Winning Proposal to the Sarri Family Fellowship: 2018 Competition

Project Title: The Effect of Classroom Demographic Composition on Inequalities in Math Identity and Performance

Faculty Sponsor: Elizabeth Bruch

Graduate Student: Anne Clark

Project Description

Educational equity consists of not only equality in resources and opportunities, but also equality in the range of future selves that children have the freedom to imagine and become in terms of ambition, self-confidence, and interests. This has not only moral but also financial implications. For college to be transformative for life chances, not only must we reduce selection into college attendance. Students also need to have equal access to majors that yield the highest economic dividends, which tend to require a strong math background (Kim, Tamborini, and Sakamoto 2015). And yet, women are less likely to choose those majors and underrepresented minorities, despite high interest, are less likely to be prepared for and therefore persist in them (Riegle-Crumb and King 2010; Xie, Fang, and Shauman 2015). Given the strong correlation between race and socioeconomic status (Condron 2009), this race gap in major perpetuates socioeconomic gaps in education and earnings.

Interventions seeking to prevent disparities in postsecondary majors should focus on elementary and middle school, as high school may be too late to make significant impacts. First, tracking of students into ability-differentiated math classes begins in middle school as a function of both preferences and academic performance (Catsambis 1994; Gamoran 1992). This tracking is highly stable (Hallinan 1996) and has implications for college attendance and major selection, as many high schools allow students to move out of but not into college preparatory tracks (Domina, Penner, and Penner 2017). Second, children begin developing career aspirations and expectations as early as elementary school. Their perceptions of their ability and its implications for their future prospects then become increasingly calcified in high school (Hartung, Porfeli, and Vondracek 2005). However, current research is limited in its ability to inform the co-evolution of inequalities in math performance and disparities in math identity (i.e., enjoyment of and self- confidence in math) because these two strands of educational equity are generally studied separately at the elementary and secondary school level. Research on racial inequalities in education tends to focus on performance and attainment gaps between Whites and Asians on one hand and underrepresented minorities on the other due to income inequality and segregation into different public schools (with racial disparities in educational aspirations treated as symptomatic of these structural inequalities) (Condron 2009; Domina, Penner, and Penner 2017). With the closing of the gender gap in test scores in elementary and secondary schools, gender scholarship increasingly focuses on the persistent gap in the desire to pursue math-based careers stemming from cultural messaging that math is masculine (Riegle-Crumb and Morton 2017; Xie, Fang, and Shauman 2015).

Studying the race gap in test scores and degree attainment separately from the gender gap in attitudes towards subjects like math leaves inconsistencies unexamined. Generally, researchers have found that performance, interest, and self-confidence in school subjects are highly correlated, and yet a growing body of evidence shows that this correlation is weaker for girls and underrepresented minorities (Denissen, Zarrett, and Eccles 2007). Notably, minority students are more likely to maintain positive math identities (i.e., to like math and feel confident in their math abilities) despite low test scores (Riegle-Crumb, Moore, and Ramos-Wada 2011). Uncovering why may be key to both developing strategies to improve girls’ math identities and determining which unique strengths in minority students can be leveraged to improve their math performance.

Social psychological research on stereotype threat and impostor syndrome has provided some clues as to the underlying processes simultaneously affecting math performance and identity. According to work on stereotype threat, the existence of negative stereotypes for one’s racial or gender group lowers both self-perceived and actual performance through both fear of conforming to the stereotype and demotivation due to devaluation by peers and mentors (von Hippel, Sekaquaptewa, and McFarlane 2015). Over time, this leads to disidentification with the field. In contrast, the imposter syndrome literature focuses on situations in which women and minorities disidentify with the field and may have low self-perceived performance, but do not actually underperform compared to white men (Dasgupta 2011). Individuals from underrepresented groups feel they do not belong based on the demographic composition of the field and lose confidence. Even if their performance is not affected, their self-doubt compels them to switch to a field in which they feel more comfortable and have more confidence. While one theory relies more heavily on negative stereotypes and the other on underrepresentation to trigger effects on identity and/or performance, many fields in which women and minorities are underrepresented also contain negative stereotypes about them. Many negative stereotypes about women and minorities’ competence and competencies are also not field-specific (e.g., that white people are more intellectual than black individuals, that women are more emotional and less analytical than men). Therefore, it is unclear when someone may experience negative effects on identity but not performance (imposter syndrome) and when an individual may suffer negative impacts on both identity and performance (stereotype threat). Furthermore, neither theory can inform why individuals may be able to maintain positive identity despite poor performance.