A recent study out of UCLA says that minority students as young as second grade are aware of stigmas against their ethnic groups and have increased academic anxiety as a result. But in a compelling twist, researchers also found that minority kids are more motivated about school than their white classmates.
Cari Gillen-O'Neel, a UCLA graduate student and one of the study's authors, said that the higher motivation levels among minority students is an encouraging "ray of hope."
"That really does suggest the idea of a kind of resilience in the face of adversity," she said. "Despite the fact that minority students might be aware that their group might not be as respected, they like school; they felt more interested in school."
Researchers conducted three 40-minute interviews with 451 second- and fourth-graders from New York City schools. The students were African American, Chinese, Dominican or Russian and ranged from 7 to 11 years old. European-American students were also interviewed but weren't counted as ethnic minorities. A female researcher from each child's ethnic group asked questions to determine their stigma awareness, academic anxiety, intrinsic motivation, sense of school belonging and ethnic identity.
To assess motivation, kids were asked to rate four factors, including their levels of interest in school and if they chose to do their homework because they like learning new things. Based on those responses, black students' average motivation level on a scale of one to five was 4.37, compared with 3.82 for white students.
"Elementary kids do tend to be universally positive — almost all say that they like school — but the fact that we do still find a reliable difference between the groups is meaningful," Gillen-O'Neel said. "It's not huge, but the difference between African-American and European-American kids was half a point, and I think that's significant."
So if black kids are more motivated, why are there so many disparities — from grades and graduation to discipline and dropouts — among ethnic groups?
According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the high school dropout rate for black students was 9.3 percent, compared with 5.2 for whites in 2009. And a new report using data from the department's Office for Civil Rights shows that black students who are disciplined for the first time are suspended at higher rates than white students for the same minor offenses.
"Children are constantly being told nonverbally who they are and what that means," said Huggins, who is also a professor of women's studies at California State University, East Bay. "We live in a world where the systems are set up based on race. So naturally, by the very nature of who a child is, they're learning all the time about how things work."
The zest for school can naturally begin to wane as kids advance in grades; motivational levels among all fourth-graders in the study were lower than among the second-graders. That's where administrators and teachers are tasked with having active lessons and other programs to keep kids interested.
But what about the highly motivated black students and their declining interest in school? That's due to other issues with educators that go beyond merely getting kids to pay attention in class, Huggins said.
"The low achievement rates and low graduation rates are another result of stigmatization. If I told you every day of your school life that you are not capable of doing it as best as someone else … or I indicate that, your self-confidence will drop year after year after year," she said.
"All children come into school feeling good about their ability because they don't know anything yet," Huggins continued. "Teachers need to be trained in cultural competency — they need to look at their view of race and class and gender because we're creating generations of children who have low or vacant self-esteem."
The study, which was partly funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant, is published in the September/October 2011 issue of the journal Child Development. Its other authors are Andrew J. Fuligni of UCLA and Diane N. Ruble from New York University.
Other findings include black, Chinese and Dominican students reporting lower status perceptions than Russian and white students, and the fourth-graders having lower perceived status than second-graders. Black, Chinese, Dominican and Russian children all reported more academic anxiety than white children, and fourth-graders were more anxious than second-graders.
Researchers didn't examine how or why the children felt they were being stigmatized, but Gillen-O'Neel hopes that future projects will explore those areas. She and her colleagues encourage schools to create initiatives that help minority students feel more welcome and included on campus and that capitalize on those early years when students' motivation for school is the highest.
"I think our study provides optimism," she said. "These kids haven't dropped out of school, and the fact that even among all children, we still find that African-American kids reported higher in terms of motivation, maybe if we can start there and move forward from elementary school age, we can prevent some things from happening later."
Desiree Hunter is a contributor to The Root.