(Hiding) in Plain Sight: How Class Matters Differently Among Low-Income Students in Suburban Schools
CitationZhu, Queenie X. 2016. (Hiding) in Plain Sight: How Class Matters Differently Among Low-Income Students in Suburban Schools. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractU.S. suburbia is rapidly changing, becoming home to increasing numbers of poor families and immigrants. However, traditionally disadvantaged students who attend well-resourced middle-class suburban schools have been largely neglected in educational inequality research. In this study, I spotlight this overlooked population and find that class background takes on heterogeneous meanings and significance, as it is situated in contextualized hierarchies, systems of meaning, and boundaries that are forged within everyday school interactions. I illuminate the heterogeneity in the effect of class among youth who share demographic background characteristics but attend diverse suburban schools. These racial and contextual contingencies in the effects of class background—or how class “works”—shape the experiences and outcomes of traditionally disadvantaged students so that two students who share the same demographic background but attend different schools have different social and academic outcomes.
The power of social background and school-level forces in shaping educational outcomes are among the most robust findings in the sociology of education literature. What is missing from this quintessential portrait of American educational inequality, however, is a nuanced understanding of a race-class-context interaction that abandons the assumption that race and class intersect to produce uniform effects, and that school contextual effects are uniform for all students. Through mixed methods, I show that race, class, and context interact in a two-stage process whereby (1) race and class interact with each other, and then (2) jointly interact with school context, to exert non-uniform effects on how traditionally disadvantaged students integrate into suburban schools. In this context, what it means and how it feels to be an economically disadvantaged student varies greatly depending on who you are and where you are.
For immigrant students, who are an important subset of this population, these dynamics further shape incorporation processes and pathways into the minority middle class. Through studying how social background and school-level forces interact in complex ways to impact how immigrants forge identities vis-à-vis natives and coethnics, I complicate the assumptions underlying segmented assimilation theory and the predictions that follow from it. In doing so, I highlight the need for an updated understanding of immigrant incorporation that reflects the heterogeneity of 21st century immigrants.
Finally, in studying school-level forces, I expand on traditional school-level forces and foreground campus spatial layout as an overlooked yet agentic force that regulates group dynamics. Specifically, I argue that spatial layout and organizational practices like tracking interact to structure social relations, differentially predisposing some schools to more unequal group relations than others. This research has broad implications for theories of educational inequality and immigrant incorporation, as well as for the contours of social inequality amidst a rapidly changing social landscape.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:33493337
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