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Decoding Success: A Middle-Class Logic of Individual Advancement in a U.S. Suburb and High School


by Peter Demerath , Jill Lynch, H. Richard Milner IV, April Peters & Mario Davidson — 2010

Background: Researchers have largely attributed achievement gaps between different groups of students in the United States to differences in resources, parent education, socioeconomic status (SES), and school quality. They have also shown how, through their “cultural productions,” certain students may disadvantage themselves.

Focus: This article takes a different approach to understanding the role of education in the perpetuation of social inequality in the United States: It focuses on the construction of advantage. It seeks to explain how students from middle-class to upper-middle-class communities continue to pull ahead of students from other backgrounds.

Setting: A Midwestern U.S. suburb and its Blue Ribbon public high school.

Research Design: A 4-year mixed-method ethnographic study that followed a diverse group of high- and underachieving students through their entire high school careers.

Data Collection and Analysis: Data were collected by a diverse research team through participant observation and informal interviews in classrooms and other relevant in- and out-of-school settings; over 60 tape-recorded interviews with teachers, administrators, and students, including a diverse sample of 8 high- and low-achieving male and female students from the class of 2003 and their parents; and consultation of school documents and popular culture discourses and social narratives on youth, parenting, and schooling. All observational and interview data were analyzed and interpreted through an inductive process of constant comparison across and within cases. In addition, a grounded survey consisting of 44 forced-choice and 16 open-ended items was administered in March 2002 to 605 students. Differences in GPA on the basis of caregiving arrangements, mother’s educational attainment, and SES were compared using the chi-square statistic. Differences in student responses to specific survey questions were compared across sex, SES, GPA, grade, and residing caregiver groups in bivariate models also using the chi-square statistic. These models were expanded to include multiple student attributes (sex, SES, age, residing caregiver, and so on) using multinomial logistical regression with key response contrasts as the dependent variables.

Findings: The article describes the local cultural logic and set of practices that were oriented toward producing both the substance and image of competitive academic success, including (1) the class cultural community achievement ideology; (2) the school’s institutional advantaging of its pupils; (3) student identities and strategies for school success; and (4) parental intervention in school and manipulation of educational policies. The piece’s class cultural approach shows how these beliefs and practices constitute a highly integrated system with multiple internal feedback mechanisms that underlie its robustness. The article also discusses some of the costs of this unswerving orientation to individual advancement, including student stress and fatigue, alienation from learning, incivility, and marginalization of minority students.

Conclusions and Recommendations: The article demonstrates another way in which class formation is mediated within the social fields of high schools, showing how this integrated cultural system of individual advancement is an important mechanism in the production of inequality in the contemporary United States. In addition, in identifying some of the deleterious effects of the role of competition in the cultural logic of schooling in this community, the article recommends that teachers and administrators enter into dialogues concerning the extent to which it is foregrounded or backgrounded in their own classrooms and schools.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 112 Number 12, 2010, p. 2935-2987
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16019, Date Accessed: 10/19/2017 7:38:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Peter Demerath
    University of Minnesota
    E-mail Author
    PETER DEMERATH is associate professor of education in the Department of Educational Policy and Administration at the University of Minnesota. His research area is educational anthropology and focuses on the comparative study of class culture in education. Recent publications include: Demerath, P. (2009). Producing success: The culture of personal advancement in an American high school. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Demerath, P., Lynch, J., & Davidson, M. (2008). Dimensions of psychological capital in a U.S. suburb: Identities for neoliberal times. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 39, 270–292.
  • Jill Lynch
    Ashland University
    JILL LYNCH is assistant professor of educational foundations at Ashland University. Her scholarship focuses on formative assessment and the intersection of participatory research and critical visual literacy. In addition, she works with Battelle for Kids in Columbus, Ohio, researching the practices of highly effective teachers.
  • H. Richard Milner IV
    Vanderbilt University
    H. RICHARD MILNER IV is associate professor of education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. His research interests include (a) urban education, (b) race and equity in education, and (c) teacher education. Recent publications include: Milner, H. R. (2007). Race, culture, and researcher positionality: Working through dangers seen, unseen, and unforeseen. Educational Researcher, 36(7), 388–400; and Milner, H. R. (2008). Critical race theory and interest convergence as analytic tools in teacher education policies and practices. Journal of Teacher Education, 59, 332–346.
  • April Peters
    University of Georgia
    APRIL PETERS is assistant professor in the Department of Lifelong Education, Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on diversity in school leadership, mentoring school leaders, and in-service leadership support and preparation. She is the author of: Peters, A. (2003). Making the academy a home for the brave. In A. Green & L. Scott (Eds.), Academics in Black: African American doctoral students speak on higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Mario Davidson
    Vanderbilt University
    MARIO DAVIDSON is a biostatistician at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His research interests are in statistics and medical education for underrepresented populations, and he recently copresented a workshop at the Generalists conference in San Antonio, Texas.
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