Spencer Foundation Dissertation Scholarship

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The Black-White achievement gap appears early in childhood, persists into adolescence, and undermines the future well-being of Black children. Gaps in academic skills drive much of today’s continuing Black-White disparities in wages, schooling, employment, and poverty. Black children are more likely to grow up in disadvantaged families; thus, it’s tempting to lay the origins of the Black-White test score gap at the feet of the socioeconomic adversity Black families confront. However, the interplay between SES and race is more complex. First, racial achievement disparities often persist after taking family SES into account. Second, the size of Black-White performance gaps vary by social class, with the largest disparities evident among the highest-SES students in middle and high school. Lastly, recent research shows that income’s associations with cognitive skills differ for Black and White youth. What remains unclear is why the academic returns to SES differ by race. Increasing evidence suggests that racial disparities in proximity to multiple forms of (dis)advantage and corresponding inequalities in access to social, cultural, and economic resources may help explain why Black and White children do not reap similar rewards from family socioeconomic advantage. Yet little research has investigated these pathways.

This mixed-methods project therefore has four research aims. Study 1 uses nationally representative data from a cohort of students who entered kindergarten in 2010 to (1) investigate whether and how race moderates the relations between family SES (i.e., family income and parental educational attainment) and academic skills at school entry, and (2) assess whether Black-White differences in proximity to community (dis)advantage, parenting behaviors and attitudes, and family routines explain why the association between SES and achievement varies for Black and White children. Study 2 collects survey, interview, and observational data from a stratified sample of low-, middle-, and high-income Black and White families to (3) explore within-SES racial disparities in proximity to intergenerational, spatial, and relational (dis)advantage and in access to social capital, cultural capital, and wealth, and (4) investigate within-SES racial differences in young children’s developmental contexts that may be attributable to these disparities. Together, these studies will enhance understanding of the independent and interactive associations between race, family SES, and early academic skills, elucidate the pathways through which nearness to (dis)advantage influences young children’s development, and inform a novel conceptual model of how race and SES intersect to shape early family life.

As national, state, and local educational leaders grapple with how to effectively address the needs of gender expansive students, more research is needed to inform policy. Existing research indicates gender expansive youth experience high rates of chronic social stressors such as victimization, discrimination, and rejection. These stressors have academic, mental health, and physical health consequences; however, implementing protective and affirming school policies may alleviate some stressors gender expansive students encounter.

My dissertation is composed of three interrelated but independent mixed-methods studies at the intersection of educational policy, school climates and health for gender expansive students. Study One is an exploratory document analysis describing the current educational policy and procedural landscape for gender expansive youth. Using a representative sample of school districts in Illinois, I create a profile of the existing types of policies and the kinds of districts implementing them.

Study One informs Study Two, a multi-site interview study examining why some district administrators may support changes to existing policies, different implementation strategies, and potential barriers to implementing policies concerning gender expansive students.

Finally, Study Three is a clinical study investigating how gender dysphoria, social stressors (particularly those experienced in school), and lack of social support contribute to poorer health in transgender populations through inflammation and immune deregulation pathways. Overall, these studies will provide a more comprehensive and deeper understanding of the academic environment for gender expansive youth and how their social environment influences their health, an issue of crucial importance for educational policy.

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