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School Demographics Can Add to Social Cost of Achievement

High-achieving schools can exacerbate the social cost to high-achieving students of color for allegedly "acting white" among their peers, according to a study in the November/December issue of Child Development.

Thomas E. Fuller-Rowell, now an Institute for Social Research fellow at the University of Michigan, led researchers at Cornell University in analyzing data on more than 100,000 students of black, white, Asian, Native American and Hispanic students in grades 7-12 from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They compared students' grade point averages with a measure of students' feelings of loneliness, social support, and sense of belonging.

"The social cost of achievement has been a relatively neglected topic in research on the achievement gap," Fuller-Rowell told me. "We already know that social acceptance is one of the primary concerns of adolescence. If achievement comes at a social cost, there are obviously going to be differences in teenagers' motivation to achieve." Academic achievement, he said is "not just correlated with social acceptance, it actually predicts social acceptance in certain school contexts."

The authors found black and Native American adolescents each had significantly higher social costs associated with academic success than did white students, and the social cost was greatest for students who were part of a racial minority in a high-achieving school. Interestingly, this occurred whether or not white students or another racial group made up the majority of the students.

"The main interpretation is these schools are likely to create a more competitive environment, and any competitive environment will increase tensions between groups," Fuller-Rowell said. Moreover, in a highly competitive school, "It's difficult to achieve highly without engaging in behaviors that are visible to peers" such as speaking out in class or participating in clubs, he said.

While Hispanic students as a whole did not take a social hit for high achievement, Mexican-American students followed the same trajectory as black and Native American students of showing greater social alienation in high-achieving schools in which they were the racial minority, but gaining social status with academic achievement in high-achieving, majority Hispanic schools.

By contrast, students attending a high-achieving school in they made up the majority, such as black students at a high-achieving, mostly black school, did not feel stigmatized for excelling.

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