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STEM for All: Student Identities and The Paradox of STEM Democratization


by Kristin Cipollone, Amy E. Stich & Lois Weis - 2020

Background/Context: Calls to increase participation in and access to STEM education have been loud and frequent. These democratizing efforts have targeted the aspirations and expectations of non-dominant students attending U.S. secondary schools, promising pathways to college and opportunities for social mobility, yet the results have been mixed. While some exemplars exist, recent research has identified a number of social and structural challenges that undermine the stated goals of policy initiatives and fail to yield positive student outcomes.

Purpose: Drawing upon the authors’ notion of shadow capital, an extension of Bourdieu’s theoretical framework, and Holland, Lachincotte, Skinner, and Cain’s theory of figured worlds, this article explores how high-achieving students from non-dominant backgrounds construct their academic identities amid limited STEM material and discursive structures in two urban, non-selective, public, STEM-focused schools. In so doing, we aim to extend and complicate the literature on STEM reform and its ability to provide opportunity and improve outcomes for non-dominant students.

Research Design: The findings reported herein are part of a larger ethnographic, longitudinal, and comparative study of eight non-selective, urban public high schools serving primarily economically and racially non-dominant students. Data consist of interviews with multiple stakeholders, sustained participant and non-participant observation, and document analysis. In this article we focus on two STEM-focused schools, STEM Academy and Broadway Science Academy (BSA), and primarily draw upon interview data given our emphasis on student identity development.

Findings/Results: As a result of a mismatch between the intention and outcome of STEM reform as it plays out in this study, each school provided students with shadow capital. Given the different school contexts, the effects of this shadow capital on students’ STEM identities vary across site. In the case of STEM Academy, students develop conflicted STEM identities amid the school’s own conflicted institutional identity as both STEM-focused and college preparatory. In the case of BSA, students are provided opportunities that are seen as more “connected” to student-lived experiences, resulting in vocational pathways devoid of the elements that truly bridge home and school in ways that create opportunity, complicating students’ ability to actualize their college and career aspirations.

Conclusions/Recommendations: In order to create authentic and meaningful connected STEM opportunities that allow students to draw from their own stores of capital and nurture STEM identities, we need to reevaluate and re-envision the “good intentions” undergirding the democratization of education and ask whether efforts to democratize STEM are plausible within our deeply stratified system.



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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 2, 2020, p. -
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23203, Date Accessed: 6/2/2020 11:59:46 AM

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About the Author
  • Kristin Cipollone
    Ball State University
    E-mail Author
    KRISTIN CIPOLLONE is Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in Elementary Education at Ball State University. Her two strands of research focus on the intersections of class and race in the transition from high school to college and their influence on the (re)production and maintenance of inequality, and the preparation of culturally responsive teachers. She is co-author of the book Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admission in Top-Tier Secondary Schools (University of Chicago, 2014) and “Shadow Capital: The Democratization of College Preparatory Education,” recently published in Sociology of Education.
  • Amy Stich
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    AMY E. STICH is an assistant professor of higher education at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia. As a sociologist of education and qualitative researcher, Stich is interested in issues of inequality of educational access, opportunity, and outcome relative to social class and race. Her current research, supported by a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, examines the structure and social consequences of postsecondary tracking. She is the author of Access to Inequality: Reconsidering Class, Knowledge, and Capital in Higher Education (Lexington Books) and co-editor of The Working Classes and Higher Education: Inequality of Access, Opportunity, and Outcome (Routledge).
  • Lois Weis
    University at Buffalo, State University of New York
    E-mail Author
    LOIS WEIS is State University of New York Distinguished Professor at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York. She has written extensively about the complex role class, gender, and race play in light of contemporary dynamics associated with the global knowledge economy, new patterns of emigration, and the movement of cultural and economic capital across national boundaries. Her recent work includes targeted focus on the ways in which low-income minoritized high school students experience and engage with STEM related subjects and the potential consequences of such experiences for postsecondary entrance, choice of major, and PS completion. In addition to articles in a range of journals, her books include Class Warfare: Class, Race, and College Admissions at Top‐Tier Secondary Schools (with Kristin Cipollone and Heather Jenkins) and The Way Class Works: Readings on School, Family, and the Economy.
 
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