Social costs of achievement vary by race/ethnicity, school features

Doing well in school and feeling accepted by your peers are both important challenges during adolescence. Sometimes these don’t fit well together, as when teens are ostracized for being smart. A new study has found that such pressures differ for teens in different racial/ethnic groups, and that characteristics of the teens’ schools also play a role.

The study, conducted by researchers at Cornell University, appears in the November/December 2010 issue of the journal Child Development.

“This is the first study to clearly show that for adolescents, there are measurable differences in the social costs of academic success across racial and ethnic groups,” notes Thomas E. Fuller-Rowell, postdoctoral research fellow in the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan; Fuller-Rowell led the study when he was at Cornell. “By doing so, it points to the significance of race and ethnicity in understanding the achievement gap, and can be helpful to those developing programs and policies to address this gap.”

The researchers carried out their work using a nationally representative sample of almost 14,000 7th through 12th graders, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (also called Add Health). Add Health was designed and funded under the auspices of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and 17 other federal agencies, and is the largest, most comprehensive survey of adolescents ever undertaken.

The students were interviewed once in their homes, then interviewed again a year later. In the interviews, students gave their grade point averages (GPAs) and reported on how much they felt socially accepted. Researchers learned about characteristics of each school from a related Add Health survey completed by almost all students in each school, and from information provided by school administrators.

The researchers found that for African American and Native American teenagers, the higher their GPAs at the start of the study, the more their feelings of social acceptance decreased over the one-year period. In contrast, for White teens and teens of other races and ethnicities, the higher their GPAs at the start of the research, the more their feelings of being socially accepted increased over the year. These differences across groups remained, even after the researchers took into consideration various background characteristics such as the level of education of the teens’ parents, whether they lived in single-parent families, the size and type of the school they attended, and the affluence of the school.

The researchers also looked at how specific characteristics of the schools the teens attended affected the social costs of doing well. They found that for African American teens, the social costs of achieving were greatest in higher achieving competitive schools, but only when there weren’t a substantial number of same-race peers at the schools. The same happened to students of Mexican descent. Gender was not a factor for high-achieving teens who didn’t feel socially accepted.

“Previous research indicates that teachers and school administrators can work to create an environment of ‘identity safety’ in which students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds feel accepted and respected,” according to Fuller-Rowell. “Such approaches are important to achievement. Our study suggests that these kinds of approaches, while valuable in all schools, may be especially important to the achievement of minority students when they are in small numbers within high achieving schools.”

Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 81, Issue 6, The Social Costs of Academic Success Across Ethnic Groups by Fuller-Rowell, TE (University of Michigan, formerly at Cornell University) and Doan, SN (Boston University, formerly at Cornell University). Copyright 2010 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.

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