By Daphne Martschenko, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
In September 1998, my mother walked me the ten minutes from our home in suburban Virginia to Mosby Woods Elementary School, named after the American Confederate Ranger John Singleton Mosby. I was to be enrolled in the first grade. When my parents tell me this story, they talk about my mother’s thick Nigerian accent and my grandmother, who spoke no English, and who accompanied us that day. Soon after I was enrolled, I was placed into a remedial reading program. According to my father, who is White, this was without justification: the school assumed I was growing up in a single-parent immigrant household with limited English. After he went to Mosby Woods to ask why I had been identified for special education, I found myself back in the ‘regular’ classroom.
My experiences with the US education system and my positioning in American society as a biracial woman of color, who is often identified as Black, have shaped and influenced my research interests and how I approach my work. As a researcher, I am interested in the concept of intelligence; it is a quality often viewed as necessary for success in virtually all facets of life — social, economic, political, and educational. Rooted in a history deeply tied to eugenic, classist, and racialized discourses, intelligence and its study have long offered scientific ways of making sense of human diversity and of classifying individuals in terms of ‘ability.’
Today, research into intelligence and its etiology continues in the field of behavior genetics. Behavior genetics researchers study the heritability (genetic influence) of intelligence and seek to identify the genetic markers that contribute towards its manifestation. The past five years has seen increased calls from the field to consider incorporating findings into education policy and curriculum (Asbury & Plomin, 2013; Kovas, Tikhomirova, Selita, Tosto, & Malykh, 2016; Thomas, Kovas, Meaburn, & Tolmie, 2015). These realities influenced me to undertake a dissertation (Martschenko, 2019) examining the relationship between behavior genetics and American educator views. More specifically, I focused on what growing developments in behavior genetics mean and could mean for the American education system by focusing on how it informs and interacts with teacher understandings of intelligence, race, and socioeconomic status (SES). I chose teachers because their perceptions of their students matter (Li, 2016; Peterson, Rubie-Davies, Osborne, & Sibley, 2016; Rubie-Davies, Hattie, & Hamilton, 2006) and often map onto the race of a student; children of color are consistently seen as less capable by their teachers (Blanchard & Muller, 2015; Fish, 2017; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007).
Sensitive Topics and Research Access
However, teachers in the United States are overburdened and overworked. I knew I wanted to work with them, but I also had to be realistic about the amount of time they would be able to give. My aim was to make sure I was not taking teachers away from their students. This was the first challenge I faced to gaining research access: designing a project that understood the realities of my participants and the time they might be able to contribute towards engaging with me.
Given the ugly history underpinning the study of intelligence, it was reasonable for me to believe that conducting research in the United States on race, genetics, inequity, and education disparities might be difficult to carry out smoothly. This was my second challenge: conducting a doctoral dissertation on sensitive and even controversial topics in a fraught political and social context.
In an effort to proactively address these potential challenges, I employed a mixed-methods research design. Through focus groups and a national survey of PreK-12 American educators, I sought to explore and assess teachers’ perspectives on intelligence, race, and socioeconomic status in relation to genetics and their views on the relevance of behavioral genetics research for education. As a supplementary aspect to this project, I interviewed genetics researchers and ethicists to gain contextual understanding. With regards to the first challenge, I felt that focus group discussions once a month were a relatively low time commitment for teachers. I made sure they were scheduled during their professional development time slots, which meant that teachers were opting into my sessions instead of another professional development activity.With regards to the second challenge, I reasoned that a national survey would widen my access and possibly encourage greater participation through the anonymity it provided. It was a way for me to access groups of teachers I was not working with in the focus groups. However, despite adopting a mixed-methods research design, gaining research access proved markedly more difficult than I had anticipated.
Over the course of six months, I tried gaining access to nineschool districts in the United States. Unfortunately for me, several school districts did not allow research on their schools/staff, unless an employee of the school system directed the research project (e.g. Washington, D.C.; Oakland, CA). Other districts required a direct endorsement of the proposed project from someone within a central education department office (e.g. Boston, MA; Fairfax County, VA), and my attempts to reach out to staff in central offices who may have been interested were unsuccessful. There were school districts that never responded to my application to conduct research (e.g. Baltimore Public Schools) or that rejected my proposal altogether – citing the difficulties of administering a project such as this one and the lack of direct benefits to teachers (e.g. Chicago Public Schools). Efforts to reach out to academics in established universities who had conducted education research in American public schools (e.g. Detroit, MI; Redwood City, CA) proved largely ineffective – most were unable to provide me with contacts, pointing to the difficulties they themselves had faced when trying to gain access to the public school system.
Although I eventually gained access to two schools in the Midwestern region of the United States for my focus groups and analyzed a survey with 660 responses, my access challenges have a lot to say about education research. They also speak to the utility of a mixed-methods framework, which allowed me to access my research questions from multiple vantage points – this latter point proved critical for a dissertation on fraught topics. Granted, some of the obstacles I faced when trying to gain access to school districts and to recruit participants were due to the established protocols for conducting research in public schools. However, I also believe that my topics themselves and the current global political situation, which is marked by rising austerity and growing populist and xenophobic movements, may have fostered fear over directly participating in my research; this posed additional challenges to access and recruitment beyond those limitations that already exist. I learned valuable lessons from the intersection between academic freedom (or the capacity to study these historically-burdened concepts in a particular way) and the US political and social climate. I hope my experiences might help future students prepare themselves for how difficult it can be to conduct a project dealing with sensitive topics. Despite these challenges, I believe that the contested and even controversial nature of the topics I cover, and the fear and discomfort that often accompany discussion on these issues, are precisely why conducting research in this area is needed. Doctoral students should not shy away from conducting research that might face access issues – this is the kind of work we need to be doing, this is where unanswered questions and unexplored topics are illuminated.
While gaining research access was difficult, creating research that was accessible to multiple publics was equally challenging. I wanted to produce a dissertation that sociologists, behavioral genetics researchers, policy-makers, and educators could all read. I also wanted to give my work a more public presence and began writing a blog and writing for news outlets. I felt this was profoundly important because it is going to involve a collaboration between these parties to ensure that the growing salience of genetics for public life is not used for race, classist, and inequitable purposes.
I acknowledge that not everyone will agree with the conclusions I came to at the end of my dissertation. However, I hope that those who consider themselves to be inequality scholars see the intention behind my work. I hope that those in behavior genetics also see my intention. I found that working with scholars interested in behavioral genetics on a collaborative paper helped immensely with making my dissertation translatable to another audience (Martschenko, Trejo, & Domingue, In Press). It is important we talk about the ugly history behind behavior genetics and how its legacy endures today, particularly with those whose viewpoints we might differ from. As the conversation on incorporating genetics research findings into education continues, facilitating constructive conversations across ‘party lines’ will become more important than ever. Increasing research access and the proliferation of accessible research will be paramount to achieving these aims.
At the end of this journey, I want my readers to view the work I have produced as socially-responsible. I want it to drive the conversation forward on what can, should, and needs to be done when it comes to safeguarding against the (mis)use of genetics-infused research in education.
Asbury, K., & Plomin, R. (2013). G is for Genes: the Impact of Genetics on Education and Achievement. Retrieved from http://search.lib.cam.ac.uk/?itemid=|cambrdgedb|5600098
Blanchard, S., & Muller, C. (2015). Gatekeepers of the American Dream: How teachers’perceptions shape the academic outcomes of immigrant and language-minority students. Social Science Research, 51, 262–275. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2014.10.003
Fish, R. E. (2017). The racialized construction of exceptionality: Experimental evidence of race/ethnicity effects on teachers’interventions. Social Science Research, 62, 317–334. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2016.08.007
Kovas, Y., Tikhomirova, T., Selita, F., Tosto, M. G., & Malykh, S. (2016). How Genetics Can Help Education. In Y. Kovas, S. Malykh, & D. Gaysina (Eds.), Behavioural Genetics for Education(pp. 1–23). Palgrave Macmillan UK. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137437327_1
Li, Z. (2016). Revisiting Teacher Expectation Effects: For individuals and for intact groups, 3(3), 9.
Martschenko, D. (2019). The New Borderland: A Mixed-Methods Examination of Teacher Perceptions of Intelligence, Race, and Socioeconomic Status in Relation to Behavior Genetics. The University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
Martschenko, D., Trejo, S., & Domingue, B. W. (In Press). Genetics and Education: Recent developments in the context of an ugly history and an uncertain future. AERA Open.
Peterson, E. R., Rubie-Davies, C., Osborne, D., & Sibley, C. (2016). Teachers’explicit expectations and implicit prejudiced attitudes to educational achievement: Relations with student achievement and the ethnic achievement gap.Learning and Instruction, 42, 123–140. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.01.010
Rubie-Davies, C., Hattie, J., & Hamilton, R. (2006). Expecting the best for students: Teacher expectations and academic outcomes. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(3), 429–444. https://doi.org/10.1348/000709905X53589
Tenenbaum, H. R., & Ruck, M. D. (2007). Are teachers’expectations different for racial minority than for European American students? A meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(2), 253–273. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-06220.127.116.11
Thomas, M. S. C., Kovas, Y., Meaburn, E. L., & Tolmie, A. (2015). What Can the Study of Genetics Offer to Educators? Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(2), 72–80. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12077
Daphne Martschenko holds a PhD from the Faculty of Education, University
of Cambridge. Her scholarship explores the social and ethical dilemmas
of behavioural genetics research for the American education system,
focusing in particular on how it engages with teacher perceptions of
intelligence, race, and socioeconomic status.