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One Size Fits All? Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and Happiness in Schools

by Laura Davis, Jasmine L. Whiteside & Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng - 2021

Background/Context: While an abundance of evidence demonstrates how unequal conditions in schools contribute to unequal learning outcomes, the extent to which students’ affective experiences of schooling reflect similar incongruences warrants further inquiry. Framing this discussion are empirical accounts and popular narratives of schools as socializing institutions that ascribe particular gendered, racialized, and otherwise socially defined identities to young people. These intersections form the basis of their experiences as students and likely shape their individual happiness in schools.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article examines, from an intersectional perspective, whether there are group differences in self-reported happiness in school. Our findings challenge the broad argument that girls are happier in schools because this pattern only holds when comparing levels of happiness between White girls and boys.

Research Design: Using data from the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) study, we provide descriptive averages of levels of happiness by sex and race/ethnicity. Given that these patterns are likely shaped by classroom (and teacher and school) conditions, we next use classroom fixed effects models that predict levels of happiness. This modeling strategy makes comparisons only among students in the same classroom who are taught by the same teacher and housed in the same school.

Findings/Results: We found that the argument that girls are happier than boys in schools only applies to White students. In contrast, there are no gender differences among Latinx and Asian American students, and we found that Black girls are less happy than their male counterparts.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Overall, our article’s findings challenge widespread notions that there are universal gender differences in happiness in schools. More broadly speaking, our work speaks to the socializing function of schools and indicates that the gendering process cannot be interpreted without an analysis of how schools also construct race and ethnicity. Future work can build from our study to examine whether the patterns revealed in this study hold true in older grades, given that one of our secondary findings is that older students seem less happy in schools than their younger peers. Research should also examine how interactions with key social actors, such as peers and teachers, shape student happiness in school.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 1, 2021, p. 1-28
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23559, Date Accessed: 9/26/2021 3:52:11 AM

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About the Author
  • Laura Davis
    The University of Chicago
    E-mail Author
    LAURA DAVIS is a senior research analyst at the UChicago Consortium on School Research. Her current work examines policies and practices associated with use of school climate data in continuous improvement initiatives. Laura’s research centers broadly on the production of inequality in education, targeting intersections between teacher practice and the K–20 experiences of young people from minoritized and historically underserved communities. Laura worked previously as an elementary classroom teacher in Los Angeles and now teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in educational leadership and social foundations of education.
  • Jasmine L. Whiteside
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    JASMINE L. WHITESIDE is a doctoral candidate at Ohio State University. Whiteside's research interests explore educational inequalities and how they are compounded by demographic factors such as race, class, and one’s spatial location. A recent publication entitled “Becoming Academically Eligible: University Enrollment Among First-Generation, Rural College Goers” highlights the creative strategies and mechanisms that first-generation students used to enroll in college.
  • Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    HUA-YU SEBASTIAN CHERNG, Ph.D., is a sociologist whose scholarly and community-based work focuses on the social lives of marginalized youth. His interests include comparative perspectives on race/ethnicity (with a focus on China and the United States), immigrant adaptation, and social capital within the school and educational context. As such, his research examines the social relationships in the lives of minority and immigrant adolescents in the United States, gender and ethnic differences in education in China, and cultural and social capital transfers between adolescents in the United States. He has also taught in a charter middle school in San Francisco and a college in rural China.
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