Doing School: Learning Behavior, Classroom Interactions, and the Racial Achievement Gap Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Kozlowski, Karen
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Sociology
  • The racial achievement gap in education is one of the most longstanding and perplexing racial inequalities. No matter the measure or level of schooling, white and Asian students achieve at significantly higher levels than black and Hispanic students at every level of the educational experience. Since education matters so much for future opportunities and success, the causes of the achievement gap remain one of the most significant unsettled educational phenomena. Prior research suggests that significant portions of the racial achievement gap could be explained by ways that students “do” school, or racial differences in student learning behaviors. However, why and how learning behaviors are patterned by race remains unclear. Two possible mechanisms are cultural capital mis/match and teacher bias. Do students and teachers share or differ in their expectations of what it takes to “do” school successfully? If so, students and teachers may be matched or mismatched on what sociologists call “cultural capital,” or familiarity with dominant but unspoken norms and standards of a particular context, in this case, the classroom. Conversely, it is possible that teachers evaluate students’ behaviors differently on the basis of imagined or stereotyped racial differences. If so, teacher bias may better explain why students’ behaviors appear racialized. This dissertation examines whether cultural capital mis/match and/or teacher bias best explain racialized patterns of student approaches to learning. To do this, I conduct classroom observations over the course of nine months in racially diverse first grade classrooms, as well asinterviews with teachers, students, and parents. Observations and interviews examine: 1) what kinds of schooling strategies are necessary for success 2) how students and teachers view those strategies similarly or differently 3) how students develop their sense of what it takes to be successful 4) how students make sense of interactions with and messages from their teachers 5) how teachers interact with, assess, and evaluate students on the basis of their skills and 6) how these interactions vary by race. There are three key findings from this study. First, I find that regardless of race, lower SES students learn and demonstrate knowledge of classroom rules (procedural knowledge) better than academic skills. Higher SES students demonstrate their academic skills more than procedural knowledge, which I argue is a form of cultural capital that is rewarded in the classroom. This occurs because (1) lower-SES students come to school with fewer academic skills than higher-SES peers and (2) teachers give less explicit and continuous instruction for academic tasks than for classroom rules and behavior. Second, despite teachers’ best intentions to create unbiased learning environments, the teachers I observed disproportionately privileged the voices of white higher-SES students over those of higher-SES students of color, white lower-SES students, and lower-SES students of color. At the same time, some teachers disproportionately reprimanded black students (regardless of SES or actual misbehavior) and reprimanded them more harshly than students of other racial/ethnic groups. And third, SES-patterned ways that students demonstrate knowledge (procedural vs. academic), along with racialized teacher-student interactions, signal to all students who is seen as smart, deviant, well-liked, or disliked. These signals foster students’ construction of peer networks that are segregated by race and SES. As time progresses, more privileged students will continue to influence one another and share cultural resources that are rewarded in schools, while less privileged students will fail to benefit from those same resources. This dissertation offers an intersectional approach to the study of cultural capital and teacher bias in contemporary elementary schools, and it demonstrates how each mechanism contributes to racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequality in students’ educational experiences and outcomes. It uncovers new kinds of cultural capital that have the potential to directly affect achievement disparities, shows what unconscious bias looks like in contemporary first grade classrooms, and shows how teachers favor certain students over others based on real and imagined differences between them. These interactions will likely shape students’ long-term notions of success, perception of their capability, ability to be academically successful, the kinds of people they perceive to be similar to them on the basis of those characteristics, and how they do or do not share cultural resources about how to be academically successful.
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Rights statement
  • In Copyright
  • Lauen, Douglas
  • Lewis, Amanda
  • Perrin, Andrew J.
  • Pearce, Lisa D.
  • Tyson, Karolyn
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2016

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