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Names Can Hurt You

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What’s in a name?

Apparently plenty, according to a study by a University of Florida researcher.

Economist David N. Figlio found that children with certain exotic-sounding names—like Da’Quan—get treated differently in school from siblings with more conventional monikers.

“When you see a name like David or Catherine, you internalize it in a different kind of way than a name such as Laqwinisha,” Mr. Figlio said. “It could be that teachers start to make inferences about a student’s parents . . . based on the names.”

Mr. Figlio combed Florida birth records for baby names that linked to families of lower socioeconomic status. He found, for example, that mothers who were teenagers or high school dropouts often gave their children names with prefixes such as “lo,” “ta,” or “qua,” or suffixes such as “isha” or “ious.” Such names also tended to include unconventional consonant combinations or apostrophes.

Later, Mr. Figlio gathered data from one Florida district on 3,000 families that included one unconventionally named child and a traditionally named sibling.

A child with a name like Damarcus, he found, was 2 percent less likely than his brother David to be referred to a program for the gifted—even when both boys had identical test scores. All else being equal, the students with unusual names were also more likely than their conventionally named siblings to be promoted to the next grade. Mr. Figlio suggests both tendencies reflect teachers’ lower expectations for those children.

Districtwide, the uncommonly named children had lower mathematics and reading scores than their traditionally named peers.

Though most of the children whose names fit those patterns were African-American, Mr. Figlio said his analyses suggest that it’s not the “blackness” of the name that triggers educators’ impressions, but the sound and spelling combinations that seem to connote a disadvantaged upbringing.

Vol. 24, Issue 39, Page 8

Published in Print: June 8, 2005, as Names Can Hurt You

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