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Making the Grade: Feeling stigmatized can hurt adolescents' chances for long-term academic success, professor says

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A little angst, rebellion and feelings of being left out may seem the expected lot for an adolescent. Parents and teachers brace themselves for some drama from the teens in their lives, and when they find it, then tend to consider it just a stage. In many cases it is.

But for some adolescents, particularly those who feel left out or stigmatized at school, what may look like drama may actually have long-term ramifications.

Robert Crosnoe
Dr. Robert Crosnoe finds that the peer culture in a school has a large impact on students. His study is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the William T. Grant Foundation.

Dr. Robert Crosnoe, associate professor of sociology and a research associate at the Population Research Center, has found that the experience of feeling left out or not measuring up because of generally stigmatized traits can have long-term educational consequences. When considering academic success, he says, you have to look beyond the strictly academic.

“The main theme of my research career is that what’s really important about school is the peer culture,” Crosnoe says. “It doesn’t mean that curriculum and funding don’t matter. It’s just that you can have the best curriculum and funding in the world, and if there’s something messed up in the culture in the school then you set out to fail.”

Educational research has found that students with demographic risk factors like racial minority status tend to do better in well-organized schools. If they go to a good school the achievement gap narrows. When considering social risk factors such as obesity and learning disabilities, Crosnoe expected to find the same thing.

He didn’t. In fact, the opposite was true. Kids with these types of social risk factors actually did worse in schools that we might think of as good. They were less likely to go on to college or to take advanced math and science classes, even though their peers might be doing so. Clearly, academics weren’t the only things playing into student success.

“I am trying to understand what the prevailing norms of the school are that have nothing, necessarily, to do with academics,” Crosnoe says.

To do so, Crosnoe turned to a sample of 8,272 American adolescents in grades 7–12 who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Through written student surveys, school surveys and in-home interviews, the study offers a uniquely comprehensive snapshot of American adolescents and their school and home environments.

Crosnoe and colleague Dr. Chandra Muller, associate professor of sociology, turned to the study to understand how obesity affects an adolescent’s academic success. They found that obese girls are 42 percent less likely to attend college than their non-obese counterparts, holding all other things equal. This was alarming in and of itself, but when they looked at the findings in the context of the schools the girls attend, things got very interesting.

Obese girls attending schools where obesity is rare are 61 percent less likely to go to college than their non-obese counterparts. In schools where at least one-third of the school population is obese, that gap narrows to 17 percent.In schools where obesity is very uncommon, obese girls are even less likely to go to college that non-obese girls—61 percent less likely. However, when the girls attend schools where at least one-third of the student population is obese, the gap shrinks. In fact, they are only 17 percent less likely to go to college than their non-obese counterparts.

This finding suggests that when girls feel more like they fit in, they realize more academic success.

“Obesity is not related to cognitive ability,” Crosnoe says. “It’s not related to how smart you are. But it’s stigmatized in general in the United States, and this causes identity and social issues for obese girls that disrupt their education.”

Questions of identity are also key to the academic success of girls with learning disabilities, Crosnoe has found. With Muller and Dr. Catherine Riegle-Crumb, Crosnoe compared girls with learning disabilities who had failed a class with girls without learning disabilities who had failed a class.

What he discovered surprised him. It would be easy to assume that a worst-case scenario given these parameters would be to have a learning disability and fail a class. Instead, girls who suffer most from failing a class are the ones without learning disabilities, particularly if they are students with academically oriented peers or well-educated parents. They become much less likely to go on to higher level math and science classes.

Student-made collage Student-made collage
Student-made collages helped Crosnoe and four graduate students open up dialogues with local high school students about their identity and school culture, giving voice to his study’s overall findings.

Girls without learning disabilities but with a history of failure doubt themselves, and they downgrade their perception of their own intelligence each time they fail a course about one-fifth of a point on a five-point scale of perceived intelligence. This only happens, however, when the standards of comparison are high and the girls have high-achieving friends or parents. Girls with learning disabilities and girls with low-achieving friends or non-educated parents don’t have the same response to failing a class.

“It comes down to how they experience it,” he says. “If they experience it in a way that they think reflects badly on themselves, that sets off this chain of events that leads to self-rejection and low self-esteem. That then disrupts their education.”

Gender plays heavily into how large an effect peer culture has on a teenager. Girls are much more likely to compare themselves to the people around them than boys are. If they believe they measure up in those comparisons, that’s good. If they don’t, it’s a problem.

“For boys, it’s less about their intimate relationships—who my best friends are, who my parents are—than it is about where I rank overall,” Crosnoe says.

Crosnoe is also investigating how poverty as a source of stigma affects students, and he plans to expand his research to look at homosexuality as another source of stigma. In the meantime, however, he realizes that while data samples can point to larger trends, nothing replaces working with individual students who can give voice to the findings.

This spring and summer Crosnoe and four of his graduate students met with students at an Austin-area high school and conducted face-to-face interviews with freshman and sophomore students.

Because topics like stigma and self-esteem can be difficult for students to talk about, Crosnoe and his colleagues began with giving students a project. They were handed a camera, scissors, magazines and poster board and asked to create collages that said, “Who I Am.” The students enjoyed the exercise, and it gave interviewers a way in to asking questions of identity and school culture.

The answers to those questions went a long way to helping Crosnoe understand how students respond to school culture. First, he found that students are indeed always comparing themselves to the people around them, but it isn’t the people around them who let them know how they compare. It’s themselves.

“They feel like they don’t measure up, as opposed to having people actually tell them that they don’t measure up,” Crosnoe says. “It more implied than real, direct feedback.”

They also tend to romanticize their close friends. They may believe they are viewed negatively within the larger circle and pressed to conform, but their friends view them differently. In that way, they create a buffer around themselves that protects them from the larger culture.

When parents are asking, 'What's the best school for my kid?' they can't just think about academics and curriculum. They need to take these into account, but they should also consider if they're going to be happy socially. Dr. Robert CrosnoeSimilarly, they pick niches where they feel accepted and apart from the larger culture at the school, whether they be church groups or sports teams or activities like band and orchestra.

As someone who researches stigma, Crosnoe was interested to discover that there is a value placed on being different for students, as long as they aren’t too different.

“If you can be a little bit rebellious and a little bit counter culture, but not to the point that it scares anybody or is dangerous, that’s sort of the best case scenario,” Crosnoe says. “If you cross the line where people start marginalizing and looking down on you, then it can lead to problems.”

Ultimately, discovering what can lead to problems for adolescents is key to Crosnoe’s research. He argues that the resources necessary for academic success come largely from students themselves—confidence, motivation and self-belief. Those resources are shaped by the peer culture at a school.

It’s a message he hopes he can get to parents, and one critical as the academic year begins and students reenter the cultures unique to their schools. He wants parents to understand that the feeling of not fitting in may not be something to simply dismiss as a part of growing up.

“When parents are asking ‘What’s the best school for my kid?’ they can’t just think about academics and curriculum,” Crosnoe says. “They need to take these into account, but they should also consider if they’re going to be happy socially.

“There’s got to be a balance between these two things. I’d love to get a conversation started about what really makes a good school good.”

BY Vivé Griffith

Photos: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 14 August 2006
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