Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009
Movement toward Student Curricular Choice
The tracking process that matched students to courses remained quite stable for at least four decades. During the 1960s, however, the ways in which high schools sorted students began to evolve.8 Rather than rigid curricular tracks that dictated which courses students would take, high schools slowly implemented more flexible structures that relied on student curricular choice.9 Whereas traditional tracking placed students into predetermined courses and permitted little movement between academic, general, and vocational programs, the new approach allowed students to choose among dozens (or even hundreds) of courses and to create their own courses of study based on their future plans, interests, abilities, and motivation. Despite the elimination of formal tracking, the differentiated curriculum remained in place, and students' academic experiences continued to vary substantially within the same school.10 As one author noted, "The curriculum remained stratified, but the logic of the strata became submerged."11 Expansion of choice-driven curricula continued throughout the social upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Drawing on justifications similar to those put forth in Cardinal Principles, many high schools created courses deemed more "relevant" to students' lives, especially to the lives of racial and ethnic minority youth.12 Organizations as politically varied as black militants and business roundtables agreed that students' social and academic diversity required curricular differentiation.13
We now refer to this choice-driven academic structure as the "comprehensive curriculum," which comprises many sets of courses aligned both vertically and horizontally.14 Vertically aligned courses share similar titles, but differ in difficulty (and often substance). For example, many high schools permit students to select among three distinct levels of eleventh-grade U.S. history: regular, honors, and Advanced Placement. Horizontally aligned courses are those through which students advance year by year. Once students complete prerequisite courses, they can decide how many years they will study a foreign language or whether to take calculus or physics (which few school districts require). As such, although stratified curricula remain in the comprehensive high school, students are permitted to track themselves through their choice of courses, deciding which levels of courses to complete and how far to advance through the curriculum.