Special Education

Gifted Black Pupils Found Pressured to Underperform

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 17, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 1 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect name for the research journal Urban Education.

Gifted black students who underperform in school may do so because of peer pressure to “act black,” according to new research published this month in the journal Urban Education.

In “Another Look at the Achievement Gap: Learning From the Experiences of Gifted Black Students,” authors Donna Y. Ford, Tarek C. Grantham, and Gilman W. Whiting found that peer pressure to “act black” was significant among a group of gifted African-American students in two Ohio districts.

The study analyzed survey results from 166 students—some in a low-performing urban district; others in a suburban, higher-performing district—who were in grades 6-12. The survey asked them questions about their behavior and attitudes toward academic achievement, as well as their perceptions of social and peer pressures.

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To that end, the researchers asked students to describe what the phrases “acting white” and “acting black” meant.

Most of them described “acting white” as speaking standard English, doing well in school, taking advanced courses, being stuck up, and not acting your race. In describing what it meant to “act black,” they used phrases such as being laid-back, being dumb or uneducated, and pretending not to be smart.

“I was really surprised at how many times the students equated ‘acting black’ with something negative,” said Ms. Ford, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “It’s tragic.”

Mr. Whiting said there are troubling ramifications for the students who associated “acting black” with negative behaviors.

“These are young, black people talking about themselves,” said Mr. Whiting, a professor of African-American and diaspora studies at Vanderbilt. “What do you have to deal with when you have young students who feel this way about themselves?”

The co-authors conclude their study with recommendations to address underachievement, including counseling on how to handle peer pressure, mentorships with successful African-American adults, and multicultural curricula.

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2008 edition of Education Week

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