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Sociologist Explores Race, Gender and Class Inequalities in Education

February 12, 2010

Sociologist Explores Race, Gender and Class Inequalities in Education

“What did you learn in school today?” may be one of the most important questions parents can ask their child.

Research by a UC Merced
sociologyprofessor shows that low-income students who talk about their day at school with family members are more likely to pursue higher-education opportunities.

Irenee Beattie, a sociologist of education, studies inequalities that arise from differences by race/ethnicity, gender and class. A student’s experience in school and with family shapes how - and if - they make the transition from high school to college.

Her research shows girls from low-to-middle range socioeconomic origins are more likely to earn a four-year college degree than boys of similar range because parents expect girls to talk more and typically give them curfews. However, in instances when the family is well-off, there is no gender difference in educational attainment and the two factors have limited influence on their chances of college completion. The research should prompt parents to look at how parenting styles that treat sons and daughters differently could impact their children, Beattie noted.

“Those supposedly benign messages, they have concrete educational impacts that harm boys,” she said. “How we treat our kids has implications for how successful they are.”

The traits valued in school - obedience and docility - are typically seen as feminine, Beattie said. While traditionally “masculine” traits - independence and aggression - create problems at school and often lead to more discipline for boys. Too often people incorrectly fault schools and look to them for solutions.

“Schools didn’t create the idea of boys as trouble,” Beattie explained. “They can’t make all the changes.”

This research, using extensive data sets from the U.S. Department of Education, is funded by a grant from the American Educational Research Association and coauthored with Lyssa Thaden, a Washington State graduate student.

The study is just one of Beattie’s projects that probe education. Her work has the potential to impact the way schools and communities across the nation look at how children are raised because parenting styles have far-reaching effects on how some youth mature and live their lives.

Beattie, a professor in the
School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, joined UC Merced for the 2008/2009 academic year. She did her undergraduate work at Tufts University and earned her doctorate from University of Arizona. Most recently, she was teaching at Washington State University.

She was drawn to UC Merced by the opportunity to build a sociology department at the University of California’s newest campus.

“The UC is tried and true and excellent across the board,” she said.

Beattie has other research projects in the works. She’s looking at the tension created by conflicting federal laws - the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Safe and Gun-Free Schools Act.

Language in the ADA prohibits disabled students from being disciplined the same way as the school’s general population, while the gun-free schools act mandates certain punishments for bringing weapons to school. Which law prevails?

The tendency of the court, Beattie has learned, leans toward the corporate interest, which would be the school’s rights, rather than the individual’s. A high-profile example of this tendency, Beattie noted, is the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision giving corporations the ability to directly donate to political campaigns.

In the future, Beattie said, she wants to look at education issues in the local community, which has a high-percentage of first-generation college students.

“I do see a lot of potential synergy with my interests and the Valley,” she said.