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High School English: A National Portrait

Adam Gamoran, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and William J. Carbonaro, University of Wisconsin-Madison


What sorts of instruction do students experience in high school English? Most research findings rely on small-scale, localized contexts. The purpose of this study is to provide a national portrait of high school English by documenting its overall quality on several dimensions that are theoretically important. In addition, the study examines individual and structural sources of inequality in the types of English instruction that occur in different types of classes and to which different types of students are exposed. Nystrand's (1997) and Applebee's (1996) conceptual frameworks were used to identify four essential aspects of classroom instruction in English: quantity, coherence, student voice, and content. Data from teachers and students in the 1990 wave of the National Educational Longitudinal Survey provide evidence. The results show that most students do not receive English instruction that meets the standards suggested by these authors. This finding comes from reports by teachers as well as students. There is also evidence of unequal access to high quality instruction: students in honors classes have greater access to high quality instruction, and students in general-track classes have the least access on several indicators. The study provides a useful baseline for understanding how far we have to go in the reform of high school English.

* High School Journal, 86(2), pp. 1-13, 2002-2003.

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