No Child Left Behind? Role/identity development of the "good student".

Author:Bianchi, Alison J.

Abstract: Using a new method to measure identity, we attempt to capture salient identities of young children developing into "good students." Using a nationally representative sample of American kindergarteners who advance to the first grade, derived from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, we examine identities based on socio-economic status, motor skills and weight that affect school performance as measured by both cognitive and non-cognitive skill assessments. Results reveal that identities derived from socio-economic status and motor skills are positively linked to school performance outcomes, and parents of first graders negatively link identities derived from body weight to first graders' non-cognitive skills. Our findings have implications for policies that concentrate on cognitive skills and ignore work habits when evaluating performance. We discuss the importance of linking identity development to both types of skills because American teachers and parents, unlike teachers and parents in East Asia, do not recognize the need to stress ability and effort equally when assessing schooling. We also interpret the meaning of our results for the No Child Left Behind Policy.


Social roles are positions within a network of relationships that have expectations attached to them (Stryker 1980; Stryker & Burke 2000). When an actor inhabits a social role for a length of time, she internalizes the associated role expectations. The definitions and meanings that constitute expectations become a part of her self-concept, the collection of meanings, or identities, that she possesses and would use to describe herself (Stets & Burke 2003). While embedded in a role, an actor performs according to role expectations, and thus expresses her self-meanings through behavior (Burke 1980). A tacit association between identities and role performances can be made, providing that actors within a social context share the same understanding of how one's self meanings and performance are related to one another (Burke & Tully 1977; Burke & Reitzes 1981; Burke & Franzoi 1988).

The association between identity and role performance can be examined with actors who can validly and reliably answer such questions as: "who am I?"; "how do I perform?"; and "which actors in this context are expected to perform in a certain way?" (Burke 1989; Burke, Stets & Pirog-Good 1988; Nuttbrock & Freudiger 1991; Simon 1992; Thoits 1995). However, the concepts of "identity" and "role performance" are not so readily operationalized with actors that lack the level of sophistication to understand these concepts, such as young children. Nonetheless, despite these methodological issues, evidence does exist that children develop and invoke identities, and the role performances indicative of these identities (Marsh, Craven & Debus 1991; Eccles, Wigfield, Harold & Blumenfeld 1993), although confirmation of these findings lacks reliability across studies (Wylie 1989; Byrne 1996). If a more valid and reliable way to measure identities of children were found, researchers would be better able to explore the link between self-meanings and behavior in young children.

The purpose of this paper is to explore a new method of identity measurement, developed by Jasso (2003, 2004), to determine if salient identities can be recognized without explicitly measuring the shared meaning system in which they are embedded. Specifically, we use this methodology to capture salient identities of very young students that are based on social status, the prestige one possesses based on one's differentially valued social distinctions. Using a nationally representative sample of kindergarteners that advance to the first grade, we examine the salient, status-based identities that may be linked to school performance as measured by both cognitive and non-cognitive skill assessments.

We feel this research is important because, in the U.S., there is a general tendency for policies pertaining to children's school performance to concentrate on testing and evaluating ability only. The latest example of this tendency is the No Child Left Behind policy of the Bush Administration. This policy forces U.S. elementary schools to focus primarily on cognitive skills associated with testing well in math and reading (Paige 2003a). Research has shown, however, that non-cognitive behaviors, such as work habits, are also essential to academic achievement (Farkas 2003), and so we assume that performance in these skills is also important to the identity development of the "good student." Therefore, our results have implications for this social policy that does not emphasize the full toolkit of skills needed to develop the identities required for both academic and later career success (Rosenbaum 2001).

Identity and Social Status in Young Children

Soon after the age of three, children begin to develop a sense of the self from expectations and evaluations of others (Stipek, Recchia & McClintic 1992). These evaluations develop into "self-guides" that regulate behavior (Higgins 1991), although children still lack the ability to evaluate the self independently by ages five to seven (Selman 1980). Five-year-old children nonetheless have a rudimentary set of self-definitions and meanings that represent the beginnings of a self-concept (Verschueren, Marcoen & Schoefs 1996), even though this self-concept is strongly associated with significant others' appraisals of the self, especially evaluations by caretakers (Harter 1989).

Researchers have also shown that young children are sensitive to differences in social status and that understandings of these differences are being internalized as part of their self-meanings. For instance, Nesdale and Flesser (2001) conducted an experiment where 5-year-olds were told to draw self-portraits, and then these pictures were randomly assigned as "excellent" and "good." Essentially, differential status beliefs were created characteristic of Ridgeway's (2001) status value theory, whereby differences in competence become associated with differences in social prestige. Two main effects in the study were found: the "excellent drawers" felt they had performed considerably better than the "good drawers," and the "good drawers" concurred; to be precise, a status hierarchy based on ability had developed. The other important effect was that the "excellent drawers" felt their self-portraits revealed that they were much more similar to other "excellent drawers" than to "good drawers;" the same was true of the "good drawers." In other words, during a classic in-group/out-group exercise (Tajfel & Turner 1979), randomly assigned "high status" and "low status" children came to understand that they were part of a high or low status group, and that idea became part of their self-definition: "I am high status and like these children; I am not like low status children."

This self-categorization delineates how actors form identities based on group distinctions (Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher & Wetherell 1987); this process differs from the identification required for forming an identity based on a social role (McCall & Simmons 1978). Nonetheless, Stets and Burke (2000) emphasize that actors concurrently occupy a role and belong to a group, and so identity formation is comprised of both processes. We concur with this observation, and believe what is necessary for the study of identity development is a method that captures both self-categorization and identification. For example, a young child can define herself in the role a "student," but also in a group, such as a "rich student," adding social status based on wealth to the meaning of her student identity.

Jasso's Common Core Theory and Its Present Application

In studies involving adults, identity theorists have shown that social status moderates one's ability to construct and verify identities derived from role expectations (Cast, Stets & Burke 1999; Stets & Harrod 2004). What these studies do not show is that actors can construct and maintain an identity based on social status while in a social role. To capture such status-based identities, Jasso (2003, 2004) scrutinized four socio-behavioral theories--identity theory, social identity theory, comparison theory, and status theory--and discovered that these theories share a common core of three basic elements to describe the self: personal quantitative characteristics, personal qualitative characteristics, and primordial outcomes. She defines personal quantitative characteristics as those attributes that can be ranked as more or less, be they cardinal characteristics, such as wealth, or ordinal characteristics, such as beauty. Personal qualitative characteristics are those attributes that cannot be ranked, such as race, gender or language. Primordial outcomes consist of ultimate or quasi-ultimate interactional ends, such as happiness, self-esteem, self-worth and status and justice processes. Primordial outcomes are the engine by which quantitative and qualitative characteristics manifest themselves during interaction. Using various combinations of these three elements, an identity can be modeled, and effects of this identity on myriad social outcomes can be done. We focus on the primordial outcome associated with status processes.

Jasso (2001) developed an equation to explore how personal quantitative and qualitative characteristics can be modeled for identities based on social status. By using an observation made by Goode (1978), namely that as rank increases, status increases at an increasing rate, and Sorensen's (1979) mathematical representations of these observations, the basic equation measuring status-based identities is:

Status-Based Identity = ln (1/1-r)

with r denoting the relative rank (between zero and one) on a personal quantitative characteristic.

For children, personal quantitative characteristics, such as their family's socio-economic status, gross motor skills and body...

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