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Serious Students and Good Girls: Differential Achievement and the Negotiation of Social Identities Among Middle School Latinas

  • Author(s): Pike, Rosenda Amalia
  • Advisor(s): Echeverria, Begoña
  • Wills, John
  • et al.


Serious Students and Good Girls: Differential Achievement and the Negotiation of Identities Among Middle School Latinas


Rosenda Amalia Pike

Doctor of Philosophy, Graduate Program in Education

University of California, Riverside, December 2015

Dr. Begoña Echeverria, Co-Chairperson

Dr. John Wills, Co-Chairperson

The differential achievement between White students and underrepresented minority students is not a matter easily explained by attending to just one factor such as socioeconomic status or race. Research suggests that racial, ethnic, class, and gender identity constructs impact students’ schooling experiences and academic achievement (Ayala, 2006; Akom, 2008; Bettie, 2003; Carter, 2006; Carter 2008; Connell, 1993; Finders, 1997; Fine, 1993; Fordham, 1993; Gallegos-Castillo, 2006; Hartman, 2006; Lopez, 2006; Matute-Bianchi, 2008; Mendoza-Denton, 2008; O’Connor, 2001; Romo, L.F., Kouyoumdjian, C., Nadeem, E., Sigman, M., 2006; Stevenson & Ellsworth, 1993; Weis, 1993; and Zentella, 1997). The implications of differential academic achievement reach far beyond the confines of K-12 schooling, impacting college graduation rates, fields of study and degree completion, and employment and pay opportunities (Landivar, 2013).

The purpose of my investigation was to capture young Latinas’ understandings of their schooling experiences in order to explain the processes by which they became high- or low- achieving students, particularly in STEM related subjects such as 8th grade General Physical Science and Honors Science. The study focused on six middle school, 8th grade Latina students, their teachers, and parents to uncover what it meant for these girls to be successful and how recognition of certain social identities (Institution, Discourse, and Affinity) (Gee, 2000) mediated their academic achievement. Few studies have addressed differential academic achievement among middle school Latinas and none through the perspective of social identity theory (Burke and Stets, 2009; Gee, 2000; Jenkins, 2008). I utilized qualitative research methods, including observations and interviews, to gather data to inform this study. Themes were determined based on repetitive instances of specific dialogue and behaviors of girls enacting, and others recognizing, social identities that could be viewed with the identity lens as outlined by Gee (2000) and Burke and Stets (2009).

I found that Honors AVID Latinas and General AVID Latinas achieved different academic outcomes due to enacted behaviors and recognition of those behaviors. Honors AVID Latinas intentionally negotiated academic behaviors associated with recognition as serious students, which meant being present and future goal-oriented. How parents, teachers, and peers recognized Honors AVID Latinas as serious students hinged on the work involved in maintaining this multifaceted social identity. General AVID Latinas enacted behaviors associated with recognition as good students and good girls, which meant doing well in school, being well behaved, and being future oriented. Their parents, however, privileged social behavior over academics and, therefore, recognized their daughters’ enactments of good student as good girl performances. Through this recognition, the two groups of girls achieved different academic outcomes.

Overview of Chapters

The first chapter provides an explanation of the problem of differential achievement among underrepresented minorities and a background on the existing body of research addressing this topic. The second chapter consists of a review of the scholarly literature that has addressed the issue of differential achievement. Chapter Two explains the social identity conceptual framework used to guide the analysis of data collected. Chapter Three describes the study design and methods used to collect and analyze data. To answer my research questions, I drew upon observational and interview data from my focal students, their parents and teachers. For this study, I borrowed from Gee’s identity categories (Gee, 2000) and Jenkins’ social identity theory (Jenkins, 2008) to inform my analysis of 8th grade Latinas’ identity performances in school and their parents’, peers’, and teachers’ recognitions of them to understand how they came achieve differently as Honors AVID or General AVID students. To do so, I examined how their academic achievements were mediated by their social identities.

Chapter Four presents and explains my findings for Honors AVID Latinas. In this chapter, I argue that Honors AVID Latinas intentionally negotiated schooling experiences and carefully chose to enact the preferred behaviors associated with being perceived as a serious student. For Honors AVID Latinas, serious student meant being present and future goal-oriented. These girls performed much like the Mexican-descent group of students Matute-Bianchi (2008) described as Mexican-oriented students that were “achievement-oriented and goal-oriented”, enrolled in advanced courses, earned above average grades, and maintained regular attendance (p. 417). Honors AVID Latinas gained recognition as serious students from parents, teachers, and peers.

In Chapter Five I present and explain my findings for General AVID Latinas. I contend that General AVID Latinas performed as good students because they perceived that doing so fit their parents’ expectations. For these girls, their interpretation of good student meant doing well in school, being well behaved, and being future oriented. While, General AVID Latinas performed as good students, they gained recognition as good girls from parents and teachers. The complex relationship between performance and recognition set the stage for the negotiation of a dual identity, which further distinguished these girls from their Honors AVID counterparts.

In both Chapters Four and Five, I argue that through intentional negotiation and recognition of certain social identities, Honors AVID and General AVID Latinas were able to gain recognition as certain types of people (Gee, 2000); serious students and good students and good girls, and in doing so achieved different levels of academic achievement.

Finally, Chapter Six includes a discussion of the significance of these findings and recommendations for further research. In this chapter, I argue that the findings of this study have implications for what teachers should know about the complexity of pro-academic identities. Based on my findings, it is clear that pro-academic identities do not look the same among 8th grade Latina students and, therefore, it is imperative that teachers become aware of the factors that influence pro-academic identity performances such as present and future goal orientation and familial and institutional expectations. My findings also raise issues regarding students’ access to resources within untracking programs such as AVID. Moreover, I suggest that future research on the academic achievement of underrepresented minorities from the perspective of identity performance and recognition may serve to further understand how these students reach varying levels of academic achievement. In this way, my investigation contributes not only to the scholarly literature on differential student achievement but also to practitioners’ (i.e., teachers and administrators) understandings of how Latinas’ identity performances mediate academic achievement.

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