take notes “the regular way” -- they inevitably worry that differentiated instruction is for students who are not “normal.” However, differentiated instruction is just one part of a broader pedagogy that systematically marks students as competent or incompetent, with profound consequences for students’ academic identities. Near the end of that same Science quiz, students demonstrate the stress this practice creates:

Nathan says audibly, from across the room, “I can do it. I can do it. I can do it. I can do it.” Sebastian is sitting and just staring at his paper. Ms. H asks him how’s it going and he flips the paper over, but continues to stare. As she walks away, Jonah says to Elly, who is walking by, “I finished it just by guessing.” She shushes him. Jonah and Matteo begin talking about how they completed ten questions by guessing strategically. Christopher and Sebastian sit there with mostly empty papers, only a few questions attempted on each sheet. Christopher says, saving face, “I didn’t guess at all. I was being truthful. That’s why I only did four. I feel really bad.” Jonah says, “That’s all right” and they change the topic of conversation as Ms. H collects the quizzes.

All of the students are aware of the criteria for success in this situation. As Abu El-Haj reminds us: “when the only question is whether a student has or has not achieved a standard, then the only answer is success or failure” (Abu El-Haj, 2006, p. 137). Not coincidentally, Jonah and Matteo, like Debra in the previous vignette, are White students who attended a local, well-resourced, predominantly affluent elementary school. In this setting, they are presumed academically competent. For Sebastian and Christopher, students of color with IEPs, there is no such presumption. It is clear to them -- despite Jonah’s assurance that everything will be “all right” -- that the difference between completing and not completing the quiz matters very much indeed.


Implications for teachers

The idea that certain kinds of difference -- for example, in reading skills, in Special Education classification, or family background -- matter in classroom instruction has been taken for granted for so long that it can be difficult to imagine a school in which this is not the case. It might be helpful to consider another form of difference that is recognized as influencing how students learn but rarely seen as having broader significance: hand dominance. Elementary school teachers frequently note in passing that left-handed children do better work when they are provided with special scissors and #3 (rather than #2) pencils, so that their writing remains clear as their hands move across the page. These, too, are individual differences that have meaning only in a specific social context. (After all, lefties who write in Hebrew do not need to worry about smudging their letters from left to right.) However, even as teachers work to accommodate these differences, they rarely consider them academically significant.

The findings from these observations are preliminary and not truly generalizable to other settings. However, as we watched the sixth grade classrooms at MS 000 grapple with differences in race, class, academic ability and privilege, we were struck by how little guidance they received in their efforts to build a sense of community and camaraderie among students in the classroom. Our observations suggest that it might be useful for teachers to reflect collectively on ways that they could consider and respond to differences among students particularly as they relate to race, class, skill level, and special education classification. Many teachers have learned to accommodate variation in hand dominance without making students feel inferior due to their difference from the norm. Many teachers need help in learning how to consider and respond to other forms of difference in light of classroom demands.

By asking teachers to examine how they make some kinds of difference matter in the classroom, we are also asking them to examine their own ideologies and biases related to race, class, merit, and intelligence (Oakes et al., 1997). This is hard work -- but it is just the beginning. Reflection, while essential, is not enough. Teachers also need to re-examine specific instructional practices that position some groups of students as “experts” in the classroom over others and that emphasize the importance of a narrow set of discrete skills (e.g., reading levels or computation) over the knowledge and skills that other students bring with them to the classroom community. We encourage teachers to closely examine the unspoken norms within their classrooms and how these assumptions reinforce perceptions of students of color and poor students as burdened with overwhelming deficits. Teachers could be encouraged to spend time learning more about individual kids with the goal of leveraging student strengths as well as anticipating struggles during classroom instruction (Boykin & Noguera, 2011; Moll, Amanti, & Neff, 1992). School staff might work with their colleagues to name the social and symbolic boundaries that they wish to support students in crossing, to identify the pedagogical choices they make as they create seating charts and design small group work, and to articulate their specific instructional goals and supports in developing differentiated instruction and assessment.

Implications for teacher educators

Abu El-Haj (2006) reminds us that “taking a relational stance insists on examining educational practices in terms of the relationships they produce between groups -- relationships that create or limit the possibilities for building more equitable schools” (p. 200). Teacher education programs can integrate this stance into their core curricular program. For example, preservice teachers are regularly required to observe classroom instruction. Teacher educators can and should ask teachers to recognize the ways in which social boundaries are maintained and the ways that difference comes to matter as part of those observation assignments. Similarly, as student teachers develop lesson plans that incorporate small group instruction or cooperative work, teacher educators can support them in articulating the criteria they use to group students heterogeneously and the strategies they will use to position all students as experts with valuable knowledge to offer their peers (Lotan, 2010). Instructional methods classes can address how various instructional strategies make difference matter within the classroom. Readings in Foundations of Education courses can provide students with analytic models that critically examine the routines, norms, and values that permeate school and classroom culture.

We believe it is imperative that teacher educators fully support preservice teachers in doing this difficult work. Examining intelligence and deficit ideologies, identifying promising practices that support the full inclusion of all students by cultivating their talents and strengths through the classroom curriculum, articulating goals for classroom equity and boundary-crossing, and investigating opportunity gaps in the school and classroom need not be treated as yet another mandate in the teacher education course of study. Rather, they must be seen as central to the work of preparing excellent teachers for all classrooms.


Abu El-Haj, T. R. (2006). Elusive justice: Wrestling with difference and educational equity in everyday practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Abu El-Haj, T. R. (2009). Challenging the inevitability of difference: Young women and discourses about gender equity in the classroom. Curriculum Inquiry, 33(4), 401–425.

Anyon, J. (1980). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. Journal of Education, 162(1):67–92.

Banks, J., Cochran-Smith, M., Moll, L., Richert, A., Zeichner, K., Lepage, P., ... Duffy, H. (2005). Teaching diverse learners. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Branford (Eds.),
Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 232–274). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Blankstein, A. M., & Noguera, P. (2015). Excellence through equity: Five principals of courageous leadership to guide achievement for every student. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Boykin, A. W., & Noguera, P. (2011). Creating the opportunity to learn: Moving from research to practice to close the achievement gap. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Brophy, J. (1983). Conceptualizing student motivation. Educational Psychologist, 18(3), 200–215.

Calarco, J. M. (2011). “I need help!” Social class and children’s help-seeking in elementary school. American Sociological Review, 76(6), 862–882.

Carter, P. L. (2007). Keepin’ it real: School success beyond Black and White. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Carter, P. L. (2012). Stubborn roots: Race, culture, and inequality in U.S. and South African schools. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Cucchiara, M. B. (2013). Marketing schools, marketing cities: Who wins and who loses when schools become urban amenities. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Ferguson, A. A. (2001). Bad boys: Public schools in the making of Black masculinity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Fine, M., Weis, L., & Powell, L. C. (1997). Communities of difference: A critical look at desegregated spaces created for and by youth. Harvard Educational Review, 67(2), 247–284.

Freidus, A. (2016). “A great school benefits us all”: Advantaged parents and the gentrification of an urban public school. Urban Education.

Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Retrieved from

Jackson, P. (1968). Life in classrooms. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Kucsera, J., & Orfield, G. (2014). New York State’s extreme school segregation: Inequality, inaction and a damaged future. Los Angeles, CA: The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34(3), 159–165. Retrieved from

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Lamont, M., & Molnar, V. (2002). The study of boundaries in the social sciences. Annual Review of Sociology, 28, 167–195.

Lewis, A. E. (2003). Race in the schoolyard: Negotiating the color line in classrooms and communities. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Lewis, A. E., Diamond, J. B., & Forman, T. A. (2015). Conundrums of integration: Desegregation in the context of racialized hierarchy. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 1, 22–36.

Lipman, P. (2008). Mixed_income schools and housing: Advancing the neoliberal urban agenda. Journal of Education Policy, 23(2), 119–134.

Lotan, R. (2010). Equitable classrooms. Theory into Practice, 45(1), 37–41.

Mehan, H. (1980). The competent student. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 11(3), 131–152.

Mehan, H. (1992). Understanding inequality in schools: The contribution of interpretive studies. Sociology of Education, 65(1), 1–20.

Metz, M. H. (1979). Classrooms and corridors: The crisis of authority in desegregated schools. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mickelson, R. A., & Bottia, M. (2010). Integrated education and mathematics outcomes: A synthesis of social science research. North Carolina Law Review, 88, 993–1145.

Milner, H. R. (2015). Rac(e)ing to class: Confronting poverty and race in schools and classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Minow, M. (1990). Making all the difference: Inclusion, exclusion, and American law. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Moll, L. C., Amanti, C., & Neff, D. (1992). Funds of knowledge for teaching: Using a qualitative approach to connect homes and classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31, 132–141. Retrieved from

Noguera, P. A., & Wing, J. Y. (2006). Unfinished business: Closing the racial achievement gap in our schools. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Oakes, J. (2008). Keeping track: Structuring equality and inequality in an era of accountability. Teacher College Record, 110(3), 700–712.

Oakes, J., Wells, A. S., Jones, M., & Datnow, A. (1997). Detracking: The social construction of ability, cultural politics, and resistance to reform. Teachers College Record, 98(3): p. 482–510.

Pollock, M. (2005). Colormute: Race talk dilemmas in an American school. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Posey-Maddox, L. (2014). When middle-class parents choose urban schools: Class, race, and the challenges of equity in public education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Posey-Maddox, L., Kimelberg, S. M., & Cucchiara, M. B. (2014). Middle-class parents and urban public schools: Current research and future directions. Sociology Compass, 4, 446–456.

Pratt, M. L. (1991). Arts of the contact zone. Profession, 91, 33–40.

Pugh, A. J. (2011). Distinction, boundaries or bridges?: Children, inequality and the uses of consumer culture. Poetics, 39(1), 1–18.

Rist, R. (2000). HER classic: Student social class and teacher expectations: The self-fulfilling prophecy in ghetto education. Harvard Educational Review, 70(3), 257–302.

Rubin, B. C. (2003). Unpacking detracking: When progressive pedagogy meets students’ social worlds. American Educational Research Journal, 40(2), 539–573.

Rubin, B. C. (2008). Detracking in context: How local constructions of ability complicate equity geared reform. Teachers College Record, 110(3), 646–699.

Saldaña, J. (2015). The coding manual for qualitative researchers (3rd ed.). London, UK: Sage.

Sleeter, C. E. (1996). Multicultural education as social activism. Albany: SUNY Press.

Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797–811.

Swidler, A. (1986). Culture in action: Symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review, 51(2), 273–286.

Tabib-Calif, Y., & Lomsky-Feder, E. (2014). Symbolic boundary work in schools: Demarcating and denying ethnic boundaries. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 45(1), 22–38.

Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: Girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Tyson, K. (2011). Integration interrupted: Tracking, Black students, and acting White after Brown. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Varenne, H., & McDermott, R. (1995). Culture as disability. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 26 (3), 324–348.£0936z

Weinstein, R. S. (2002). Reaching higher: The power of expectations in schooling. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Weinstein, R. S., Gregory, A., & Strambler, M. J. (2004). Intractable self-fulfilling prophecies fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education. American Psychologist, 59(6), 511–520. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.59.6.511

Weis, L., & Fine, M. (2012). Critical bifocality and circuits of privilege: Expanding critical ethnographic theory and design. Harvard Educational Review, 82(2), 173–201.

Wells, A. S., Fox, L., & Cordova-Coba, D. (2016). How racially diverse schools and classrooms can benefit all students. Washington, DC: The Century Foundation.

Wortham, S. (2006). Learning identity: The joint emergence of social identification and academic learning. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Youdell, D. (2006). Impossible bodies, impossible selves: Exclusions and student subjectivities (Inclusive education: Cross cultural perspectives). Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Springer.



1. All identifying information has been changed throughout this article to protect the anonymity of the school, the students, and the teachers. We have also slightly adjusted data and demographic details that could easily identify the school and community.

2. Since both students and teachers consistently referred to sixth-graders as “kids,” we have adopted their language.

CONTACT: Alexandra Freidus alex.freidus at Department of Teaching and Learning, 239 Greene Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10003, USA.

© 2017 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC

Published in In Motion Magazine July 28, 2019.

Also see: