Books like The Rise of Women and The End of Men herald the academic success of young women in the United States today, but the image of the “genius” is still male. And fields that emphasize the importance of raw intelligence, like physics, economics, and computer science are still male-dominated. How can both of these social facts co-exist? New research from Michela Musto suggests that racialized and gendered classroom management practices in schools may be part of the problem. How teachers respond to talking out of turn establishes a hierarchy of intelligence in middle school classrooms, where high-achieving white boys are considered “brilliant” and more exceptional than girls, and low-achieving Black and Latino boys are viewed as “bad.”
Musto spent 2.5 years observing in a public middle-school in Los Angeles, talking to over 190 racially-diverse students. This article examines patterns of rule-breaking, especially talking out of turn, in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade math classes. In higher-level courses, which overwhelmingly consisted of white and Asian students, boys monopolized classroom discussions in eighth grade because teachers tolerated their interruptions and regularly allowed them to challenge their female classmates in sixth and seventh grade. Musto’s data shows that this disparity in who acts as the expert in high-level classrooms contributes to a belief among eighth-grade girls and boys that boys are more exceptionally intelligent than girls.
In lower-level courses, dominated by Black and Latino students, harsh discipline from teachers caused disengagement for some eighth-grade boys. Musto observed that students came to see Latino boys as the “dumbest” kids in school because teachers repeatedly challenged their competency, and high levels of policing left Latino boys academically disengaged. Race also mattered in higher-level classes because teachers tolerated non-academic interruptions from white boys, but not Asian ones.
Taken together, racialized tracking and teacher response to students helps us understand the continued sense among students that while girls are smart, the truly exceptional students are white boys.