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Alienation From High School Is Worst Among Black Males, Study Reveals

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Black males become far more alienated from academics than other groups as they move through high school, a study has found, lending further credence to concerns about an educational crisis affecting African-American boys.

The study, published last month in the Journal of Educational Psychology, compared the degree to which white, Hispanic, and black students nationwide appear to base their overall self-esteem on academic performance during high school. Such "identification" with schooling is seen by psychologists as an important factor in student motivation and likelihood of success.

Using data from an ongoing national study of nearly 25,000 students, researcher Jason W. Osborne found that both boys and girls from all three groups significantly identify with academics when they are in the 8th grade.

The correlation between school performance and self-esteem declines modestly for most groups of students as they move through high school. Among black males, however, the drop-off is dramatic.

"In general, African-Americans had the highest levels of self-esteem at all ages," said Mr. Osborne, a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "But by 12th grade, the African-American boys are detaching their self-esteem from academics. They're removing school from their self-esteem equation as time goes on."

Educators and others engaged in the problems of black youths said the disturbing findings did not come as a surprise. But they said the study underscored the need to focus greater national attention on the particular needs of African-American boys, as well as on broader efforts to close the achievement gap between black students and their peers.

"This is a national crisis," said Bobby W. Austin, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based Village Foundation, which was created last fall to explore ways of better engaging black males in American society. "It's not a glamorous issue. But someone has to undo this conundrum."

'Disidentification' Seen

Inspiration for Mr. Osborne's study, which appeared in the journal's December 1997 issue, came from research by a Stanford University psychology professor, Claude M. Steele, into what he calls "academic disidentification."

Claude M. Steele

He defines that term as the process that occurs when people stop caring about their performance in an area, or domain, that formerly mattered a great deal, be it school in general or a field of study such as mathematics, English, or science.

The causes of disidentification may vary greatly with students' personal characteristics and surroundings, Mr. Steele said in an interview. Among high school students, he cited "social class, parental influences, peer-group influences, how they are treated in school, whether they have friends who are school-minded, and whether they experience discrimination there."

Just why black males cease to care about school at such a greater rate than other groups is not clear from Mr. Osborne's analysis. "There's no explanation of which came first, the disidentification or poor performance," Mr. Steele observed. "I suspect it's a mutually influencing thing: I start to do badly, I start to look for other things that are more gratifying, and all of a sudden I don't identify that much with academics."

Study Strikes Chord

Despite this lack of causal analysis, Mr. Steele and others said Mr. Osborne's central findings ring true.

"If the picture he's trying to paint is that African-American boys become less identified with the academic side of school, there would be very few people who would quibble with that," said Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia who wrote a 1996 book highlighting a drop-off in student motivation nationally.

Hugh B. Price, the president of the National Urban League, also said the study struck a chord. He said the New York City-based civil rights group was attacking the problem through its Campaign for African-American Achievement, launched last fall in concert with the Washington-based Congress of National Black Churches. ("Campaign Puts Focus on Black Students' Achievements," Dec. 10, 1997.)

"The signal that achievement matters has to be transmitted from the homes and the communities," Mr. Price said.

In the San Francisco schools, Superintendent Waldemar Rojas has also launched a campaign to boost achievement among blacks and Hispanics. He said he was not surprised by Mr. Osborne's finding of a serious problem among black males.

But he voiced doubt that African-Americans' overall self-esteem is actually as strong as the data implies, suggesting that blacks' strong showing in this area might reflect false bravado. Mr. Osborne said some researchers have expressed related concerns, but that they did not undermine the study's validity.

Paradoxes Found

Mr. Osborne's study examined data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, a continuing federal project launched in 1988. The study tracks how various groups fare on questions aimed at gauging their overall self-esteem, and then examines the relationship between those responses and students' grades and test scores in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades.

Students are asked to say whether and how strongly they agree or disagree with such statements as, "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself," "I am able to do things as well as most people," and "I certainly feel useless at times."

Overall, black youngsters were found to hold the most positive views of themselves, even though their grades and test scores fell increasingly further behind those of whites during high school.

One surprise in the findings, Mr. Osborne said, was that the correlation between self-esteem and academic performance did not decline more for black girls. Instead, it showed a drop between 8th and 12th grade that roughly matched that of white and Hispanic boys.

"Although this should be of concern, it is clear that the most alarming disidentification is occurring within the boys, and should be the focus of the most urgent concern," Mr. Osborne wrote.

For white girls, the correlation between self-esteem and grades dipped slightly less than that for white and Hispanic boys, while the link between self-concept and test scores rose slightly from 8th to 12th grade. Hispanic girls bucked the trend more dramatically, with both correlations edging upward during the high school years--a finding Mr. Osborne said surprised and puzzled him.

Effect of Stigmas Debated

A linchpin of Mr. Steele's work in this area is his theory of "stereotype threat," a concept that he believes helps explain underperformance by black college students at elite schools and by white women in advanced quantitative fields.

The theory goes like this: It can be assumed that African-Americans at selective colleges are strongly identified with school, despite negative prevailing stereotypes about blacks' academic abilities. Female college students in advanced mathematical, scientific, or technical fields are similarly invested, despite negative views of their ability in those domains.

But when faced with a challenge that tests the limits of their skills, both groups may keenly fear that they will confirm society's dim view of their abilities. That anxiety, in turn, hinders their performance. The phenomenon, over time, can contribute to disidentification and the high attrition rates among blacks in college and women in math and science.

Based on this work, Mr. Osborne said he had expected to find a weaker link between schoolwork and self-esteem among Hispanics because of the societal stigmas they face.

Mr. Steele expressed some concerns that by focusing on his work with college students, Mr. Osborne's study erroneously suggests that academic disidentification in high school is caused primarily by stigmatized groups' fear of confirming negative stereotypes. "At the high school level, everything is in the stew," Mr. Steele said.

Still, Mr. Steele said Mr. Osborne's study "captures the impact of race on schooling outcomes" and could serve as a useful prod to further research.

"It's important for other researchers to figure out how the experiences of these groups differ in schools," he said. "And if his study does that, that would be a great boon."

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