Pushing For Privileged Passage: A grounded theory of guardians to middle level mathematics students

Tina L. Johnston, Ph.D.


This grounded theory research identified conflict over decisions about
placement into high ability mathematics classes. A theory
termed pushing for privileged passage emerged from data
collected from parents and educators in the Northwest United
States as well as international literature. Pushing occurs
following a break down of trust among parents and/or educators
over various facets of the school and over student abilitygrouping
decisions in mathematics specifically. Subsequently they try to
circumvent the system to gain advantaged placement for specific students.
Those who push use investing strategies to insure a child’s future success.
They use pressuring techniques on decision-makers to garner advanced
mathematics access. Finally, those who push use strategic lobbying for
program changes.


Despite research suggesting that grouping students by
ability is detrimental to low and high achieving students
(Ballantyne, 2002; Boaler, 2002; Boaler, Wiliam, & Brown, 1998;
Camblin, 2003; Oakes, 1985; Slavin, 1990; Slavin, 1995;
Stevenson, Schiller & Schneider, 1994; Wheelock, 1992) and illadvised
by research on the needs of adolescents (Carnegie
Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; Camblin, 2003; Mills,
2001; Oakes, et al, 2000), ability grouping is a common practice
in middle level mathematics classes (Braddock & McPartland,
1990; Wheelock, 1992). Most schools offer a low, average and
advanced mathematics group. However, schools also exist with as
many as six and as few as two group levels, at both grade level
and advanced (Johnston, 2006; Oakes, 1985).

Middle schools that group students by ability use criteria for
placing a student into the various mathematics groups. A
committee organizes and establishes these filtering criteria. This
process is sometimes affected by outside forces along with the
committee participants’ beliefs, student population needs, and
examples from other schools. Once criteria are established,
students are filtered into various ability groups by educators or
counselors using the filters as well as personal or group
judgments (Johnston, 2006; Oakes, 1985).


This study employed the use of classic grounded theory (GT)
based on the early work of Glaser and Strauss (1967) and further
development by Glaser (1978, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2005). The
study set out to better understand the issues surrounding the
various ability grouping models in middle level mathematics
classes, hoping to better understand the practice and problems
associated with it. The resultant theory centers around the issue
of mathematics placement, outlining a process that explains the
actions of the various guardians (parents & educators) in a
child’s education.

Forty-one subjects who worked with or had children
attending 13 schools in 10 school districts and three states were
interviewed. Sixteen teachers, three administrators, and 23
parents were interviewed. Twelve of the 14 teachers taught
middle level mathematics classes and two taught 5 th grade
students. Nineteen of the parents had one or more children at the
middle school level; many also had children in other school levels.
One had children only in high school and two had children only
in elementary school. Seven parents had children in at/below
grade level classes and 16 had children placed in advanced
mathematics classes. Six out of the 19 teachers and
administrators spoke of their own middle school aged or older

Open-ended interviews were conducted. Subjects were
informed of the topic of the project. If administrators or teachers
did not immediately begin to share their thoughts on ability
grouping in middle level mathematics, the researcher asked them
to discuss their schools’ mathematics ability grouping
arrangement; similarly parents were asked to discuss their
children’s mathematics placement. Following this, minimal
prompting was required except to probe topics initiated by
subjects. Interviews ranged from 30 minutes to two hours. In
addition school district demographic information and research
literature was collected that related to problems, categories and
properties of the developing theory.

In early phases of coding and comparing, the researcher
focused on identifying problems and broad categories. As more
data were collected, focus shifted to identifying properties of the
categories. Throughout the process, coded statements/notes and
memos were sorted together. Theoretical sampling (in the field
and from within collected data), memo writing, coding and
comparing actions were repeated until the main problem
identified by educators and parents became prominent and a
principle category was found that explained how subjects
continually tried to resolve the prominent problem. As the
theoretical framework stabilized, theoretical sampling moved
towards saturating the core and related categories and associated
properties until all relevant categories were well developed and

As the main concern became apparent from early interview
data, the researcher approached administrators, teachers and
parents for their perspectives. If most of the interviewed parents
had children in the high mathematics group, the researcher
sought parents with children in at/below grade level classes for
contrast. As parents mentioned others who were actively working
towards advanced middle level mathematics placements, the
researcher contacted them for interviews. Since the same
problem developed among several schools in one part of Oregon,
the researcher interviewed teachers from wider regions within
Oregon and the Northwest United States. Literature was
collected and integrated representing research projects across the
United States, Canada and United Kingdom as well as from
multi-nation studies. Finally, as parents with ties to India,
China, Korea and Mexico were interviewed, the researcher
requested information about how students were grouped in
mathematics in those countries. Although specific gender,
ethnic, and socioeconomic data were not collected the researcher
attempted to gather data from a variety of sources, including
gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

The Main Concern

Interviews with participants revealed a two-tiered concern.
At the more general level, educators and parents involved in this
study had lost trust in the educational system (Johnston, 2006).
Secondly and more specifically they either worried that an
ability-grouping filter would pass over their focus student (this
student may be their own child or one in whom they see promise)
or the student had actually been passed over for placement in the
advanced mathematics group. These parties disagreed with this
decision. A lack of trust in general and, more specifically, a lack
of trust in the school ability grouping filter system were
identified as the main concern voiced by subjects when asked
about their experiences of the substantive area.

My son exceeded the benchmark but didn’t do well on the
placement test. He was placed into 6 th grade math. When
I talked to the principal she acted like she didn’t believe
me. The next week she called me back to tell me that
indeed my son had exceeded the benchmark. I’m not one
to push my kids but I want them to progress and not stay

The Theory of Pushing For Privileged Passage

Pushing is a way for parents and educators to deal with the
lack of trust and fear and/or disappointment in the student
placement process into mathematics ability groups. When
untrusting parties become cognizant that a student whom they
believe is mathematically extraordinary may fail or has failed
passage through an ability grouping filter into an advanced
mathematics class, they begin to push against that filter. They
push by investing time and money in preparation for the focus
student to successfully pass through the grouping filter. If this
fails, they employ more combative methods by pressuring
decision-makers to alter the placement. Finally, pushers may
use strategic techniques by lobbying within the school system to
change that system. By pushing, these ‘guardians’ are investing,
pressuring and lobbying the mistrusted system in order to
provide a privileged passage for their focus student or ward. A
basic social process that explains the different stages of pushing
employed by educators and parents with students in middle
school mathematics classes is detailed below.


The principal category and ultimately the title of the theory
(pushing) developed from the words subjects used to describe the
focus student’s needs, the reasons they felt that the student
should have access to advanced curriculum as well as
descriptions of the actions taken by themselves (the pusher) to
gain access to advanced curriculum. The group of words, seen
repeatedly in interview notes were, ‘push’, ‘pushing’ and ‘pushed’.
Parents and educators viewed these students (perceived as
having advanced abilities) as needing to be ‘pushed’; as perhaps
‘parent pushed’. Other parents and educators suggested that,
while they not ones to ‘push’, they wanted students to progress.
Time and again, the word push was used. As interview
statements were coded and compared, more and more fit under
the category of pushing. At times, words were used that were
synonyms of pushing such as advocated, look out for, supervise,
etc. These were sorted into the pushing categories where they fit
best. Once the main pushing category was found, the coded data
and memos were compared and sorted, seeking the stages of
pushing. These stages became investing, pressuring, and

Pushing can be defined as exerting oneself continuously,
vigorously, or obtrusively to gain an end or engage in a crusade
for a certain cause or person; in essence, becoming an advocate
for a particular cause or person (Wordnet, 2006).This definition
presents pushing as a positive action. In theory, educators are
the pushers or advocates for all students (Mann, 1848). Parents
are the pushers or advocates for their children (Crozier, 1997).
So how do seemingly positive notions create conflict? The
problem lies in who is deemed deserving of challenging material,
all children or specific children? If all children do not receive
access to advanced mathematics content, how are those children
who should receive the attention and material selected?
Although neither a plot nor scheme, pushers are fighting to
garner access into classes with an elite group of students
receiving advantaged instruction (Kohn, 1998; Oakes & Wells,
1998; Spear, 1994). The pushers do not want their focus students
to learn with the remaining average or below-average majority.

There are three levels of pushing. Some pushers may
work at all of these levels over a period of time while others may
only apply one or two in their quest to garner advantaged
placement for their focus student. The levels have been arranged
by scope (foundational, combative, and strategic). They are also
offered in the order by which most pushers employ them. At the
most basic or foundational level, pushers employ investing
strategies aimed at preparing students to successfully pass
through the mathematics placement filter into the advanced
group. If the focus student fails to get into the advanced
mathematics track despite the employment of investment
strategies, pushers will often demand and successfully achieve
placement. If this fails or if the pusher is particularly
knowledgeable of the school system more strategic lobbying
strategies can be implemented that will ‘improve’ the system
(Hatton, 1985).


Investing is an action characterized by laying out capital
with an expectation of profit. The actions discussed in this
category are the most common methods by which parents
participate in their child’s schooling (Crozier, 1997). Those who
do not trust ability-grouping filters in mathematics will invest
their capital on the child. There are three properties of investing
(or types of capital
); personal tutoring, purchased tutoring, and
classroom volunteering.

Investing pushers provide students with extra tutoring and
one-on-one homework supervision. These may be as specific as
participating in nightly homework sessions where students are
assisted with completing work, correcting mistakes and
redirecting correction or errors or as general as providing
periodic progress checks and availability for assistance. Investors
may provide focus students with access to outside materials or
tutoring. They may be provided with math books, computer
software and even enrolled in formal tutoring or cram classes so
that students garner ‘more mathematics’ which may be focused
on basic skills practice, deeper knowledge of mathematics, or
advanced topics.

One of my friends sent off for Chinese curriculum in
mathematics and other subjects. She has taught them at
home after school each day in order to make sure they get
into the gifted track program. Her daughter is now
taking Pre Calculus while in 8 th grade. She says I should
do the same but I’m not sure if that isn’t too much

Spending time building relationships with those who will
ultimately play a role in grouping decisions is also an investing
strategy employed by investing pushers. Whether personally
tutoring, arranging, outside tutoring or supplemental curricula
or building relationships with people who may assist them in
future placement these pushers are focusing action on the
student, an investment that they hope will be rewarded with
access to higher mathematics placement.


Pressuring pushers attempt to persuade, exert force or
coerce decision-makers into bending to their will. At this level,
those who have been disappointed by a focus student’s abilitygroup
placement in mathematics may turn their focus to pushing
those in charge of the placement process attempting, and usually
succeeding, in changing the decision. Pressuring may be
employed in three ways; rallying support, exerting pressure on
the teacher, and/or pressuring administrators.

Pressuring pushers who rally support may talk to others
about the focus student’s disappointing class placement. These
conversations may be between educators, parent to parent or
between parents and educators. In all cases, the goal of these
conversations is to rally support. Pressuring pushers then go, as
teams, to those who can alter decisions (advanced group teachers
or administrators) to ask for altered placements (for one or more
of the supporters focus children).

When I talked about with the other parents that he
hadn’t got into the high math group they suggested I put
in a change of schedule request and planned go to the
principal As soon as possible to get him changed. One of
the moms that I knew from Downs Elementary (with an
older son in the high math class) said we should go
together. Her daughter did not get into the high math
class and she wanted her in too.

Pressuring pushers may alternatively ask their supporters to
separately contact those able to reverse the decision to ask for
changed placements.

Pressuring pushers may go directly to the teacher in charge
of the advanced group and ask if the focus student can be added
to their class. This strategy can only be employed by those who
have knowledge of the teaching schedule thus is only used by
those who have privileged knowledge such as fellow school
employees or parents who have already had older children in the
class. Most pressuring pushers take their request for changed
student class placement to an administrator, either a building
principal or counselor. Administrators may explain the filtering
criteria as an argument against the change in placement while
others will simply place the student into the higher level math
class with no discussion. In either case, this approach is almost
always successful and students are quickly moved to higher level
mathematics classes.


Lobbying occurs when pushers act to influence policymakers
for a specific cause or to change the system. Lobbying has
three properties: positioning, policy-changing, and systemic
. This pushing action may not be the most commonly
applied strategy; however, it is the one that stands to have
influence over the greatest number of students. Lobbying
pushers with focus students in middle-level mathematics classes
employ this strategy by positioning themselves on school or
district committees. As a participant on these committees, they
may work towards changing policies (such as filtering criteria or
class offerings). Finally, lobbying pushers may assist schools in
working on systemic change (such as rearranging school
schedules, curricula or finding funding for and designing a
magnet school).

Lobbying pushers who are pushing against group filters may
position themselves onto a variety of committees that may
benefit their focus student’s placement in mathematics class.
Lobbying positioners have contacts within the school who make
them aware of upcoming volunteer positions. They may at one
time have been a classroom volunteer having this earlier
investment pay off in terms of access to lobbying instead of, or in
addition to, benefiting from a return in terms of advanced
placement for their focus student. The type of committee(s)
determines whether the pusher has a direct impact on grouping
decisions or a much greater impact on the student’s education.

Once in position, the pusher who works on policy-changing
committees works towards setting policies that will directly affect
his/her focus student or with that student’s future needs in mind.
Following a conversation about how an older son was not
accepted into the high math class and remained unchallenged for
the year, one parent said:

Because of his brother, I pushed for the creation of the
6/7-math class instead of having students jump right into
Algebra. I was hoping this 6/7 math would aid in
smoothing students’ transition to Algebra.

Lobbying pushers also work towards larger policy changes
by participation on committees. They may work on school boards
or grant writing teams. They may take jobs as administrators or
serve on district steering committees. Pushers in these positions
are most often very knowledgeable of the school and educational
policies. They are very often teachers, administrators or work in
peripheral education fields (university positions, educational
service districts, etc.) These pushers can have the greatest
impact on both their focus student’s access to education as well
as other students impacted by the policy changes they
implement. Most often the focus student in this situation is the
pusher’s own child or children (Hatton, 1985). The policy changes
that result are not always, but can be, detrimental to other
students’ access to a rigorous mathematics education.


Pushing for privileged passage has implications for several
aspects within the field of education, including issues of trust,
equity, and advocacy.


The impact of a loss of trust on the subjects of this study, as
well as documented in the literature, would suggest that schools
need to pay attention to both work (within school) and
community relationships (Tschannen-Moran, 2000; Wells &
Oakes, 1996). Within-school trust is important to building
positive working and learning environments for students (Fullan,
Bertani & Quinn, 2004). This is also true of school and
community trust. Some studies suggest that students’ perform
better, they stay in school longer and they have more positive
attitudes towards school when schools and parents have a
trusting relationship (Northwest regional educational laboratory,
2007). Building strong and high-quality school-home
communication is a key to building such trust (Adams &
Christenson, 2000).

Rewarding pushing behaviors

The actions taken by the subjects of this study indicate that
schools are rewarding parent involvement by allowing them a say
in decision-making. This in and of itself is clearly positive.
There are lots of articles that discuss the benefits of building
community relationships where community members actively
participate in decision-making (Fullan, 1995; Fullan, Bertani &
Quinn, 2004; Reyes, Scribner & Scribner, 1999). There is,
however, a down side. The results from this and other studies
indicate that sometimes ‘community members’ are not acting in
the best interests of all students. They are acting in the best
interests of specific students (usually their own children).
Sometimes termed squeaky wheels, these community members
successfully pressure schools into making decisions that may
negatively impact populations of students who do not have the
benefit of an educational guardian. In fact, this study would
suggest that the ‘rewards’ from the school are actually
detrimental to unrepresented students (Benveniste, Cornoy, &
Rothstein, 2003; Johnston, 2006; Hatton, 2985).

How much pushing?

Finally, there is growing consensus that students need some
pushing in order to become successful learners. High-press
questioning is an example of a positive pushing technique used
by some teachers. Research of this method suggests that students
who are pressed to explain their thinking learn more (Kazemi &
Stipek, 2001). Studies suggest that parents can also have a
strong effect in raising academically successful children (Belfield
& Levin, 2005; Poliakoff, 2006; Doherty & Peskay, 1992).

On the other hand, there is also evidence that too much
pressure can be applied. Recent research on high school students
suggests that too much pressure is placed on students to earn
high grades, to take too many advanced classes, and to maintain
large numbers of after school activities. This pressure can take a
toll on children who are pushed. Some pushed students suffer
from high anxiety and even depression. They may take unethical
measures such as cheating to stay at the top of their class in
their quest for highly sought after university acceptance
(Greenless, 1996; Harrington-Leuker, 1989; Jing & Chen, 1995;
Raymond, 1995). How much pushing is enough and how much is
too much? More knowledge is needed to discern the lines between
these two extremes.

General Implications

This substantive theory of pushing suggests some general
implications as follows:

The main concern: There exists a subset of adults (hereafter
guardians) who face situations where their powerless wards (may
be a child or not depending on the circumstances) are at the
mercy of mistrusted organizations.

Pushing as the core category: To resolve issues of lost trust,
guardians push against mistrusted organizations, seeking to
protect their wards and to assure them of privileged passage.
The strategies used by guardians include:

Investing: The guardian invests time and resources on
their ward. They also make themselves visible within the
mistrusted organization in order to smooth passage for
their ward

Pressuring: When the guardian feels that their ward has
been denied the privileged passage they are due they act
by rallying others and pressuring low-level and upperlevel
managers to rectify the unfair treatment.

Lobbying: The guardian takes action to change the
mistrusted system. They position themselves into power
positions and then act to create a trusted environment for
their ward.

Powerless Populations: There are several social situations
where issues of trust and advocacy come into prominence.
Several segments of the population commonly fall under the care
of, or require specific assistance from, persons taking on the role
of a guardian including aging parents, persons with special
needs, persons with mental illness, the injured, minority groups,
children, etc. These populations may need medical care, mental
health treatment, work permits, funeral services, legal advice,
etc. These represent similar situations to the one outlined above
however there is a distinct difference between these and an
educational setting. Unlike most other institutional settings, the
focus of ‘treatment’ in schools is almost always a large group.
Changes made affecting one student also affect classmates
(Osborne, 2000). These group affects make the impact and
potential consequences of pushing for privileged passage more

Athletics: Much documentation exists on the phenomenon of
adults pushing athletic success among youth and the effects that
pushing has on their participation in sports. Studies have been
conducted on the effects that pressure to be the best player,
garner specific positions, or win competitions may have on a
player’s well being as well as sociological consequences for these
individuals and their teams. Players who are placed under too
much pressure, similar to those under academic pressure, may
cheat, use performance enhancing drugs, develop injuries, or
exhibit aggressive behaviors. As a result, some youth programs
work with parents to reduce pressuring, seeking to return youth
sports to a leisure activity. At the university level, pressures to
win may cause coaches to illegally pay players, exert pressure on
instructors to award passing grades or coerce other students to
provide homework for players. Players may cheat on school-work
or use performance enhancing drugs. Some university
participation licenses and players have been suspended for illegal
and/or unethical practices such as this (Citizenship through
Sports Alliance, 2005; Barrett, 2006; Hellstedt, 1988; Leonard,

Although these different push situations are not exactly the
same as the pushing that occurs in middle level mathematics
placement situations, plenty of indication exists that a formal
theory of pushing could be researched and developed using these
situations as well as others. Future researchers have much room
to develop both substantive theories in these areas as well as
move toward a formal theory of pushing.


Tina L. Johnston, Ph.D.
Department of Science and Mathematics Education
Oregon State University
E-mail: tina@deadhat.com


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Retrieved March 15, 2006 at