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Is There A Place for Me? Role Models and Academic Identity among White Students and Students of Color

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Role models have long been thought to play an important role in young peoples' development. The present study explores the ways that race- and gender-matched role models can provide young people with a greater sense of the opportunities available to them in the world. A longitudinal study of young adolescents (N = 80) revealed that students who reported having at least one race- and gender-matched role model at the beginning of the study performed better academically up to 24 months later, reported more achievement-oriented goals, enjoyed achievement-relevant activities to a greater degree, thought more about their futures, and looked up to adults rather than peers more often than did students without a race- and gender-matched role model. These effects held only for race- and gender-matched role models-not for non-matched role models. Finally, the results held irrespective of the educational achievements of the specific role model. Data are discussed in terms of their implications for our understanding of the ways that young people become invested in academic pursuits and the means by which we might be able to assist goal development among young people.
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Is There A Place for Me? Role Models
and Academic Identity among
White Students and Students of Color
SABRINA ZIRKEL
Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center
Role models have long been thought to play an important role in young peoples’
development. The present study explores the ways that race- and gender-matched role
models can provide young people with a greater sense of the opportunities available
to them in the world. A longitudinal study of young adolescents ( N580) revealed
that students who reported having at least one race- and gender-matched role model
at the beginning of the study performed better academically up to 24 months later,
reported more achievement-oriented goals, enjoyed achievement-relevant activities to
a greater degree, thought more about their futures, and looked up to adults rather
than peers more often than did students without a race- and gender-matched role
model. These effects held only for race- and gender-matched role models—not for
non-matched role models. Finally, the results held irrespective of the educational
achievements of the specific role model. Data are discussed in terms of their impli-
cations for our understanding of the ways that young people become invested in
academic pursuits and the means by which we might be able to assist goal develop-
ment among young people.
Social scientists have long noted the importance of role models in psycho-
logical development and in the development of young people’s goals and
aspirations ~see, e.g., Cooley, 1982; Freud, 194901969; James, 189201962;
Mead, 1934; Skinner, 1971; Stryker, 1980!. However, most psychological
research on the topic has focused on role models’ importance as sources of
information about how to behave ~see, e.g., Bandura, 1986!or as sources of
support and guidance as mentors ~e.g., Echevarria, 1998; Reiz, McNabb, &
Stephen, 1997!. However, race- and gender-matched role models also pro-
vide concrete information to young people regarding what is possible for
them as members of specific social groups ~Griffiths, 1995; Robst, et al.,
1996; Sumrall, 1995!. Young people learn the racial and gendered structur-
ing of the culture in which they live by noting the race and gender of adults
in different professional positions. The presence or absence of like others
in different social positions implicitly conveys information to young people
about the possibilities for their futures.
Teachers College Record Volume 104, Number 2, March 2002, pp. 357–376
Copyright © by Teachers College, Columbia University
0161-4681
In this paper, I argue that the structure of young people’s internalized
representations of the opportunities available to them in adulthood are
based, in part, on their understanding of the racialized and gendered
structuring of society. These representations of opportunity are correspond-
ingly encoded in the identities they form in adolescence, and this has
enormous implications for students’ educational aspirations and achieve-
ments. Put simply, young people pursue only that which they can imagine
as possible ~Fordham, 1998; Leondari, Syngollitou, & Kiosseoglou, 1998;
Markus & Nurius 1986; Ogbu, 1991!. It is critical that we understand those
aspects of the social and cultural context which frame students’ sense of
opportunity and effect differences in students’ commitment to their edu-
cation and to the pursuit of educational goals. The present study presents
an empirical investigation of the implications of race- and gender-matched
role models for the developing self-concepts of young adolescents of color
and their educational outcomes.
IMPLICATIONS OF ROLE MODELS FOR IDENTITY
AND GOAL DEVELOPMENT
Theories of adolescent development have long focused on the centrality of
identity development during this period ~see, e.g., Baumeister, 1997; Erik-
son, 1950, 1968; Habermas & Bluck, 2000; Harter, 1999; Marcia, 1980;
Waterman, 1999!. With their newfound capacity to reflect on themselves
and their futures, adolescents pay careful attention to the world around
them for information about who they might become ~Harter, 1999; Ruble,
1983!. Consequently, the availability of race- and gender-matched role mod-
els is likely to be especially critical at this time. As young people become
increasingly aware of how they fit into a larger social context, race- and
gender-matched role models can provide invaluable information to address
concerns they may have about whether society has a place for them.
Race- and gender-matched persons in desirable positions are suggestive
of possibilities for adolescents in a way that nonmatched role models can
never be. First, and perhaps most importantly, matched role models pro-
vide clear messages about the opportunities available not to people generally
but to members of one’s own social group. All young people know that some
people grow up to become physicians, but race and gender-matched physi-
cians provide young people with the information that “people like me”
sometimes grow up to become physicians.
Second, race- and gender-matched role models are likely to provide
information of particular relevance to members of one’s own group, infor-
mation that nonmatched role models are unlikely to provide. Watching a
male physician might provide a young girl with information about “physi-
cian behavior,” but he is not able to provide additional information that
358 Teachers College Record
might be of special interest to her—such as how other people respond to a
woman in that position or how a woman might balance the demands of
personal and professional life.
Finally, people have been shown to think about themselves and others in
terms of prototypes of “kinds” of people ~Cantor & Mischel, 1977, 1979!or
social identities ~Gollwitzer & Kirchhof, 1998; Schlenker, Britt, & Penning-
ton, 1996!; and they create narratives in which to understand themselves
and their identity ~McAdams, 1999!. To the extent that the particular role
models available shape our prototypes of the persons filling different kinds
of occupational roles, race- and gender-matched role models should facil-
itate the adoption of corresponding possible selves or identities towards
which we are then more likely to work ~Cantor & Mischel, 1979; Niedenthal,
Cantor, & Kihlstrom, 1985; Niedenthal & Mordkoff, 1991; Oyserman, Gant,
& Ager, 1995!.
IMPORTANCE OF THE CONTENT OF ROLE MODELS
VERSUS THEIR AVAILABILITY
Although much attention has been paid to the importance of role models
for providing young people with information about how to behave, this
may not, in fact, be their most important function. More than anything
else, race- and gender-matched role models may provide young people with
a sense of having a place of value and importance in the future ~Fordham,
1998; Ogbu, 1991; Taylor, Casten, Flickenger, & Roberts, 1994, but
cf. Ainsworth-Darnell & Downey, 1998!. Just as Marshall McLuhan ~1967!
argued that the content of television may not be the key to understanding its
impact when he said that “the medium is the message,” the content of a
young person’s role models may be less important than their availability
and their similarity to the adolescent. I argue that it is the presence or absence
of images of race- and gender-matched models filling socially desirable
roles, rather than the specific content of those images, that is critical for
young people’s developing sense of self.
Race- and gender-matched role models focus a young person’s attention
on the future and suggest opportunities available to him or her indepen-
dent of the nature of the activities in which the role model engages. Similar
others in desirable positions may enable young people to construct their
own images of themselves in similar contexts, helping them to generate not
only the thought “if he ~or she!can do that, maybe I can too,” but also “if
he ~or she!can do that, maybe people like me can do any number of
different things.” For example, young people who fixate on individual
athletes or musicians may learn more about strategies for turning hard
work into successful outcomes than about how to run the 100-yard dash or
play the guitar. Athletic or musical role models may seem unlikely to lead
Role Models and Achievement 359
young people to pursue academic goals. However, by modeling confidence,
success, and the potential of “people like me,” they may, in fact, accomplish
just that for some young people. Role models model more than just roles—
they also model specific aspects of desirable roles such as wealth, social
respect, and intelligence, as well as psychological constructs such as the
importance of striving towards one’s goals. In this way, I argue that race-
and gender-matched role models in positions young people find desirable
will increase young people’s investment in achievement generally, not just
their investment in achieving the goals being modeled.
OVERVIEW OF THE PRESENT STUDY
The present data are from a longitudinal study of 12–14-year-olds. Materials
consist of four waves of data collected from a young adolescent sample over
a period of 2 years ~see Table 1!. In the first wave, students reported on
themselves, their goals and aspirations, and indirectly provided information
about the role models available to them. In the second, students reported
about activities they found enjoyable and described their idols in a series of
daily diaries. In the third, students’ teachers provided evaluations of their
personality, performance, and academic potential. Finally, the fourth wave
of data collection consisted of a parent interview that took place the fol-
lowing year. Parents were asked about their perceptions of their child’s
experiences in school and current academic grades. Data for the present
study come from the first, second, and fourth waves of data collection.
Two hypotheses form the core of this study. The first hypothesis to be
tested is that that young adolescents with at least one race- and gender-
Table 1. Study time line
Year Month~s!Data Collected Variables Included in Assessment
Year 1 January Student
Questionnaire
Role model assessment
Self-generated life task listings
Normative life task appraisals
Rating of parent interest in schoolwork
Social network diagram
March Student
Diaries
Open-ended descriptions of “good”
events
Student description of idol
June Teacher
Evaluations
Assessments of student interest and
motivation
Year 2 April to
October
Parent
Interviews
Assessment of students’ academic
performance
360 Teachers College Record
matched role model at the start of the study will show increased interest in
achievement and higher levels of academic performance. The second hypoth-
esis is that these relationships will depend more on the match between
participants and available role models than on the content of the role
model.
METHODS
Participants
Participants ~N580; 47 female, 33 male!came from four different class-
rooms in three different schools in an ethnically diverse city in New England.
Roughly half ~n535!of the sample are students of color. Of these, 20 are
Hispanic Americans ~primarily Puerto Rican immigrants or of Puerto Rican
descent!, 7 are African Americans, 5 are Asian American ~South Vietnamese
refugees!, and three checked more than one ethnic grouping. One student
did not indicate his ethnic background. Students at these schools come
primarily from working- and middle-class families.
Measures
An overview of the time line of the study with information about data
collected at each phase is presented in Table 1. Every effort was made to
include all 80 students in every phase of the data collection. Nevertheless,
some attrition did occur, particularly among students who were in the 7th
grade at the time the study began.
1
The measures and the participation
rates for each are described below.
Questionnaire
Early in the spring semester, students completed a questionnaire during
school hours. The questionnaire consisted of several open- and closed-
ended measures designed to tap their thoughts and feelings about five
major life domains—school, family, friendships0peers, athletic or artistic
pursuits, and themselves. Those utilized in the present study are described
below.
Ethnic identification. Students identified their ethnic background by exam-
ining the following list and checking any and all groups that applied to
them: ~a!White or European American, ~b!Black or African American, ~c!
Asian American, ~d!Hispanic0Latino0Chicano, or ~e!Other ~for which stu-
dents were asked to provide additional information—none, however, checked
Role Models and Achievement 361
this category!. From these reports. students were classified into two groups
for purposes of analyzing these data: ~a!White ~those who checked only the
White0European American box!or ~b!students of color ~those who checked
at least one of the other ethnic groupings!. This dual classification was
made for both theoretical and practical reasons. From a theoretical point
of view, although the experiences of students of color who are members of
different ethnic groups are distinct in many important ways ~see Friedman,
1995!, there are also experiences which people of color share. It is these
shared experiences that provide the focus of this study. Practically, although
it would undoubtedly be interesting to examine different ethnic groups
separately in future work, the sample size in this study does not permit such
analyses here.
Life task listing. Students were asked to list any goals they had in the
following manner:
Sometimes, young people like yourself have goals that they are work-
ing towards. For example, a beginning college student might have
some goals such as “Getting good grades, doing well at schoolwork,”
“Making friends and getting along with other people”; and “Being on
my own ~without my family!.” These goals can be about anything—
yourself, your schoolwork, your friends, athletics, dance—anything
you can think of. Please list any goals you might have.
Participants listed an average of three life tasks, which, for purposes of this
study, were then coded by an undergraduate research assistant into the
following three categories: ~a!educational or professional goals ~e.g., “to go
to college,” “to be a teacher,” “to get a job and be successful”!,~b!social
goals ~e.g., “I also want to make a lot of friends,” “to be a good daughter,”
“making my family a happy one”!, and ~c!performance or athletic goals
~e.g., “good basketball player,” “to win the Merit Scholarship Competition
for violin next year,” “singing-rap”!. A random 20% of students’ listings
were also coded by the author, and interrater reliability was .84.
Career goals. In a series of questions, students were asked about what
they would like to be when they grow up. This section began with the
statement:
Sometimes young people feel that they know what they would like to
be when they grow up, sometimes they have no idea what they would
like to be, and sometimes they feel confused because there are so
many different things that they would like to be when they grow up
that they can’t imagine choosing just one.
362 Teachers College Record
This was followed by a question about whether they ever thought about
what they want to be when they grow up ~yes or no!and space for them to
write down “all the things you would like to be when you grow up, even if
you never thought about it before.” They were given more instructions to
indicate that these goals could include both those that are rare ~e.g., Pres-
ident of the United States!and those that are more common. Fifteen
percent ~n512!of the students completing this questionnaire chose not to
respond to this section. This was by far the largest group that chose not to
answer any particular question or set of questions in the entire question-
naire, and I suspect that this is meaningful. It is worth noting that 8 of the
12 ~67%!who chose not to complete this section were students of color
~and one more was the student who did not report information about
ethnicity!, which represents a disproportionate percentage of the sample
~x
2
59.31, p,.01!. The students who did complete this question ~n568!
typically listed an average of three possible jobs ~M53.09, SD 52.42!in a
wide range of categories from the everyday to the glamorous ~e.g., “rap
singer,” “nurse,” “roofer” “basketball player,” “scientist”!.
Role models. Following the free listing, students were asked to go back and
make some notations on the list. First, they were asked to circle the job that
represented their “favorite thing to be”. Next, they were asked to put a star
next to anything on the list if they personally knew someone who per-
formed that job. Finally, they were asked to put a second star next to any jobs
in which at least one person they personally knew in that career is the same
race and sex as themselves. Examples were given throughout to help students
understand the procedure, and students found the task relatively easy to do.
For purposes of this study, role models were defined as persons ~a!
participants knew ~b!of the same race and gender as themselves who ~c!
were noted by the student as doing something on their personal list of
possible career goals.
2
That is, students were identified as having a race-
and gender-matched role model on the basis of knowing someone of the
same race and gender employed in at least one of the occupations they
listed as “something they would like to be when they grow up”—concretely,
if an occupation had two stars next to it.
Coding of role models. The education required by students’ role models
was noted and coded into two categories: ~a!those not requiring a college
education ~e.g., rap singer, roofer, hairstylist!and ~b!those requiring a
college education ~e.g., teacher, doctor, lawyer!. In cases in which a person
noted that they had more than one race- and gender-matched role model
available to them, the higher status profession prevailed. Two females were
the only students whose sole race- and gender-matched model filled a social
Role Models and Achievement 363
rather than an occupational role ~i.e., mother!. Although interesting, their
responses were excluded from these analyses, as there was no clear way to
assess whether or not the response “being a mother” indicated the need for
a college education or not.
Diary Study
Later that same semester, students were invited to participate in a diary
study. Sixth-grade participants were paid $7.00 for their time. The 7th-
graders’ teacher and principal at the middle school objected to paying
students for participation, so they were compensated by means of a pizza
party instead. Of the 80 students from the original study invited to partici-
pate, 51 of the 6th-graders ~98%!and 25 of the 7th-graders ~89%!agreed
to participate and returned parent permission slips. Participating students
completed two- to three-page, semistructured nightly diaries for a period of
8~7th-graders!or9~6th-graders!days. In these diaries, students wrote
open-ended answers to a rotating set of questions that asked about expe-
riences at school, with family, and with friends.
Students varied in the number of diaries they actually completed and
turned in—and again this differed by grade. Sixth-graders were extremely
conscientious in their participation. They completed an average of 8.29
diaries over the 9-day period, with 39 of the 51 students ~76%!completing
all 9 days. Seventh-graders, in contrast, completed fewer diaries on average
~6.44 out of a possible 8 total diary days!, and a smaller percentage ~11 of
the 25, or 44%!completed all 8 days’ worth of content-based diaries. The
less reliable participation of 7th-graders resulted from both the structure of
the middle school environment ~making it less likely that teachers reminded
students daily about their diaries!and in part because the compensation
they were offered ~a pizza party!was less attractive. The portions of the
diaries relevant to this study are described below.
Good events. On 4 of the 10 days, students were asked to think about all
the things that happened that day that were especially fun or nice in some
way and describe the “most fun thing that happened” that day. Raters noted
to which domain the event was related ~school, family, friends, activity, or
sport or miscellaneous other!. Only those students who completed diaries
all 4 of the days in which this question was asked ~n552!were included in
these analyses.
Idol. On one of the diary days, students were asked to name and describe
someone they wished they could be more like. For the present study, the
author noted whether the idol listed was an adult or a peer.
364 Teachers College Record
Parent Interviews
Parent interviews focused on parents’ perceptions of their child’s experi-
ences in school, including how these experiences have changed over time.
For purposes of the present study, parents were also asked to provide
students’ most recent report card grades in math, science, English0
language arts, art, music, and physical education. Parents were also asked
to provide a more subjective measure of their child’s performance on a
five-point scale ~15very poor to 5 5excellent!.
Attempts were made to contact the parent~s!of all 80 of the original
study participants. Of these, 30 families could not be located. Two more
families were unable to complete the interview as the parents spoke no
English and no Vietnamese translator was available. Of the remaining
48 families, 40 provided interviews, 3 refused for personal reasons, and
the remaining 5 families agreed to be interviewed in principal, though it
proved impossible to arrange in practice ~e.g., multiple missed appoint-
ments, often coupled with a lack of phone that made rescheduling diffi-
cult!. In all, the response rate was 50%, and the refusal0incomplete interview
rate was 17%.
RESULTS
AVAILABILITY OF ROLE MODELS
The first part of the analyses of these data focused on the nature and
availability of role models to white students and students of color. Table 2
provides information on the role models available to participants in the
study and role models’ educational backgrounds. A critical assumption
guiding this research was that students of color would report having fewer
race- and gender-matched role models available to them, and this assump-
tion was, in fact, supported. About half of the students in this sample
reported at least one race- and gender-matched role model. However, whereas
most white students reported having race- and gender-matched role mod-
els available to them, a majority of students of color did not.
Codings of students’ race- and gender-matched role models were ana-
lyzed to examine differences in the professional status of race- and gender-
matched role models available to white students and students of color. In
general, proportionally fewer of the race- and gender-matched role models
reported by students of color were in occupations requiring a college edu-
cation ~x
2
53.74, p,.05!. It is important to keep this pattern in mind
when examining data on the relationship between the availability of a race-
and gender-matched role model and students’ motivation for academic
achievement. If students of color with a matched ~but not necessarily college-
Role Models and Achievement 365
educated!role model demonstrate a propensity to invest in academic achieve-
ment to the same degree as their White peers ~who typically do have
college-educated matched role models!, this will provide some support for
the hypothesis that the match is more important for predicting an invest-
ment in achievement than is the content of that role model.
Effects of the Availability of a Role Model
The focus of this manuscript is race- and gender-matched role models and
the special role that matched role models play in adolescent identity devel-
opment. As a consequence, hypothesis-testing will entail a two-stage pro-
cess: First, students with nonmatched role models will be compared to
those with no role model at all, to ensure that, as hypothesized, there are
no differences between these two groups. Next, given no differences between
students with non-matched role models and those with no role model at all,
these two groups will be collapsed and contrasted with students with race-
and gender-matched role models. In each case, it is hypothesized that
students with at least one race- and gender-matched role model will show
greater investment in achievement than their peers without such a role
model.
Table 2. Characteristics of role models reported by students
Number of Students Who Report Having a Role Model,
Both Matched and Nonmatched
Role Model No Role Model
White students 29 14
Students of color 20 16
x
2
51.175, ns
The Presence or Absence of Race- and Gender-Matched Role Models
Matched Nonmatched None
White students 25 4 14
Students of color 10 10 16
x
2
58.58, p.01
Educational Status of Race- and Gender-Matched Role Models
No College College Required
White students 4 19
Students of color 5 5
x
2
53.74, p,.05
366 Teachers College Record
Achievement Focus
It was hypothesized that young adolescents with at least one race- and gender-
matched role model at the start of the study would show increased interest
in achievement ~Hypothesis I!, as evidenced by their ~a!demonstrating
better academic performance in future assessments, ~b!reporting more
achievement-oriented goals, ~c!enjoying achievement-relevant activities more,
~d!being more likely to think about the future and their plans or their
place in it, and ~e!being more likely to report adults rather than peers as
idols relative to their peers without matched role models. I also hypothesize
that these relationships will depend more on the match between partici-
pants and available role models than on the content of the role model
~Hypothesis II!, as evidenced by ~a!the fact that the findings will hold only
for those young people with race- and gender-matched role models—not for
those with nonmatched role models and ~b!that the positive relationships
will hold independent of the content of the particular role model reported
by a student ~i.e., the student will be more academically motivated even if
the role model does not have an academic background!.
Academic performance. Students with race- and gender-matched role mod-
els were hypothesized to be more academically focused and thus achieve
more than their peers without such role models. To test this hypothesis,
reports of students’ performance 18 to 24 months after the study began
were examined. Students’ grades were given a numerical value, with higher
numbers reflecting higher grades ~15F,35D,65C,95B,125
A—intermediate values represent 1’s and 2’s!. As expected, one-way ANO-
VA’s showed no differences in grades between those students with non-
matched role models and those without any role model ~F,1, ns!. Collapsing
those who reported a nonmatched role model or no role model and com-
paring them to students with race- and gender-matched role models, how-
ever, revealed the predicted pattern: Students with matched role models
were performing better academically than those without 14 to 18 months
after the role model assessment took place @Matched: M58.89—B1’s;
Nonmatched: M57.15—B2’s; F~1,35!54.05, p.05#. Moreover, this
pattern was true for both White students and students of color; no inter-
action of race and presence of role model was found @F~1, 33!51.46, ns#.
Performance and role model content. The second hypothesis examined in
this study was that the mere presence of race- and gender-matched role
models is more important than the content of those models. That is, it was
expected that the educational achievements of role models would not be
predictive of students’ later performance, and this was indeed the case.
Role Models and Achievement 367
There was no difference in students’ later academic performance as a
function of whether or not the race- and gender-matched role models they
reported were college-educated ~F,1, ns!.
Goals. It was also hypothesized that the greater investment in achieve-
ment pursuits on the part of students with race- and gender-matched role
models would be seen in their self-reports of the goals they were working
towards ~coded, as described above, ~a!educational and professional, ~b!social,
or ~c!performance0athletic goals!. Students with race- and gender-matched
role models were expected to report more goals in the “educational or
professional” category than students without matched role models, and this
hypothesis was supported. Initial one-way ANOVA’s revealed no differences
in the overall number of goals reported by White students and students of
color ~F,1, ns!. Similarly, one-way ANOVA’s comparing students with
nonmatched role models to those without role models showed no differences
between the two groups in the number of educational or professional goals
they reported. ~F’s ,1, ns!. Consequently, these two groups were collapsed
to form the group of participants without race- and gender-matched role
models; and they were compared to those with race- and gender-matched
role models in subsequent analyses.
Comparisons of those students with and without matched role models
revealed the predicted pattern and can be seen in Table 3. Those with
matched role models ~see columns 1 and 3 in Table 3!reported signifi-
cantly more goals overall and particularly more educational and profes-
sional goals than did their peers without them ~see columns 2 and 4!.
Moreover, a two-way race ~White vs. students of color!xrole model ~matched
vs. nonmatched or none!ANOVA on the number of goals students reported
revealed that this pattern—more goals among students with matched role
models—was stronger for students of color than for White students.
“Good” events. On 4 of the 10 diary days, students were asked to “describe
something good that happened today.” The content codings of these descrip-
tions were analyzed to test the prediction that students with a race- and
gender-matched role model would report more “good events” in the
achievement-relevant categories of schoolwork and organized extracurric-
ular activities ~such as dance lessons or organized sports!than would their
peers without matched role models.
Preliminary analyses confirmed that, as predicted, there were no differ-
ences in the number of achievement-relevant events reported by students
with non-matched role models and those with no role models ~F’s ,12
2.57, ns!. Thus, these two groups were again collapsed and subsequent
analyses were performed to compare students with race- and gender-
368 Teachers College Record
Table 3. Number of goals reported by students as a function of the availability of role models
White Students Students of Color
Matched
Role
Model
Non-matched
or No Role
Model
Matched
Role
Model
Non-Matched
or No Role
Model Interaction Effect Main Effect
Goals n523 n518 n58n520 F~1, 65!p.05 F~1,65!p.05
Educational and
Professional 2.26 1.79 3.50 1.75 2.86 .05 8.87 .01
Social .48 .11 .38 .30 ,1 ns 1.23 ns
Performance0
Athletic 1.04 .61 .63 .80 1.45 ns ,1ns
Miscellaneous .04 .17 .13 .25 ,1ns,1ns
Total 3.82 2.68 4.64 3.10 ,1 ns 8.18 .01
matched role models to students without matched role models. Subsequent
analyses revealed that students with a race- and gender-matched role model
reported extracurricular activities as “good events” more often than did
students without a matched role model ~Matched M52.00; Nonmatched
M51.33, F~1,50 55.55, p,.02!, though this did not interact with
students’ race. School activities rarely appeared on students’ reports of
“good events.” Contrary to predictions, there were no differences in the
number of school-related events reported by students with or without a
matched role model ~F~1,50!51.38, ns!.
There was also no difference in the number of “family” or “friends”
events noted by students as “good events” as a function of whether or not
students had a matched role model ~F@1,50#1.16, ns!.
Future orientation. Finally, students’ data were examined for evidence
that matched role models helped to focus students’ attention on the future.
Data were analyzed for evidence of participants’ future orientation, and
these results are reported in Table 4. First, it was expected that those
Table 4. Future orientation of students as a function of the availability
of a matched role model
“Person I Look Up To”
White Students Students of Color
Matched
Role
Model
Non-Matched
or No Role
Model
Matched
Role
Model
Nonmatched
or No Role
Model
Adult 23 13 10 11
Peer 2 1 0 5
x
2
513.00, p.01
Whether Students Think About What They Want to Be When They Grow Up
White Students Students of Color
Matched
Role
Model
Nonmatched
or No Role
Model
Matched
Role
Model
Nonmatched
or No Role
Model
Think About?
Yes 24 17 9 20
No 0215
x
2
52.20, p,.06, one-tailed
370 Teachers College Record
students with race- and gender-matched role models would be more likely
to report an adult as someone they look up to than a peer. This hypothesis
was also supported. Although few students in this sample reported peers as
the “person they most wish that they could be more like,” log-linear analy-
ses revealed that those students who did report a peer in that position were
overwhelmingly students of color without a matched role model ~x
2
5
13.00, p,.01!.
Next, student reports about whether or not they ever think about what
they want to be when they become adults were analyzed. By and large, the
vast majority of students who answered this question ~70 out of 78!reported
that they do sometimes think about what they want to be when they grow
up. However, seven of the eight who reported that they did not are stu-
dents without a race- and gender-matched role model ~x
2
52.20, p.06,
one-tailed!.
DISCUSSION
In this study, the availability of race- and gender-matched role models
showed a strong relationship to the developing identities of young adoles-
cents. The availability of a race- and gender-matched role model was sig-
nificantly and consistently predictive of a greater investment in achievement
concerns on the part of these young adolescents. Those students who reported
having a race- and gender-matched role model showed relatively better
academic performance more than a year after the initial assessment. The
possession of a matched role model was positively correlated with achievement-
relevant goals and an enjoyment of achievement-relevant activities. Stu-
dents with a matched role model were also more likely to think about their
futures and to focus on adults rather than peers as idols. In each case, the
possession of nonmatched role models did not have the same positive
influence.
Moreover, the positive relationship between race- and gender-matched
role models and students’ achievement orientation did not depend on the
educational achievements of that role model. Those students with a matched
role model reported a greater investment in academic and achievement
concerns irrespective of what career or professional position the role model
held. In particular, students of color with a matched role model showed an
increased investment in achievement-oriented goals and activities even though
the role models they reported were relatively less likely to have a college
education themselves. Also, students’ later grades were unrelated to the
educational achievements of their highest achieving, matched role model.
Taken as a whole, these data suggest that race- and gender-matched role
models provided these young people with something other than informa-
tion about how to behave or specific goals towards which they might work.
Role Models and Achievement 371
Race- and gender-matched role models provide clear and concrete images
through which young people can begin to develop a deeper sense of having
a place of value within the structure of the larger culture in which they live.
The matched role models—as people the participants themselves defined
as being “like me” ~in terms of race and gender!and in a desirable social
position—provide a measure of some of the social resources available to
young people as they try to envision their place within the larger social and
cultural context of which they, as young adolescents, are developing an
awareness. Thus, these data can be interpreted as demonstrating the reverse
of the experience of discrimination. Steele ~1997; Steele & Aronson,1995!
and Gougis ~1986!have demonstrated that the experience of feeling dis-
criminated against can, on its own, constrict the development of one’s goals
and impair academic performance. This study demonstrates how goals and
academic performance can be enhanced by the sense of opportunity afforded
by seeing others like you in desirable social positions.
CASUAL DIRECTION: ROLE MODELS CREATE GOALS OR VICE VERSA?
These data demonstrate a clear connection between the presence of race-
and gender-matched role models and students’ investment in their futures
~as evidenced by their goals and idols!and their academic performance in
later years. The time course of data collection in this study supports the
position that it is the presence of matched role models that caused the later
effects, but the time course alone cannot conclusively prove this. The argu-
ment could be made that those students who were thinking about their
futures and achievement were those most likely to seek out race- and
gender-matched role models. Future research efforts will need to be directed
towards more definitively establishing this proposed causal linkage. Never-
theless, two answers to this challenge can be asserted on the basis of this
study. First, the evidence taken as a whole is more supportive of the posi-
tion that the role models came first. If it was the case that those students ~of
any ethnicity!who were most achievement oriented had simply sought out
a race- and gender-matched role model, there is reason to expect that
there would not be such large group differences in the educational levels of
the role models chosen by White students and students of color. Instead, I
think we would expect that all students would instead seek out higher
achieving role models. However, these effects held even when the role
models students reported held positions that did not require a college
education.
Secondly, I would argue that the precise causal direction of influence—
role models to achievement or vice versa—should not become the primary
focus in discussing these data. The model presented in the study is that the
race- and gender-matched role models provided students with an increased
372 Teachers College Record
sense of their own potential, value, and opportunities; and it is essentially
one in which the role models themselves cause students to think more
about their futures and to work harder to achieve their goals. In the larger
perspective guiding the research, however, it is assumed that the processes
by which these effects occur form a complex and cycling dynamic in which
the development of one’s understanding of oneself and one’s understand-
ing of the world and the opportunities it presents are inextricably linked.
Whichever came first—role models or achievement—there is still some-
thing special about race- and gender-matched role models that is evidenced in
this study. Whereas nearly all students in this sample listed at least one role
model, the increased attention to achievement and academic performance
is found only among those students with race- and gender-matched role
models; and that is the central finding in this study.
Future Research Gaps
These data can provide some initial insights into the processes by which
young people assess the opportunities available to them and the ways that
these perceptions shape adolescents’ investment in and efforts towards
academic goals. However, these data can only tell us part of the story and
much more research is needed to fully explore these questions. First, the
measure of role models used in this study was quite crude, leaving little
room to examine all the complexities in these processes. For example, race
and gender were confounded, so that the author could not examine the
effects of these different aspects of role models separately. It will be inter-
esting to see if race and gender play different roles in these processes,
particularly for different groupings of students. Also, further, more quali-
tative, explorations of the role models themselves will be important—how
do students know these role models and what makes this relationship effec-
tive? Can role models available in the media have similar effects? This study
design also did not allow for an analysis of the role that socioeconomic
status may have played in the processes described here, nor did it allow for
comparisons across different ethnic groups within the students of color.
Future research should be designed to address such questions. Finally,
different study designs that could better address the issues of causality
would help us answer further questions about the meaning and function of
role models in student development.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
This study explored the relationship between of the availability of race- and
gender-matched role models and young people’s orientation toward achieve-
ment and their experiences in school in a 2-year study of adolescent iden-
Role Models and Achievement 373
tity development. While the relatively small sample size make these data
somewhat preliminary, they suggest important insights into adolescents’ use
of role models to spur motivation. Relative to students who reported having
no role models and those who reported only nonmatched role models,
those reporting a race- and gender-matched role model showed consis-
tently more interest in achievement-relevant activities and goals throughout
the study; and, in later years, they showed significantly greater academic
performance. Moreover, these relationships were, if anything, stronger for
students of color than for white students; and they did not depend on the
educational achievements of the role models themselves. This study repre-
sents an effort to take young people’s implicit ideas about the opportunities
available to them and the value placed on members of their own social
group and operationalize them in such a way that we can begin to examine
their effect on identity and achievement outcomes. Adolescence is a time
when critical decisions are made about which identities to adopt and which
domains are worth investing in. These data provide broad evidence for the
role of implicit cultural understandings in that process.
Work on this article was facilitated by a Bachelor (Ford) Fellowship and by funds to conduct
the research awarded to the author by the College of the Holy Cross. Special thanks to Manuel
Alves, Loren Anguello, Nicole Arangio, Kim Barnett, Ana Cordon, Bernadette Jean-Joseph,
Tina McEnery, Holly Sims, and Donna Whitehouse for their efforts to help collect and code
these data. Additional thanks go to Nancy Cantor, Chris Langston, Paula Niedenthal, and
Julie Norem for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.
Notes
1 Overall n’s reported refer to the number of students who participated in a given
portion of the study. However, as per standard ethical procedures, individual students may
have chosen not to respond to a given item on the measure. Although not an extensive
problem, the degrees of freedom reported in analyses should be consulted for information
concerning the number of students who responded to the particular items in each case.
2 This study presented difficulties in the use of language referring to race and ethnicity.
The scientific meaningfulness of the word “race” is questionable, though its colloquial mean-
ing is relatively well understood. Ethnicity is more scientifically appropriate. Unfortunately, we
did not have information about the ethnic background of majority students, and therefore the
use of the phrase “ethnically matched” to refer to the role models as measured is inappro-
priate. As a consequence, the phrase “racially matched” was used instead, though the reader
should be aware this terminology is not without its own problems.
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SABRINA ZIRKEL, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Direc-
tor of the Social Transformation program at Saybrook Graduate School and
Research Center. Her research interests include the development of self
and identity, with an emphasis on the development of specific academic
identities among students of color and women. Recent publications include
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376 Teachers College Record
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