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Social Construction, Segregation, School Choice


Brown v. Board concluded 60 years ago that “separate but equal” schools are “inherently unequal”. Yet, schools are more separate and unequal today than four decades ago. Take the district that I have been studying, for example. The north side has mostly affluent white students attending B+ schools while the south has 80 percent poor minorities in D+ Schools

Ironically, school segregation practices are none existent, and today, poor minority parents have more opportunities to choose schools for their children rather than attending low performing zoned schools. In fact, this district offers ideal opportunities for school choice. The parents in my study can send their kids to any school they choose. Researchers show that parents list academic quality as the most important criterion when choosing schools. However, no research has asked how poor White and minority parents construct academic quality. In my thesis, I ask precisely this question, and my findings shed light on why this segregating line exists when theoretically it should not.

To explore this question I randomly selected and interviewed 92 parents from the 11 schools in the southern region of the district. Two findings emerged. First, a majority of these parents insisted their children attended good schools, and they reject school grades as an indicator of academic quality. Why? Parents say, “Those grades speak more of the demographics of the school than the actual teachers”. They acknowledge that many parents, in the southern region, lack time and resources to supplement education. Second, they construct academic quality through three social interactions with enthusiastic teachers, passionate administrator, and happy children. These factors were consistently offered as evidence of a “good school”, despite low test scores.

My work has two major implications. First, school choice theories assume parents will choose higher quality schools to maximize their children’s academic potential. However, not all parents think that school test scores and grades are accurate indicators of school quality. Rather, the parents in my study emphasize positive social interactions as superior evidence of school quality. Because school choice policies ignore how school quality is socially constructed differently by parents from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, school choice will continue to reinforce a line which segregates poor minorities from affluent Whites. Second, the finding that academic quality is socially constructed suggests that further reproduction of inequality and segregation will continue to exist. Unless policies address these issues directly, separate will still be “unequal”.


The Annual Mary Lou Fulton Mentored Research Conference showcases some of the best student research from the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences. The mentored learning program encourages undergraduate students to participate in hands-on and practical research under the direction of a faculty member. Students create these posters as an aide in presenting the results of their research to the public, faculty, and their peers.

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Family, Home, and Social Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Graduate Student



The Segregating Effects of the Social Construction of Academic Quality

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