Gifted adolescent girls : self-perceptions of ability within one middle school setting


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Gifted adolescent girls : self-perceptions of ability within one middle school setting
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ix, 167 leaves : ; 28 cm.
Kramer, Linda R
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Gifted children   ( lcsh )
Self-perception in children   ( lcsh )
Teenage girls -- United States   ( lcsh )
Gifted children   ( fast )
Self-perception in children   ( fast )
Teenage girls   ( fast )
United States   ( fast )
Educational Leadership thesis Ph. D
Dissertations, Academic -- Educational Leadership -- UF
bibliography   ( marcgt )
theses   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Florida, 1985.
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 158-166).
Additional Physical Form:
Also available online.
General Note:
General Note:
Statement of Responsibility:
by Linda R. Kramer.

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University of Florida
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
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aleph - 029566994
oclc - 14771976
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Full Text







Every person is, in part, "his own project" and
makes himself. Growth forward requires
courage and strength in the individual as well
as protection, permission, and encouragement from
the environment.

-- Abraham Maslow

To Louis Geczy


The writing of a dissertation is necessarily a solitary process.

Numerous long hours must be spent alone in contemplation and writing.

Yet, without the assistance, guidance, and support of a number of

people, this dissertation might not have reached fruition.

I would like to thank the members of my committee for their con-

tributions. My chairperson, Dr. Paul George, has a special insight

into the nature and needs of early adolescents, and his expertise in

this area has guided my own thinking and question-asking. Throughout

this study Dr. George has given his time and support, encouraging me

to persevere when my own spirits were lagging. My cochairperson, Dr.

Dorene Ross, has been an inspiration to me throughout my doctoral pro-

gram. I have appreciated her unfailing interest in this study, her

astute editorial comments, her confidence, and friendship. Dr. Rod

Webb has helped me develop sound research skills, as well as a broader

perspective on schooling. His dedication and enthusiasm have been

powerful sources of motivation. Dr. Sandra Damico has offered a willing

ear and numerous suggestions throughout my graduate studies. I am

grateful for her confidence in me and her ability to find the humor

in almost any situation. Dr. Gordon Lawrence has taught me how complex

the human personality is, and in so doing, has helped me come to better

understand myself. His knowledge of instruction and learning has enabled

me to become a better teacher. It is difficult to adequately thank

these individuals for their support and guidance during the last several


To the girls, teachers, and mothers who opened their lives to me

I am most grateful. I have appreciated their trust, friendship, and

warm welcome, without which this study could not have been completed.

In addition, I would like to thank the many other middle school students

who offered their opinions and humorous anecdotes for inclusion in my

field notes.

I am also indebted to the many friends who spent hours listening

to my experiences and helping me clarify my thoughts. Debbie Hathaway,

Robert Hunt, Deborah Marshall, and Thomas Palumbo have been especially

supportive in this endeavor, and for their friendship I will always be


My mother, sisters, and brother have offered their love, encourage-

ment, and support. Their faith in me has given me the strength and

desire to complete this difficult task.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . . . .. vi

ABSTRACT . . . . . . .. viii



Statement of the Problem . . . ... 1
Significance of the Study . . . . 2
Definition of Terms . . . . 5
Design of the Study . . . . 6
Scope of the Study . . . . . 7


Theoretical Framework: Attribution and Self-Worth
Theories .............. .......... 10
Ability Formation Theory and Related Studies. ...... 14
Gifted Adolescent Girls: Studies Related to Ability
Perceptions . . . . . 29

III METHODOLOGY . . . . . .. 34

The Research Perspective . . . ... 34
The Setting . . . . . .. 38
Selection of the Research Site . . .. .38
Gaining Entry to the Site . . .. 39
Description of the Site . . . .. 43
Research Methods and Procedures . . .. .49
Asking Ethnographic Questions . . ... .49
Collecting Ethnographic Data . . .. 52
Participant observation . . .. 53
Interviewing . . . . .. 58
Unobtrusive measures . . ... 60
Making an Ethnographic Record . . .. .62
Analyzing Ethnographic Data . . ... 64
Researcher Qualifications and Biases . .. 67
Validity and Ethical Issues . . ... 69



Ability and Motivation: School and Community Contexts 75
Gifted Girls' Views About Themselves . ... .76
The Gifted Program . . . .. 82
Members of a Team ...... .................. .90
Gifted girls' perceptions of Team One. ........90
Gifted girls' perceptions of Team Two ..... 98
Beliefs about Ability .... . . . 107
Multiple Definitions of Giftedness. . . 108
Affiliation Needs . . . . 116
Social Comparison . . . . 125


Relationship of Findings to Previous Studies ........ .137
Use of Findings to Research Community . . ... .142
Use of Findings to Practitioners . . .. .146










. . . . 152

. . . . 153

S. . . . 154

S. . . . 155

GIRLS . . . 156

. . . . 157

S. . . . 158

. . . . 167

Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements
for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy



Linda R. Kramer

August 1985

Chairperson: Dr. Paul George
Cochairperson: Dr. Dorene Ross
Major Department: Educational Leadership

The purpose of this study was to investigate in detail the

experiences of gifted adolescent girls in one middle school, de-

lineating the social-interactional factors which influenced ability

perceptions and attitudes toward achievement. The researcher assumed

a social-interactionist perspective by which self-perceptions of

ability were viewed as the interaction of gifted girls' attitudes,

perspectives, and values with variables inherent in the school environ-

ment. The study focused on two guiding questions:

(1) What kinds of experiences do gifted girls have as members of

heterogeneous teams and homogeneous gifted classes?

(2) How do they use these experiences to construct behavior and

beliefs about ability?

Qualitative research methods were used to collect and analyze data.

Observations were conducted on the gifted classroom and interdisci-

plinary teams for 200 hours the last five months of the school year.

These observations focused on gifted girls' achievement-related behavior


inside and outside classrooms, their interactions with teachers and

peers, and their speech messages about achievement and ability. Formal

and informal interviews were conducted with the gifted girls, their

teachers, and five mothers. In addition, work samples, journals written

by the girls, and cumulative school records were examined.

Data analysis revealed three factors which influenced the formation

of gifted girls self-perceptions of ability. These factors included

the following: multiple definitions of giftedness held by significant

others, affiliation needs, and social comparison.

The majority of gifted girls described themselves as having poten-

tial rather than ability. They believed their achievements resulted

from effort, and their failures from lack of motivation. These per-

ceptions were found to be the result of a cyclic process in which

gifted girls used school experiences to interpret and modify their

beliefs and attitudes about achievement, and, in turn, these beliefs

and attitudes guided their choices of behavior at school. Specifically,

the variables which seemed to be related to gifted girls' self-

perceptions of ability were the nature of student-teacher relationships

within teams, the belief that social competence was an important area

in which to achieve, and the girls' entering views about themselves.



The unique characteristics of gifted girls have recently received

increased attention in light of the literature which illustrates that

more adult males than females are identified as gifted (Goertzel &

Goertzel, 1962; Goertzel, Goertzel, & Goertzel, 1978; Terman & Oden,

1959). "Even though gifted girls tend to earn higher grades in school

and the prevailing stereotype of females includes superior performance

in English, foreign languages, and the arts, the adult productivity of

males is superior in all areas" (Callahan, 1981, p. 499).

Experts in the area of gifted education are concerned about the

loss of contributions of gifted and talented women to society, but

research has failed to account for what appears to be a lack of

achievement motivation in bright women. Gifted adolescent girls'

beliefs about ability, a central component in achievement motivation,

may have great bearing on their accomplishments in later life.

Statement of the Problem

The purpose of this study was to investigate and describe gifted

adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability within one middle

school. Studies which have focused on gifted girls or women have

concentrated on personality characteristics or career-ability conflicts,

but no studies have investigated self-perceptions of ability within

specific settings.

The way students come to think about their abilities is a function

of social experience (Maehr, 1974). This is particularly true for

adolescents who, at this developmental stage, use group standards

generated by social comparison to assess their achievements (Covington,

1984). For the adolescent girl, the impact of social experience on

ability perceptions may be even more pronounced. Research has indi-

cated that females are more sensitive to negative teacher or peer

feedback and that, as they grow older, females rate their abilities

lower than males (Brophy & Good, 1974; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974).

Theorists postulate that females, to a greater degree than males,

define themselves in relation and connection to other people

(Chodorow, 1974). Therefore, when teachers and peers accept, reject,

encourage, or restrain, they may be affecting not only the present

achievement-related behavior and ability perceptions of girls, but they

may also be creating images that affect girls' future motivations and

aspirations. The goal of this study was to describe and explain the

experiences of gifted adolescent girls in one school, delineating

social-interactional factors which influence ability perceptions and

attitudes toward achievement.

Significance of the Study

While much of the theory and research on ability perceptions has

resulted from studies which have been conducted with adult subjects

and in laboratory settings, the focus of this study was on the school

contexts in which students' self-perceptions of ability develop. The

growing body of research conducted thus far on students' perceptions

of school experiences has indicated that students consciously attempt

to make sense of the social and cognitive aspects of school. These

studies have characterized students as active interpreters of classroom

experiences, sensitive to "the differential behaviors that teachers

might display toward various groups of students, such as high and low

achievers and boys and girls" (Weinstein, 1983, p. 302). An examina-

tion of school experiences as they relate to the formation of ability

perceptions, then, can provide information about how gifted girls come

to view and understand their own abilities relative to others.

Mishler (1979) has pointed out that the tendency for researchers

to apply the methodology developed in the natural sciences to the

investigation of social processes has resulted in context-stripping

methods which seek to formulate universal laws. Thus, the importance

of context has largely been ignored. By focusing on the school

contexts in which gifted girls' self-perceptions of ability occur,

this study attempted to investigate the possible environmental factors

which may influence the development of ability perceptions and

achievement-related behaviors in bright girls who are regularly

removed from the classroom to participate in special instruction.

The possibility of environmental conditions which would seem to affect

the motivation and achievement of gifted and talented females was noted

by Callahan (1981) who suggested that we have little conclusive

evidence because these conditions are "perhaps untestable in the

experimental traditions" (p. 502).

This study may also yield a number of contributions to both prac-

tice and research as they relate to the psychosocial development of

gifted adolescent girls. The need for such research has been illustrated

by the recent formation, in Florida, of a task force to examine middle

childhood education, and to make recommendations concerning program

structure, organization, curriculum, and student services. This task

force has found that students in grades four through eight "must

accomplish a number of developmental tasks, and middle childhood

programs must recognize the developmental diversity and needs of

students" (Speakers Task Force on Middle Childhood Education, 1983,

p. V-2). Based on the task force's work, a bill entitled Progress in

Middle Childhood Education (HB830) has called for new course require-

ments in math, science, and social studies for middle grade students.

This study will add to practitioners' knowledge about the develop-

mental diversity of gifted middle school females and illustrate

curricular needs for this group. In addition, by providing detailed

descriptions of the school experiences of gifted girls, this study

will enable educators to come to know the world of school from the

gifted girl's perspective.

Educators today (should) evaluate their attitudes
and behavior toward the gifted girls in the school
system. In providing special education programs
for the gifted we might unwittingly increase the
conflict between sex-role expectations (and the en-
suing pressure to conform) and the push toward
independent thinking (and competition) for gifted
girls without giving them the opportunity to be
aware of and emotionally prepared for the ambiguous
attitudes of the society in which they are growing
up. (Werner & Bachtold, 1969, p. 1818)

The value of this study to practitioners can be summed up by examining

the following facts. In the state in which this study occurred, the

number of students entering gifted programs has increased by 65.83%

over the last five years. Additionally, the tendency has been for

students to enter these programs during their early elementary years

and remain through high school.

This study will also be of value to researchers. In making

recommendations about "high-priority research activities," Hill (1983,

p. 1) cited his own work dealing with perspectives on adolescence and

indicated that a first priority was studies of "attachment, autonomy,

sexuality, intimacy, achievement, and identity" (p. 1), because

presently available studies are only incidentally related to adolescence

and focus mainly on males. Additionally, Callahan (1981) has noted

that the effects of programs for gifted students have not been

systematically studied. Therefore, implications concerning the

sociological or affective effects of participating in enrichment

programs on gifted females cannot be drawn from existing research.

Definition of Terms

1. Gifted: A student selected by state criteria which stressed

superior development and the capability of advanced performance.

The tested mental capacity of these students is two standard

deviations or more above the mean, that is, an IQ score of 130

or more.

2. Self-perception of ability: The individual's beliefs about her

competency to carry out the behaviors expected of her.

3. Middle school: "A school of some three to five years between the

elementary and high school focused on the educational needs of

students in these in-between years and designed to promote con-

tinuous educational progress for all concerned" (Alexander &

George, 1981, p. 3).

4. Context: The physical settings in which an event occurs. It is

"the constellation of norms, mutual rights, and obligations that

shape social relationships, determine participants' perceptions

about what goes on, and influence learning" (Gumperz, 1981, p. 5).

5. Interdisciplinary teams: Teachers from different subject areas

who are organized into groups, assigned a common area of the school

building, a common schedule, and the responsibility for a common

group of students.

6. Advisor-Advisee (AA): A component of the middle school program

created to meet the affective needs of early adolescents. Students

meet regularly with an advisor for academic counseling and affec-

tive education.

7. Multiage grouping: The placement of students at various grade

levels together for instruction.

Design of the Study

Upon receiving approval from the University Committee for the

Protection of Human Subjects, the county school board, the parents of

the participants, and the girls themselves, the researcher established

an observation schedule which would assure that equal amounts of time

would be spent in the school areas in which gifted girls regularly

interacted. Observations began in January, 1984, and were conducted

until the final day of school in early June. The researcher observed

200 hours of classroom activity primarily representing Mondays,

Wednesday, and Fridays, and all times of the school day. Observations

centered on gifted girls' speech messages concerning schoolwork, peers,

teachers, and self-perceptions; achievement-related behaviors in school

contexts; and interactions with teachers and peers before, during, and

after school. Formal and informal interviews were conducted throughout

the study. Those interviewed included the girls, their teachers, the

school principal, and five mothers. In addition, examples of the

girls' schoolwork, their personal journals kept in advisor-advisee

and the gifted classroom, report cards, and cumulative records were


Data collection and analysis were conducted as specified by

Spradley (1980). This process required that data be organized into

categories based on similarities. Taxonomies were then constructed

to represent gifted girls' self-perceptions of ability by drawing data

from across domains.

Scope of the Study

This study was conducted in one middle school and focused on

the self-perceptions of ability held by the school's ten gifted

females. These students included three sixth graders, two seventh

graders, and five eighth graders. Observations and interviews were

conducted during the second half of the school year in two of the

school's three team areas and in the gifted resource room. Although

this study can provide insight into gifted girls' self-perceptions of

ability, specific findings from this study should not be generalized

to other populations.

In the following chapters a review of the literature, the

methodology, findings, and implications of the study are discussed.

In Chapter II, a review of the literature on the role of context in

the development of ability perceptions and studies related to gifted

adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability are discussed. In

Chapter III, the methodology is described. Chapter IV represents

the study's findings. Conclusions and implications are discussed

in Chapter V.



Research on perceptions of ability has attempted to answer two

different sets of questions. One set of questions has focused on the

feelings about ability that are produced when an individual success-

fully or unsuccessfully completes a task. The purpose of this research

has been to determine the types of feelings that lead to increased

achievement motivation on similar tasks. Researchers concerned with

these questions have been guided by attribution theory (Weiner, Frieze,

Kukla, Reed, Rest, & Rosenbaum, 1971), which proposes that an indi-

vidual's belief about the causes of success and failure affects future

achievement-related behavior, and self-worth theory (Covington & Beery,

1976), which proposes that achievement behavior can be explained in

terms of an individual's attempts to maintain a positive self-image.

Research stemming from these theories has generally been conducted

with adult subjects in laboratory settings. A second body of questions

has focused on possible environmental factors that may influence

feelings about ability. The purpose of this research has been to

determine how ability perceptions are formed. This body of research

has contributed to the recent development of ability formation theory

(Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984; in press), which proposes that classroom

processes which contribute to a singular definition of ability lead to


stratification, and, therefore, make it less likely that students will

develop alternative interpretations of ability.

The focus of the present study was on the school contexts in which

gifted adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability develop. For this

reason the review of the literature will be organized in the following

manner: 1) the contributions of the major proponents of attribution

and self-worth theories to our understanding of ability perceptions

will be summarized, 2) ability formation theory and studies related to

early adolescents will be discussed, and 3) research related to gifted

girls' ability perceptions and achievement behavior will be described.

Theoretical Framework: Attribution and Self-Worth

Both the attribution and self-worth theories of achievement

motivation have their roots in earlier "learned drive" theories which

stressed the fundamental conflict between attempting success and

avoiding failure (Covington, 1984). The most well-known of these

theories, one which is still influential today, was developed by John

Atkinson (1964) and David McCelland (1965). Atkinson found that the

way individuals resolved the conflict between seeking success and

avoiding failure depended upon differences in early childhood experi-

ences. For this reason, much of the research stemming from this model

has focused on the importance of childrearing practices in promoting

or hindering the development of a positive orientation necessary to

the pursuit of success (Winterbottom, 1953).


When Atkinson's and McCelland's theoretical model was applied to

females, however, the results were contradictory. "Females' scores

on the motivational measures do not correlate well with their actual

achievement" (Stein & Bailey, 1975, pp. 151-152). In an attempt to

resolve these major unexplained sex differences, Horner (1972; 1975)

posited the motive to avoid success. Horner proposed that women who

are most capable of achieving have a disposition to become anxious about

achieving success as a result of expected negative consequences.

Hornier's work will be reviewed further under research related to

gifted girls' ability perceptions.

Despite the contradictory results with female subjects which were

obtained using this model, Atkinson's (1964) work influenced the

development of both the attribution and self-worth theories of achieve-

ment motivation. Attributional theorists (Weiner et al., 1971) identi-

fied four major explanations about the causes of success and failure:

ability, effort, luck, and task ease/difficulty. These individual

perceptions of the causes of success or failure are believed to be

responsible for individual differences in achievement motivation.

That is, individuals who attribute success to a stable cause such as

ability are more likely to persevere in the future than individuals

who attribute success to an unstable cause such as luck. Thus, success-

oriented individuals attribute their successes to ability and their

failures to lack of effort. Failure-avoiding individuals attribute

success to external factors such as luck, and failure to inability

(Weiner et al., 1971; Weiner & Kuila, 1970).


In attribution theory the perception of effort has been seen as

central to achievement motivation. If individuals fail after putting

forth little effort, they are more likely to maintain a positive out-

look on future attempts than if the degree of effort expended had been

greater. Additionally, individuals who put forth high effort will show

greater pride in success (Covington & Omelich, 1979; Weiner et al.,


The self-worth theory (Covington & Beery, 1976) was a second spin-

off from Atkinson's work. Like attribution theory, self-worth theory

has characterized ability perceptions in terms of causality (Covington,

1984). Unlike attribution theory, students' beliefs about the causes

of success have not been considered sufficient explanations for

achievement behavior. Rather, self-worth theorists have postulated

that students' achievement behavior can be explained by the motivation

to maintain a positive self-image of ability and competence, especially

when some risk is involved (Covington & Omelich, 1979).

In self-worth theory, "the basic assumption is that several

factors influence one's sense of worth and adequacy, including per-

formance level, self-estimates of ability, and degree of effort

expenditure" (Covington, 1984, p. 8). While accomplishments are

considered salient clues about ability, perceptions of high ability

alone can imply worthiness. Like attribution theorists, self-worth

theorists have viewed effort as a mediator, for without significant

effort expenditure one's self-perception of ability will be unaffected

by failure. Great expenditures of effort which result in failure,

however, can lead to perceptions of incompetency that result in shame


(Covington & Omelich, 1979). According to self-worth theory, an

increased capacity for abstract thought among early adolescents and

increased competition in the classroom has contributed to this emphasis

on ability over effort (Covington, 1984).

The major difference between self-worth theory and attribution

theory is the motivational component. Specifically, self-worth theory

holds that students employ a variety of strategies to maintain a sense

of worthiness, and that the need to maintain this perception of worth

is the basic motivation for achievement behavior (Covington, 1984).

While there is much research to support both cognitive attribu-

tion and self-worth theory (see Weiner, 1980; Covington, 1984, for

reviews), the majority of this research results from studies conducted

with adult learners and in laboratory settings. Recently researchers

have pointed out that these theories fail to give adequate attention

to classroom context factors that may influence the formation of

ability perceptions (Blumenfeld, Pintrich, Meece, & Wessels, 1982;

Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984; Weinstein, 1983). Other factors like

personal values and perceived consequences of success and failure may

be important in determining achievement-related behavior in the class-

room (Blumenfeld et al.. 1982). Thus, little is actually known about

factors influencing early adolescents' self-perceptions of effort and

ability within the classroom setting. By considering the classroom

context, a more satisfactory theoretical perspective can be constructed,

for context variables may "alter the ways students learn to interpret

their own ability" (Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984, p. 32).


Studies of the influence of context factors on ability formation

may be particularly beneficial in understanding early adolescents'

self-perceptions of ability. As Blyth and Traeger (1983) noted in a

recent review of research on self-perceptions in early adolescence, at

this stage in life, young people "are changing cognitively in such a

way as to dramatically change the way they see and evaluate themselves.

There may be changes in what is of central importance to them" (p. 95).

Hill and Lynch (1983) argued that the effect of socialization and

context-related variables on the formation of role-related achievement

and ability perceptions of females may intensify during early adolescence.

In the following section a set of studies which address the role of

classroom context factors in the formation of early adolescents' ability

perceptions will be reviewed.

Ability Formation Theory and Related Studies

Rosenholtz and Simpson (1984; in press) proposed a theory of

ability formation in which context plays a primary role. The follow-

ing four assumptions underlie this theory:

1. Intellectual ability is a relative concept and
will be formed comparatively.
2. Students receive feedback from teachers and from
their peers which should influence their ability
3. The structure of students' academic tasks
symbolically will imply conclusions about the
abilities believed to determine performance at
that level.
4. The way in which performance evaluations are
organized and interpreted will provide a language
within which students will cast their interpre-
tations of ability. (Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984,
p. 36)


Ability formation theory has proposed that students come to accept

institutional definitions of ability through the process of socializa-

tion. The more singular the picture students see and the more informa-

tion which contributes to this picture, the less likely it is that

students will develop alternative definitions of ability. From this

perspective, what students believe to be real is, at least in part,

socially structured (Berger & Luckmann, 1966). In addition, students,

themselves, are considered active participants in their own socializa-


Rosenholtz and Simpson (1984) noted that certain characteristics

of classroom organization are more likely to bring about shared defini-

tions of ability, that is, a consensus among students and the teacher

about who is most and least able. These characteristics include undif-

ferentiated task structure, low student autonomy, student grouping

patterns, and formal performance evaluations which are frequent and

visible. Classrooms which can be characterized by these criteria are

called unidimensional. Few student choices about activities and

learning goals which would enhance alternative definitions of ability,

and increasing stratification of students along a single dimension,

facilitate the formation of shared perceptions of ability in these

classrooms (Rosenholtz & Simpson, in press).

An important implication of ability formation theory noted by

Rosenholtz and Rosenholtz (1981) was that studies of the effects of

classroom organization on perceptions of ability should not be based

on static models which characterize students as passive entities. Such

a "perspective omits from consideration a variable likely to mediate


the impact of structure on self-evaluation of ability, the evaluative

responses of others" (Rosenholtz & Rosenholtz, 1981, p. 133). Thus,

the analysis of classroom effects should take into account conditions

which affect actors' perceptions and the effects of those perceptions

on individuals' self-perceptions of ability.

Several studies were conducted to test the assumptions which became

the basis of ability formation theory. Rosenholtz and Wilson (1980)

conducted a study to investigate whether different classroom organiza-

tions resulted in different interpretations of ability among students.

Their sample consisted of 15 fifth and sixth grade classrooms in

suburban and urban areas serving a working-class population.

Classrooms were selected based on interviews with principals con-

cerning the degree of curricular complexity within the school.

Specifically, the intent of the study was to determine if classrooms

with low task differentiation, low student autonomy, and comparisons

based on uniform criteria produce a climate in which the range of

alternative definitions of ability narrows and consensus about a

student's ability among classroom participants increases. Such class-

rooms were designated as high resolution classrooms, that is, "the

structure offers a clear picture of student performance" (p. 76).

To measure the degree of resolution, questionnaires were adminis-

tered to teachers who were asked to describe curricular methods and

instructional practices through Likert fixed-choice responses. Ques-

tions asked related to the number of different materials a teacher

used, how teachers organized student groups for instruction, how

frequently students made choices about activities, and how frequently

teachers compared one student's work with another.


Perceptions of ability measured in this study were limited to

dimensions of reading instruction and were obtained through student-

teacher questionnaires. Students were asked to rank order classmates

by their ability to read. Peer rankings of individual students were

then averaged, and a student's self-perception of ability was determined

by the student's placement of self in the rank order. Teachers were

asked to rate students' reading abilities as above average, average,

or below average. The degrees of concurrence among classmates, between

classmates and self, between classmates and teacher, and between teacher

and self were obtained through these rank orders.

Rosenholtz and Wilson concluded that students in high resolution

classrooms had fewer options to demonstrate competence and that, as a

result, ability was more narrowly defined and a greater student-teacher

consensus resulted. "The importance of classroom resolution may be

in its power to shape students' subjective identities" (p. 81), but how

this mediates the individual's self-perception of ability was not

answered by this study.

Using the data obtained in the Rosenholtz and Wilson (1980) study,

Rosenholtz and Rosenholtz (1981) investigated the ways classroom

organization might affect individual self-perceptions of ability.

They tested the following hypotheses: 1) self-evaluations of reading

ability will be more dispersed in unidimensional as opposed to multi-

dimensional classes, and 2) classmates' and teachers' evaluations will

be more dispersed in unidimensional classes. Unidimensional classes

were defined as high resolution classes.


The findings of this study indicated that in forming one's self-

perception of reading ability, the relative influence of the teacher

on the classmates and the teacher and classmates on the self was

affected, in part, by the organization for instruction. In classrooms

where fewer options were provided for students to demonstrate compe-

tence, definitions of ability became more narrowly defined. Grouping

practices and task structures restricted students' options. Rosenholtz

and Rosenholtz (1981) concluded that the effect was greater in situa-

tions where the classroom organization was unidimensional.

While the researchers stressed that the findings of this study

were preliminary because they did not examine the criteria by which

teachers and students made judgments and, therefore, could not assert

causal relationships, the implications are important. Classrooms with

narrow opportunity structures stratify students as compared to

instructional climates which offer students more alternatives in

terms of curriculum and evaluation. Rosenholtz and Rosenholtz (1981)


To the degree that teacher, peer, and self-
perceptions influence future performance, ability
stratification as affected by classroom organiza-
tion could have profound consequences for the
individual's life chances. Instructional organi-
zation, then, may not only provide a framework by
which classroom actors define ability, it may also
enhance or limit capacity. (p. 140)

In a similar study of classroom structure and perceptions of

ability, Simpson (1981) drew conclusions which supported the Rosenholtz

and Rosenholtz (1981) study. Of the 16 classrooms included in his

study, Simpson found that in unidimensional classes teacher ratings


of students in different academic subjects were more widely dispersed

with a higher proportion of students in the below average range. In

multidimensional classes there was less agreement between teachers and

pupils on perceptions of ability.

The implications of the studies conducted by Rosenholtz and

Rosenholtz (1981) and Simpson (1981) point to the importance of class-

room structures which encourage more fluid, changing perceptions of

ability to exist. Such classroom would allow more divergent student-

teacher opinions and thus yield less restriction in performance


A group of studies related to ability formation theory have

investigated the active role students play in interpreting classroom

reality. The following studies are unique because they investigate

the effects of student perceptions of teacher and peer feedback on

student beliefs about ability. The studies reviewed focus on the early

adolescent age group.

Schmuck (1962; 1963) conducted a series of studies in which he

investigated the relationships between students' perceptions of social

status within a classroom, their actual social status as measured by

sociometric devices, and the degree to which students' performances

matched their academic abilities (utilization of abilities). His

sample included 727 students from elementary, junior, and senior high

schools in rural, urban, industrial, and university communities. Data

included the following: results from questionnaires and interviews

with students and teachers, intelligence scores obtained from student

records, and brief observations in the classrooms of students in grades


three through twelve. In Schmuck's (1963) analysis, which centered on

grades three through six, he found that students' perceptions of their

status within peer groups were related to their utilization of abilities.

Further, Schmuck (1962; 1963) identified two types of classroom

power structures. Centralized classrooms were those in which there was

a high consensus among peers in the choice of the most and least power-

ful individuals, as shown by the smaller proportion of different

students nominated in each category. Diffused classrooms were those

in which there was less consensus about the most and least powerful

individuals in the class. Schmuck found that students estimated their

own status more accurately in centralized classrooms, and that high

power students who correctly perceived their positions outperformed

lower power individuals who correctly perceived their positions.

While the results of Schmuck's (1962; 1963) research showed that

student perceptions of social status were related positively and sig-

nificantly to their attitudes toward self and school, actual liking

status showed no such significant relationship to attitudes toward

self and school. Thus, Schmuck's results stressed the importance of

student perceptions of self within the classroom. Further, this study

supports the idea that high peer consensus may influence ability


Schmuck's work left two questions unanswered. Would the results

have been different if measures other than interviews with teachers

had been utilized to divide students into high and low achieving groups

(high and low utilizers of ability)? Would the results have been

different if the analysis had concentrated on the upper grades?


Following Schmuck's research, Brookover, Thomas, and Patterson

(1964) conducted a study of 1,050 urban seventh graders in which they

tested the following hypotheses: 1) self-concept of ability is sig-

nificantly and positively related to academic performance; 2) students

have specific self-concepts of ability which correspond to specific

subjects, and which are better predictors of performance within those

subjects than the general self-concept of ability; and 3) students'

perceptions of the evaluations significant others make of their abilities

affect their self-concept of ability. A Self-Concept of Ability scale

was administered in two parallel forms to measure a general self-

concept of ability and subject-specific self-concepts of ability in

each of the four major subjects. Intelligence scores obtained in the

fourth and sixth grades were averaged and controlled. A measure of

academic performance was obtained from grade point averages.

The results of the study conducted by Brookover et al. (1964)

indicated that self-concept of ability and grade point average were

significantly and positively correlated, despite the fact that ability

was controlled. Interestingly, the specific self-concept of ability

was found to be a better predictor of performance in mathematics,

science, and social studies for males, though the same was not found

to be true for females except in social studies. Correlation between

the specific self-concept of ability and performance in English was

slightly, but not significantly, lower than the correlation between

the general self-concept of ability and performance in English.

Brookover et al. suggested that the sex differences obtained in this

study might reflect factors in the specific community and school system


or the cultural belief that math and science are considered inappro-

priate areas for female achievement. This, however, did not explain

the inability of specific self-concept of ability to predict performance

in English, an area generally considered appropriate for female achieve-

ment. Lastly, Brookover et al. found that the student's self-concept

of ability is significantly and positively correlated with the perceived

evaluations that significant others hold of the student. However, an

individual's self-concept of ability is "more closely related to his

estimate of general attitudes toward him than it is to the perceived

responses of a particular group" (p. 277).

The findings of Brookover et al. indicated that student perceptions

of peer ratings are strongly correlated to self-concept of ability.

Additionally, in finding that students' ability perceptions are more

closely related to estimates of general attitudes, this study suggests

that student self-concepts of ability are influenced by a variety of

sources which may extend beyond the school. This implication may be

important in understanding the sex differences found in this study.

Are the general attitudes which influence males' and females' ability

perceptions made up of different subgroups? In finding that a specific

self-concept of ability was not a better predictor of achievement for

females in science and math than the general self-concept of ability,

this study raises the additional possibility that perceptions of others'

evaluations may be more powerful for adolescent females.

Pittman (1979) addressed some of these issues in a study conducted

to explore the importance of parents, teachers, peers, tests, and self-

evaluation on the development of students' self-perceptions of


achievement. The Intellectual Achievement Responsibility Questionnaire

(IAR) was administered to 1,192 sixth and seventh grade students in

six school systems in North Carolina. The IAR was used to measure

students' perceptions of internal control in achievement situations in

which one influence, either parents, teachers, peers, or self-evaluation

was prominent. Student responses were analyzed separately by sex using

factor-analytic procedures.

The findings of this study indicated that, for both male and

female early adolescents, parents and teachers played more significant

roles in the development of students' perceptions of internal control

in achievement situations than peers, tests, or self-evaluation. How-

ever, in analyzing student responses by sex, Pittman noted that the

relationship of the home environment with achievement was stronger for

females than males. Thus, Pittman concluded that parents and teachers

are significant, possibly critical influences, on the development of

early adolescents' perceptions of achievement. The results of the study

also indicated that the significance of peers was second to the parent/

teacher factor in its influence on achievement perceptions.

In concluding that the home environment had a stronger influence

on females' beliefs about their achievement, this study raises the

question that community influences may also be more significant on

females' achievement perceptions. Is the influence of parents on

females' beliefs about ability different or more significant in a

rural or urban community?

A growing body of research has investigated the influence of

teacher expectations on student performance (see Braun, 1976; Brophy,


1983; Cooper, 1979, for reviews). These studies, conducted by outside

observers, have identified teacher behaviors which correlate with teacher

expectations for students at different ability levels. From this

perspective, teacher expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies.

The students' role in this process was recently investigated by Weinstein,

Marshall, Bratesani, and Middlestadt (1982). Rather than observing

teacher behaviors, these researchers investigated student perceptions

of the evaluative responses of teachers.

Weinstein et al. used the Teacher Treatment Inventory to measure

fourth, fifth, and sixth graders' perceptions of the frequency of 44

teacher behaviors toward a hypothetical male or female, high or low

achieving student. The sample of 243 students came from 16 classrooms

in 4 urban schools of varying socio-economic levels. The items on the

instrument were derived from reviews of the literature on the rela-

tionship between teaching behavior and student achievement, on the

expression of teacher expectations in behavior, and on student per-

ceptions of the classroom environment. Subjects were asked to pretend

that Anne (John) was a student in their class, and, using a Likert

forced-choice scale, rate how frequently their own teacher would work

with Anne (John) in the ways described.

The results of this study indicated that student perceptions of

differential treatment do exist regardless of the sex of the target

student rated. Neither the sex nor the achievement level of the sub-

ject influenced student perceptions. The results also indicated that

the differences students perceived were largely consistent with studies

of teacher expectations conducted by outside observers. That is,


students believed low achievers were given greater help, input, and


This study of student perceptions of differential teacher behaviors

raises important questions. Would high ability students who have low

self-concepts of ability prefer teachers who give more help, input, and

structure? If so, would these same high ability students behave in

ways which would make additional teacher attention more likely, thus

causing teachers to question their ability?

Parsons, Kaczala, and Meece (1982) conducted a study which investi-

gated individual student-teacher interactions in 17 junior high math

classes. In this study of predominantly seventh and ninth grade

students, the researchers looked at 1) the possible influence of student

sex or teacher expectations for individual students on the nature of

student-teacher interactions, and 2) the effects of variations in

teacher-student interaction patterns on student attitudes.

Student measures used in this observational study included

questionnaires containing a seven-point Likert scale to assess expec-

tancies, self-concept of ability, and concepts of task difficulty;

scores from standardized tests; and students' ratings as to how well

they believed their teachers expected them to do in math. Question-

naires were also used to obtain teacher expectancy scores for individual

students, thereby placing them in low or high expectancy groups accord-

ing to sex. Trained observers then coded classroom interactions between

teachers and individual high and low-expectancy students focusing on

the following: 1) type of interaction, 2) who initiated it, 3) type

of student response, 4) type of teacher feedback, and 5) whether the


interaction was public and monitored by the class or a private teacher-

student interaction.

The results of the study indicated that girls, as a whole, received

less criticism than low-teacher-expectancy boys, and that high-teacher-

expectancy girls received less praise than the other groups. Though

differences were small, low-expectancy boys received the most criticism

and low-expectancy girls the most praise, especially in response to

teacher controlled questioning. In general, boys had the most inter-

actions of all kinds with their teachers. These variations in

teacher-student interactions were found to affect male and female

self-perceptions of ability differently.

In this study, praise was found to have a positive relationship

with boys' self-perceptions of ability but it was not so for girls.

Rather, for girls, praise was predictive of their belief that math was

easy. Parsons, Kaczala, and Meece (1982) concluded that this may have

resulted from teachers' differential use of praise, that is, that praise

given to boys conveyed teacher expectations while praise given girls

was more random and focused on low-expectancy girls. Noted the

researchers, "it is the informative value of praise with regard to

teachers' expectations which is critical" (p. 336).

This study raises several important questions. Does more criticism

for low-expectancy boys imply to students that math is more critical

for males? Does more praise for low-expectancy girls imply to high-

expectancy girls that praise is related to task ease, thereby resulting

in inaccurate estimates of ability?


Mason and Stipek (1985) investigated students' self-perceptions of

performance, their attributions for success and failure, their achieve-

ment-related behavior, and their actual performance in math and

reading. The sample included 77 fourth and fifth graders of various

socio-economic backgrounds from 17 different classrooms in four schools.

Data on 29 of the students from this sample were gathered across two

years from 1982-1984.

The methods of data collection included observations of students

while engaged in classroom tasks and interviews with students. During

these interviews students were asked to rank their performance compared

to classmates in reading and math, and to describe situations in which

they had succeeded or failed. They were then asked to choose the most

important cause of their success or failure by selecting from among

ability, effort, luck, or task difficulty. Students' emotional responses

were measured by asking to what degree they felt bored, confused, dumb,

embarrassed, smart, happy, or proud while working on tasks in math

and reading. Finally, teacher ratings of students' performances and

students' percentile rankings in math and reading were obtained.

Mason and Stipek reported that their findings from this study were

not surprising. High self-perceptions were associated with positive

emotions and a belief in ability. Low self-perceptions were associated

with negative emotions and a belief in lack of ability. However,

these researchers emphasized that students' perceptions of how well

they were doing predicted the degree to which they experienced positive

or negative emotions while working on tasks better than how well they

were actually doing. Thus, student perceptions may influence task


commitment more than actual feedback. Additionally, Mason and Stipek

found that student behavior and perceptions were relatively stable

across two years, thus suggesting that students enter new classrooms

not only with varied skill levels the teacher must consider, but also

with a set of achievement-related beliefs and perceptions.

Important questions are raised by the implication that students'

perceptions about their ability on tasks may influence task commitment

more than actual feedback. What criteria do students use in forming

task-specific perceptions of ability? Do personal values or values

attributed to the task itself affect perceptions of ability? Do per-

ceived consequences of success or failure on specific tasks affect

perceptions of ability before a student begins a task?

In a related study, Weinstein, Marshall, Botkin, and Sharp (1985)

investigated the development of student performance expectations in

high differential and low differential classrooms over one school year.

While this study focused on 579 students in 30 first, third, and fifth

grade classrooms rather than early adolescents, the findings suggested

that "student awareness of specific teacher expectations is only ap-

parent at the fifth grade level and only here influenced by the class-

room context" (pp. 2-3). Thus, this implies the importance of student

perspectives and classroom context for the development of older

students' self-perceptions of ability. Based on their findings,

Weinstein, Marshall, Botkin, and Sharp (1985) concluded, "perceived

teacher expectations may prove more critical than actual teacher

expectations in predicting student expectation and achievement out-

comes" (p. 30).


Taken together, these studies of the effects of classroom context

factors on the formation of early adolescents' ability perceptions

suggest, foremost, the importance of student perceptions of self in the

classroom. Perceived evaluations of significant others affect student

attitudes toward self and school (Schmuck,. 1962; 1963; Weinstein et al.,

1982; Weinstein et al., 1985), the formation of self-concept of ability

(Brookover et al., 1964; Parsons et al., 1982), and related beliefs

about achievement (Pittman, 1979). In addition, student perceptions

of performance predict emotional involvement in tasks better than actual

performance evaluation (Mason & Stipek, 1985). Finally, the research

suggests that student perceptions of self are influenced by classroom

organization in which unidimensional structure leads to the perception

of ability as a single dimension, thereby facilitating self-perception

of ability in agreement with student-teacher consensus (Rosenholtz &

Rosenholtz, 1981; Rosenholtz & Simpson, 1984; Rosenholtz & Simpson, in

press; Rosenholtz & Wilson, 1980; Weinstein et al., 1985).

In this review several studies have indicated sex differences in

students' beliefs about ability and achievement (Brookover et al.,

1964; Parsons et al., 1982; Pittman, 1979). In the final section of

this review, literature which relates to gifted adolescent girls' self-

perceptions of ability will be considered.

Gifted Adolescent Girls: Studies Related to
Ability Perceptions

Little research has focused on the gifted adolescent female

(Blaubergs, 1980; Joesting & Joesting, 1970; Shakeshaft & Palmieri,


1978), and virtually no studies have been conducted to investigate

the gifted girl's formation of self-perception of ability. Since the

1970's, however, the literature has grown to include studies within

two specific topic areas: the mathematically gifted female and the

personality characteristics of females working in various professions

(Blaubergs, 1980). This literature has grown in response to increasing

concern that accomplishments of gifted females do not compare with those

of males in adulthood. Of particular importance to the issue of

achievement motivation are studies which investigate obstacles to

women's achievement.

In her review of the literature on sexist barriers to gifted

women's achievement, Blaubergs (1978) addressed this issue. After

reviewing literature related to external barriers, lack of institu-

tional and societal support, and personality characteristics, she

concluded that "internal barriers to achievement faced by gifted

women and girls have been overemphasized" (p. 21), and that those

which are realities result from the consequences of socialization.

Similar conclusions were reached by Hill and Lynch (1983) in

their review of gender-related role expectations during early adoles-

cence. While Hill and Lynch did not limit their review to gifted

girls, their finding supported Blaubergs's (1978) conclusion that

socialization influences achievement behavior. As Hill and Lynch

noted, "Evidence discussed suggests that girls' achievement

behavior changes during early adolescence, but little research is

available on the determinants of this change" (p. 209). From their

review of the research they concluded that, during early adolescence,


standards for achievement become more sex-stereotyped and girls become

more concerned with interpersonal areas of competence than boys.

Other reviews of research on sex differences in achievement motiva-

tion suggest that females may be motivated to achieve by a desire for

approval and affiliation, rather than a desire to attain a standard of

excellence (Crandall, 1967; Hoffman, 1975; Rubovits, 1975; Sherman,

1975). However, using a different interpretation of many of the same

studies reviewed by the above researchers, Stein and Bailey (1975)

argued that "the social context of females' achievement has been mis-

interpreted as evidence for affiliation as opposed to achievement

motives" (p. 152). They proposed that social acceptance, itself, is

a central area of achievement for females; thus females are motivated

to achieve a standard of excellence in this area.

In her investigation of sex differences in achievement motivation,

Horner (1972; 1975) posited that women have "a disposition to become

anxious about achieving success because they expect negative conse-

quences as a result of succeeding" (1975, p. 207). In a study she

conducted with Rhoem in 1968 (Horner, 1975) to observe the incidence

of fear of success imagery in female subjects at different ages,

Horner found that seventh grade girls, when given the clue, "Sue has

just found out she has been made valedictorian of her class," exhibited

a 47% incidence of fear of success.

Other studies conducted to test Homrner's concept have provided

conflicting results. In a dissertation study conducted to find

evidence of the motive to avoid success in ten to fourteen year old

females, Cook (1976) found that support for the existence of a motive


as defined by Horner did not exist in her sample of 105 fifth through

eighth grade females in a parochial school. However, the girls did

show fear of negative consequences which might occur as a result of

deviating from traditional sex-role patterns. This fear of negative

consequences increased with the grade level of the subjects. Conversely,

Lavach and Lanier (1975), in testing Homrner's concept with seventh

through tenth grade high-achieving girls, found that the motive to avoid

success was prevalent and aroused by situations involving successful

competition with males. These studies suggest that, while there is

conflicting data about the motive to avoid success, adolescent girls

do experience a fear of negative consequences which might result from

behavior not considered feminine.

Studies which have investigated differential behaviors of gifted

adolescent girls in classroom situations have indicated that bright

girls have less confidence in their abilities than bright boys. For

example, in a study of creative ninth grade students, Kurtzman (1967)

found that more creative boys were more self-confident and mature than

less creative boys, but that no difference existed between more and

less creative girls. Kurtzman also found that more creative girls were

less well accepted by peers. Walberg (1969) came to similar conclu-

sions in his study of senior high students who participated in Harvard

Project Physics. Girls had more cautious attitudes, behaved in con-

forming, docile manners, and seemed uninterested in risk-taking.

In a review of the literature on gifted women, Morse and Bruch

(1970) noted "most of the literature and research findings available

for discussion have contributed much more to the articulation and


recognition of the problems than to their solution" (p. 31). It

appears that sex-role stereotyping may increase in adolescence (Hill &

Lynch, 1983) and that the achievement motivation of gifted women may be

affected by socialization (Blaubergs, 1978). Sex differences in

achievement motivation may also point to the importance of affiliation

and acceptance (Crandall, 1967; Cook, 1976; Hoffman, 1975; Horner,

1972; 1975; Lavach & Lanier, 1975; Rubovits, 1975; Sherman, 1975).

Finally, researchers who have investigated gifted adolescents in class-

room settings have noted that gifted girls lack confidence and behave

in conforming manners (Kurtzman, 1967; Walberg, 1969). Nevertheless,

questions about gifted girls' perceptions of ability and achievement

remain. It is still not clear what factors influence gifted adolescent

girls' perceptions of social norms that may hinder achievement. Nor

is it known if gifted girls are motivated by affiliation or if, as

Stein and Bailey (1975) proposed, affiliation is perceived as an area

of achievement itself, much like leadership or scholarship. Most

importantly, it is not clear how classroom structure and the perceived

evaluations of significant others influence the formation of ability

perceptions in students who enter classrooms already identified and

publicly labeled as able--gifted girls. What consequences do gifted

labels have on the formation of girls' self-perceptions of ability

within classroom contexts? The purpose of this study is to address

some of the unanswered questions in this area of research.



The Research Perspective

The purpose of this study was to explore and describe gifted

adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability and achievement within the

context of one middle school setting. The students studied were members

of heterogeneously organized interdisciplinary teams four days a week

and attended homogeneously grouped gifted classes one day a week. The

study focused on the girls' definitions of achievement and ability,

their perceptions of the relationship between the two constructs, and

the effects of the school culture (i.e., organizational features,

student-teacher relationships, and peer group influences) on these

perceptions. Ethnographic techniques, methods of data collection and

analysis which enabled the researcher to investigate participants'

perspectives, were used.

Though the roots of ethnography have been in anthropology, an

increased interest in using this approach to do research in schools

has resulted in extensive observations of the school environment. This

growing body of literature illustrates the interactive nature of learning

in schools, suggesting ways students and teachers come to understand

each other (McDermott, 1977), and concentrating on perspectives not

often considered in educational research. As Wolcott (1976) noted,



"the ethnographer's unique contribution is this commitment to understand

and convey how it is to 'walk in someone else's shoes' and to 'tell it

like it is'" (p. 25). It is a methodology particularly suited to the

study of student perceptions of achievement and ability as they relate

to experiences within school settings. Ethnography is an appropriate

methodology for examining relationships which are not explicit or when

the problem under study is in the exploratory stage, because it allows

the researcher to proceed, initially, in an unstructured or flexible

manner (Dean, Eichhorn, & Dean, 1969). "In other words, there are few,

if any preestablished categories into which original data are cast.. .

Researchers approach reality with a perspective which will enable them

to observe relevant data" (Schaffir, Stebbins, & Turowetz, 1980, p. 6).

Ethnographic techniques encourage a process of discovery, that is, a

process of learning what is fundamental to the people under study.

Such a methodology enables the researcher to better understand the

complex meaning systems participants use to organize their behavior,

to understand themselves and others, and to make sense out of the world

in which they live (Spradley, 1980). The ethnographic perspective

stresses a commitment to holism and the accurate portrayal of events

from the point of view of the actors involved in the events (Erickson,

1984). Lutz (1981) described ethnography as

a holistic, thick description of the interactive
processes involving the discovery of important and
recurring variables in the society as they relate
to one another, under specified conditions, and
as they affect or produce certain results and
outcomes in the society. (p. 52)

As a methodology developed to uncover meanings, ethnography differs

from other research approaches in a number of ways. First, the


nondirective, open-ended nature of this methodology "enables the

researcher to understand and capture the points of view of other people,

without predetermining those points of view through prior selection of

questionnaire categories or rating scale forms" (Stainback & Stainback,

1984, p. 405). Secondly, because the goal is to describe the native or

insider's point of view, the nature of the relationship between the

researcher and the population under study is interactive. Rather than

being passive, reactive subjects, the participants become the expert

informants from whom the ethnographer gathers data. "The essential

core of ethnography is this concern with the meaning of actions and

events to the people we seek to understand" (Spradley, 1980, p. 5).

Some of these meanings are derived from explicit, verbalized cultural

knowledge while others are tacit, or taken for granted by participants

who may not realize the full extent of their knowledge. In this study,

a cyclic process of asking questions, collecting data, and analyzing

data again and again was used throughout a prolonged period of observa-

tion. This cyclic process attempts to reveal both the explicit and the

tacit cultural knowledge of the participants.

The ethnographer acquires an emic understanding, that is, an

understanding of the participants' points of view, through watching,

talking, listening, and participating with people in their own environ-

ments (Rist, 1982). The researcher observes behavior and constructs

meaning from that which is observed through the discovery of patterns

or trends which emerge through prolonged exposure to the environment.

These patterns form an interpretation that is a way of explaining the

participants' culture, or the norms, values, and knowledge they use to

understand their experiences and from which they generate behavior.


People everywhere learn their culture by making
inferences. We observe what people do (cultural
behavior); we observe things people make and use
such as clothes and tools (cultural artifacts);
and we listen to what people say (speech messages).
Every ethnographer employs this same process of
inference to go beyond what is seen and heard to
find out what people know. (Spradley, 1980, p. 10)

This concept of culture is compatible with symbolic interactionism,

a theory which posits that to understand human behavior one must dis-

cover the meanings or definitions humans assign to objects, activities,

or individuals of interest. Symbolic interactionists beginning with

G.H. Mead (1934) hypothesized that humans, because of the possession

of a self, act toward or interpret things that confront them and organize

their actions on the basis of that interpretation. This process of

self-interaction enables people to deal with the world through a

defining procedure which results in construction or generation of

action rather than a mere release of action (Blumer, 1969). Blumer

(1969) delineated three basic premises:

1) Human beings act toward things on the basis of
the meanings that the things have for them.
2) The meanings of such thingsare derived from, or
arise out of, the social interaction that one
has with one's fellows.
3) These meanings are handled in, and modified
through, an interpretative process. (p. 2)

The theoretical orientation of symbolic interactionism provides

a framework for the social-interactive perspective taken in this study

of gifted adolescent females' self-perceptions of ability. This

perspective is illustrated most clearly by Mead's Triadic matrix

(Mead, 1934, p. 76) which emphasizes that individuals construct and

share meanings through interpretation and interaction. Ethnography


holds that humans are interpreting, defining creatures "whose behavior

can only be understood by having the researcher enter into the defining

process through such methods as participant-observation" (Bodgan &

Biklen, 1982, p. 76). Spradley (1980) suggested that we think of these

shared meanings, or culture, as a cognitive map and ethnography as the

methodology designed for its investigation.

The Setting

Selection of the Research Site

The study was conducted in one middle school located in a rural

area in the Southeast. The population under study, ten identified

gifted girls in grades six through eight, belonged to two of the

school's three interdisciplinary teams. Observations were therefore

conducted predominantly in two team areas, the gifted resource room,

and other areas of the school environment in which the girls interacted.

The criteria for school selection were as follows: (a) the

recognition of its exemplary status by experts in the field of middle

school education; (b) a population of ten gifted girls in grades six

through eight which was within reasonable bounds for regular and pro-

longed observation of the total population; (c) an open-space environ-

ment which enabled the researcher to move about and interact freely

without disturbing the scene, maximizing the amount of classroom

observation time; (d) the enthusiastic acceptance of the study by

teachers, parents, and the students involved; and (e) the researcher's

expertise in the area of middle school education. According to


Wolcott (1976), "Ethnography is best served when the researcher feels

free to 'muddle about' in the field setting and to pursue hunches or

to address himself to problems that he deems interesting and worthy of

sustained attention" (p. 25). The selection of this site met this


Gaining Entry to the Site

Lofland (1971) noted that it is easier to gain access to informa-

tion when the researcher has established grounds for a trusting

relationship before the project is initiated. Prior to the selection

of the site, the researcher had met informally and discussed the aims

of the study with the team leaders while attending a professional

conference on middle schools. Sharing a common status as educators

interested in adolescents defused potential concern about the study.

The team leaders' interest encouraged the researcher to take the next

step. Project goals were explained to the county supervisor for gifted

students, and, subsequently, a meeting was arranged in late November

to include the school's gifted resource teacher, the supervisor, and

the researcher. Believing that the majority of the gifted girls were

not achieving in accordance with their potential, the resource teacher,

Mrs. Johnson, noted that the study might increase classroom teachers'

understanding of gifted students' particular problems. Establishing

the team leaders' and Mrs. Johnson's interest in the study provided

1This name and all names used in this study are pseudonyms.


the basis for a trusting relationship with the researcher and paved the

way for the formal attempt to gain entry to the site.

Next, a meeting was.held with the school principal to discuss the

project and obtain his permission to propose the study-to the ten girls.

On that same morning the researcher met with the students in a con-

ference area located near the gifted resource room to explain the study

and distribute permission slips. The letter of permission is included

in Appendix A.

According to Cassell (1978), a skilled ethnographer once informed

her that casting oneself in the role of learner was the secret of

successful fieldwork. If the goal is to understand students' perceptions

of school experiences it is important for the students to perceive the

researcher as an eager learner in search of good teaching. With this

rationale in mind, the researcher used the occasion of the first

meeting to immediately begin taking field notes of the girls' reactions

to the study. In addition to establishing her position as a learner,

the researcher believed this behavior would serve to illustrate the

type of methodology which would be used and to establish the stance

that, during this study, "nothing is off the record" (Cassell, 1978,

p. 37). The researcher also believed this initial behavior with the

girls was essential (a) to indicate to the students that she cared

about what they were saying and was therefore writing it down; (b) to

establish the pattern of continuous documentation; and (c) to allow

the girls to express curiosity, question, and become comfortable with

this method of data gathering prior to its use in a classroom



All of the girls attended this informal meeting. Sitting in a

circle around the conference table they listened to the researcher

present the study.

Observer: I want to write a book about what school
is really like, but I want to describe school through
the eyes of gifted girls. This might be hard to do
because it means I'll have to hang around a lot and
ask a lot of questions. I really want to know what
things are like here, but I'll need your help to
understand them. I wanted to ask you if you were
interested in helping.

The sixth and seventh grade girls were quickest to express interest in

the idea, asking if their names would be used, if their parents would

be told, and if their teachers and classmates could know about the

research. The five eighth grade girls were stand-offish at first.

Three of these girls sat close together in a group apart from the

other two and conferred quietly while the observer pointed out that

the quality of the research would hinge on accuracy and careful atten-

tion to factual detail, but that chief among the researcher's responsi-

bilities was the preservation of anonymity (Kottak, 1979, p. 336). As

if making the decision for her friends, Connie, one of the three eighth

graders who had not yet joined the discussion, announced, "We are

definitely doing this! It sounds neat!"

This initial meeting, held three weeks prior to Christmas break,

culminated in the distribution of permission forms. Several of the

girls suggested the researcher collect the permission forms and

individual class schedules from the resource teacher. The researcher,

encouraging their roles as key informants, agreed with their plan, and

a date was suggested to collect the forms and make preliminary visits

to the team areas before the holidays. As they exited, one girl


responded to the observer's concern about explaining the study to other

students by laughing and shrugging her shoulders. "Forget it. You

don't know people here."

The following week the researcher attended a holiday party held

after a brief faculty meeting, met the teachers of both teams, and

scheduled a time to visit team meetings to explain the goals of the

study and the nature of qualitative research. As in the first meeting

with students, the researcher appeared at both team meetings with

notebooks, pencils, and a taperecorder and wrote field notes while

discussing the study. Team One's meeting was held at lunch, was in-

formal in nature, and did not produce any questions or concerns about

the research. The teachers indicated students were used to visitors

due to the school's status as an excellent middle school, and that no

one would notice the researcher's presence. In contrast, Team Two's

meeting was held after school and included an agenda of formal business

upon which the teachers kept themselves focused and on task. After a

brief discussion of the study, the team leader indicated to the

researcher that it would not take long before students and teachers

would consider her "a member of the family" (team).

While obtaining the consent of students, teachers, parents, and

administrators at the school, an application to conduct research in

the public schools was submitted to the school district office and a

description of the proposed project to the University's Committee for

the Protection of Human Subjects. By the beginning of January the

project was approved.


In discussing the issue of gaining entry, Bogdan and Taylor (1975)

suggested the importance of keeping detailed field notes during this

stage as a way of gaining insight into how organizations socialize

outsiders. "Gaining entry, and the conditions under which it is estab-

lished, is one of the most critical phases of qualitative research"

(Rist, 1982, p. 442).

Description of the Site

The study was conducted in a public middle school in a rural area

in the Southeast. The school's 442-member population was housed in a

modern, open-space building. The school, itself, was described by the

town's Chamber of Commerce as one of the finest in the United States.

According to the residents of the area, the community's rural

lifestyle was one of unequaled quality, characterized by warm friend-

ships and a close-knit community. This description was made clear to

the researcher on three separate occasions, the first of which occurred

early in the data collection when the researcher had the opportunity

to conduct an informal interview with a substitute who was temporarily

replacing the gifted resource teacher, Mrs. Johnson. During the

interview the substitute teacher, who had grown up and gone to school

in the community, described her perceptions and what she termed the

community's perceptions of several of the gifted girls. She indicated

that in such a small community most people knew something about their

neighbors, especially if they had lived in the community for awhile

or attended the same church. On a second occasion, the researcher

accompanied the seventh grade gifted class on a field trip to the


local Chamber of Commerce. Because of the school's close location the

trip was conducted on foot. The students used this opportunity to

provide the researcher with unsolicited data about the neighborhood

and its residents, and their own family histories. The extent of their

knowledge about the community and its citizens was considerable,

especially when contrasted with the comments of Nancy, a gifted seventh

grade girl who had just moved into the rural community from a city, and

was having difficulty being accepted. In addition, while walking

through the downtown area, the close-knit feeling of the community

was made apparent when several local merchants and passers-by waved

greetings to the students. Thirdly, once inside the Chamber building,

the students and Mrs. Johnson pointed out a pictorial display of the

community's past mayors, indicating their current roles in the community.

The researcher noted that the principal of the middle school who had

served since its opening had also recently served as the town's mayor.

The school's student body was 47% male and 53% female, including

a black population of 22%. Slightly less than half of the students

were bussed to and from the school. The percentage of students in

various Exceptional Student Education programs was 17, of which

approximately 7% were classified as gifted. Of the 29

gifted students in grades six through eight, ten were female.

The physical layout of the school was very modern. In the center

a large open-pit area served as the library and media-center and

included several enclosed conference rooms. Located nearby were the

central office, teacher's lounge, the home economics room, and a science

lab. To the right of the library pit were three large instructional

areas which comprised the school's three teams.








CA 4-)
ll +--


Each team area was a large open space housing heterogeneously

grouped students in two grade levels: team one, seventh and eighth

graders; team two, sixth and seventh graders; and team three, fifth and

sixth graders. While originally this organization of students had

reflected developmental grouping based on social-emotional as well as

academic factors, the majority of teachers indicated that this was no

longer true. Now students were placed in teams depending on their

curriculum needs. For example, Team One offered pre-algebra to its

seventh graders whereas Team Two did not. For this reason Mr. Lakeman,

team leader for Team Two, had described his team as being a "dumping

ground" in the past because the more academically able seventh graders

were placed on Team One. To counteract this problem, he had recently

begun to make yearly lists of sixth graders who voluntarily signed up

to remain in Team Two a second year. All students would spend two years

on one team if they entered the school as fifth graders and stayed

through the completion of eighth grade.

Observations conducted at the school centered on Teams One and Two

because none of the studied population were members of Team Three.

Although both of these teams were divided into four equal classrooms,

one for each of the four core teachers, the physical use of space

within the teams was distinctly different. Team Two organized large

book shelves, moveable chalkboards, and tables to separate the class-

rooms into separate spaces, thereby reducing the noise level and forcing

the students to walk in narrow pathways when exiting and entering the

individual classrooms. Team One did not use furniture to create an
atmosphere of separate classrooms, and the noise level and random
atmosphere of separate classrooms, and the noise level and random


movement throughout the team area were correspondingly high. Wall space

was not utilized in Team One to display student work or announce team

activities to the extent that it was in Team Two. While teachers on

both teams attributed these physical differences to the age level of

students and the individual personalities of teachers on the team, the

principal attributed them to different philosophies which had developed

within the teams themselves.

While examination of student schedules suggested that the organiza-

tional features of an exemplary middle school were in effect, prolonged

observations pointed out that some of these features were stronger than

others. For example, an advisor-advisee program, multiage grouping,

and interdisciplinary teams had been built into the school at its

inception and were based on the middle school philosophy that organiza-

tion of this nature would encourage the development of a community of

learners. "A student knows that s(he) is a member of a specific team,

and even a specific advisory group; that these structures have dimensions

that early adolescents can manage" (Alexander & George, 1981, p. 134).

Repeated observations at the site, however, revealed that while inter-

disciplinary teams were a strong organizational characteristic of the

school, the use of advisor-advisee time and multiage grouping had

greatly changed since the school's inception. At the time the study

was conducted, the time allotted to advisor-advisee programs had been

shortened to 15 minutes and was rarely used; multiage grouping existed

only in that teams contained students in two grade levels. Strict

curriculum guidelines handed down by the county had resulted in only

a few math and language arts classes which could be multiage-grouped.


Additional scheduling problems had also discouraged the use of multi-

age grouping in exploratory classes, physical education, and resource

classes such as gifted. The decreased emphasis at the school level

on multiage grouping and advisor-advisee programs was mirrored in

comments made by the girls throughout the study.

Cindy: This year 15 minutes for AA (advisor-
advisee) is not long enough to do a project, and
it's too long to get your pencils and paper so
unless you want to be a social butterfly, it's
wasted. Usually I don't have anything to do.
Some teachers will plan something but most don't.
But even if we could have a longer AA, I'd
rather have a longer lunch.

Sally: The seventh and eighth graders on our team
are separated all the time. Last year we had some
classes together. Well it's like we
don't even hang around together. We (eighth
graders) have our own feelings and all, and they
don't understand yet.

The gifted program in operation had also changed greatly during

the school's history due to a shifting emphasis at the county level.

No set county curriculum existed for middle school gifted programs

other than the adoption of five major goals including the development

of (a) higher levels of thinking, (b) self-directed learning, (c) posi-

tive attitudes of self-worth, (d) interpersonal relationship skills

and leadership techniques, and (e) creative thinking. Mrs. Johnson

informed the researcher that the major difference between her program

and those found at other county middle schools was that students were

staffed into the gifted room one entire day per week rather than one

period per day.

The population under study consisted of three sixth, two seventh,

and five eighth graders, including one black student. The girls were


identified for the program using the state criteria of a 130 I.Q. score

and represented a range of I.Q. scores from 131-140. Eight of the girls

had spent the majority of their school experience at the elementary and

now the middle school in the same rural community, and seven of these

had entered the gifted program during or before the third grade. At

the time the study took place, the state policy did not require periodic

retesting to remain in the program. Two of the girls, including one

who was new to the school, had spent the majority of their past school

experiences in private settings. With the exception of one student,

all came from two parent homes in which the majority of mothers had

equal or more formal education than the fathers, though in traditional

fields such as teaching, nursing, or library science. The majority of

mothers did not work full time.

Research Methods and Procedures

Asking Ethnographic Questions

Spradley's (1980) Developmental Research Model is cyclic in nature,

in contrast to quantitative research models which proceed in a linear

fashion from the statement of a hypothesis to the collection and

analysis of data, to the research conclusion. In doing ethnography,

"the fieldworker generates a situation-based inquiry process, learning,

through time, to ask questions of the field setting in such a way that

the setting, by its answers, teaches the next situationally appropriate

questions to ask" (Erickson, 1984, p. 51). This questioning process

is a critical aspect of the research cycle because the questions asked


direct data collection and lead the researcher closer to the emic

knowledge (personal perspectives) of the people being studied.

Ethnographic research begins without a precise hypothesis which

may "close off prematurely the process of discovery of that which is

significant in the setting" (Wilcox, 1982, p. 459). Rather, the

researcher begins with foreshadowed problems to direct and focus the

study. Malinowski (1922) noted that foreshadowed problems are "the

main endowment of a scientific thinker and these problems are first

revealed to the observer by his theoretical studies" (p. 9). In this

study two broad general questions were posed to serve as a framework

for the study: What kinds of experiences do gifted girls have in a

middle school setting in which they are members of heterogeneous teams

as well as homogeneous gifted classes? How do they use these experiences

to construct their own behavior and self-perceptions? In order to

provide some focus for the initial observations and interviews, the

following list of foreshadowed problems was posed.

1. How do gifted girls define achievement?

2. How do gifted girls' self-perceptions of ability differ from

their perceptions of peers' abilities?

3. How do gifted girls behave in academic and nonacademic situa-

tions in regard to (a) task commitment, (b) risk-taking,

(c) leadership, and (d) creativity?

4. How do team organization, participation in a gifted program

which entails removal from the team one day per week, and

peer influences affect gifted girls' experiences in school

and their perceptions of experiences?


Ethnographic questions are the main tools for discovering cultural

knowledge (Spradley, 1979). As the study progressed, descriptive,

structural, and contrast questions were asked. Each kind of question

directed observations and interviews in different ways and provided

for different levels of data analysis.

Descriptive questions were asked during the early stage of obser-

vations, to collect samples of language and aid the researcher in

becoming familiar with the social scene. These general questions included

"What happens in the gifted resource room?" "What seating patterns

exist in classrooms?" and "How do gifted girls spend their classroom


Following initial data analysis, structural questions were asked

to add depth to the researcher's knowledge of the social scene. For

example, an early observation was that different groups of the girls

tended to have different territories before and after school. Struc-

tural questions posed were "What activities are students in the different

territories engaged in?" and "Do student behaviors change if students

change territories?" These structural questions were asked repeatedly

and led to more narrowly focused observations.

Finally, contrast questions were asked to identify differences

between elements in a category. For example, in the category Things

I Worry About were elements such as being popular, physical appearance,

and making good grades. To ensure that these were distinct elements

in the category the researcher asked the contrast question, "How are

these problems different?" The question led the researcher to review


field notes and interviews and to conduct additional observations to

find the differences.

Collecting Ethnographic Data

The researcher's objective was to discover and describe the experi-

ences that adolescent girls labeled as gifted have within a middle school

setting and to construct, from those experiences and the students'

perceptions of them, ways the girls defined their own abilities and

achievements. Since these definitions were aspects of the girls'

cultural knowledge that could not be directly observed, the researcher

used three types of information to make cultural inferences. The types

of information used were the girls' behavior in class as well as before

and after school, the things they produced in school including the tools

they used to do so, and their speech messages (Spradley, 1980).

Gathering evidence of this nature enabled the researcher to uncover

the fundamental assumptions about personal abilities and achievements

that were taken for granted by the girls.

Three main methods were used to collect data. Spindler (1982)

observed the need for a variety of methods to uncover the participants'

view of reality, noting that whenever possible technical devices should

be used to collect live data. Other qualitative researchers such as

Wolcott (1976), Pelto and Pelto (1978), and Denzen (1978) have asserted

that using multiple methods to gather data increases the credibility

of the study. They note that data obtained using different methods

can be compared through triangulation, thus allowing the researcher


to strengthen the validity of constructs and rise above any weakness

that might result from using only one method. In this study, participant

observation, interviewing, and unobtrusive measures were used to collect

data. A tape recorder was used to record interviews and some gifted

classes. These methods will be described, and problems inherent in

their use discussed.

Participant observation

Participant observation is the primary tool used in gathering data

for a qualitative study (Spradley, 1980). As Blumer (1969) described

the researcher's role within a given setting, this method requires

getting close to the people involved in it, seeing
it in a variety of situations they meet, noting
their problems and observing how they handle them,
being party to their conversations and watching
their way of life as it flows along. (p. 37)

In this study, the researcher observed 200 hours of classroom

activity over a five-month period from January to early June of 1984.

Observations were conducted three days a week, usually on Mondays,

Wednesday, and Fridays. The first and third weeks of observations

were conducted only in the gifted room so that a smaller student

population (classes usually did not exceed ten) would enable the

researcher to develop rapport with the participants at a faster pace.

The second and fourth weeks consisted of descriptive observations in

both teams. From the fifth week on the researcher spent three weeks

following the girls in each grade level, one week in the gifted room,

an additional week at each grade level, and a final week in general


observations. The teachers were offered a schedule of observations,

but did not indicate an interest in one.

Successful participant observation requires time to sample the

range of experiences and situations the participants encounter. Parti-

cipant observation requires the development of an acceptable role for

the researcher. This role should encourage the growth of trust and

rapport. This presents a particular problem for researchers in schools

where no formal role exists which will allow participation (Wolcott,

1976). While ethnographers, depending on the requirements of the

setting, have assumed roles anywhere along the continuum from passive

to active participant, Schwartz and Schwartz (1969) noted that the more

active observer "increased his identification with the observed and was

better able to become aware of the subtleties of communication and

interaction" (p. 98). The decision made regarding the amount of

participation the researcher will undertake evolves not only from the

structure of the particular school or classroom, but also from the

perceptions the participants form regarding the researcher. "In every

case the field worker is fitted into a plausible role by the population

he is studying and within a context meaningful to them" (Vidich, 1969,

p. 81). The result is that the researcher's role, a product of his or

her own intentions and the perceptions of participants, determines what

the researcher will see. This, in turn, influences the value of the

items of evidence produced by the study. "For the way the subjects

of his study define that role affects what they will tell him or let

him see" (Becker, 1969, p. 250).


The researcher introduced herself to the participants as a graduate

student who was interested in women's studies. The girls were told that

the researcher wanted to write a book about gifted girls' experiences in

school, and that their help would be needed to produce a factual

account. In assuming a role of one who needed to be taught, the

researcher stressed the idea that she "would not be offended by being

told 'obvious' things and being 'lectured to'" (Lofland, 1971, p. 99).

During the course of the study the researcher took great care

not to have the manner or appearance of any group
which his informant group distinguishes sharply
from itself. This does not mean forcing identity
with the informant group; it does mean that the
observer of students, if he wishes a good under-
standing with them, will avoid the manner of
teacher and authoritative adult.. (Geer, 1969,
p. 147)

For this reason, once the researcher had gained entry, interactions

between the researcher and teachers were limited to formal interviews,

attendance at two team meetings and a faculty meeting, and occasional

informal conversation initiated by the researcher to verify observa-

tions. The researcher took care to wear attire such as jeans and tennis

shoes which was more acceptable to the student culture, to use student

language, to "hang around" with student groups before and after school,

and to eat lunch in the student cafeteria. During classroom observa-

tions the researcher sat with students, the majority of the time

beside one or several of the girls. When leaving classrooms or going

to lunch required lining up, the researcher lined up with students. At

all times the researcher subjected herself to the same rules set up

for students, though on occasion this caused discomfort for teachers.

For instance, when leaving the book fair required that students be


searched, the researcher lined up to be searched. The librarian laughed

and refused to do so.

The extent to which the researcher came to be identified with the

girls was considerable. On numerous occasions, teachers would comment

to the researcher that they had not noticed her presence in class until

the end of the period. Several times the researcher was stopped from

entering the building before school by the janitor who assumed she was

a student. On one occasion, after telling her class that she wanted

"All eyes up front," a sixth grade teacher turned to the researcher and

laughed, "No! No! Not you!"

Other student members in both teams under observation showed some

curiosity about the researcher, but as Cassell (1978) noted, participant

observers who hang around more and interact with students find their

visibility decreases with time. Many students, both boys and girls,

sought out the researcher to talk about school. This was especially

true of the different peer groups that each girl associated with.

During the course of the study, several girls who were friends of the

participants came to confide in the researcher, invite her to after

school clubs, and sit with her at lunch. Several informal interviews

were conducted with these girls, many of whom had previously been

tested for admission into the gifted program.

Strauss et al. (1969) commented that the fieldworker'ss identity

shifts when he spends an expanded period of time interacting with the

same people" (p. 70). During the early stages of data collection

several girls quite naturally became "key informants" (Spradley, 1980),

seeking out the researcher during free time, sitting with her in class


or at lunch, and initiating conversations. The researcher reacted by

concentrating her observations on these girls, using them as focal

students. Cassell (1978) suggested this strategy helps to reduce bias,

control the observer's tendency to find what he or she is looking for,

and to make sure that the observer was not attracted to just observing

interesting things. The kinds of girls who were initially attracted to

the researcher were considered significant data and were carefully

documented in the researcher's journal.

As the study progressed the researcher was able to establish

excellent rapport with each girl, though the process took much longer

with Connie and Debbie, two eighth graders who were members of the most

popular girls' clique. The nature of the difficulty became clear during

a formal interview with Connie which occurred in April.

Connie: People are totally different away from
school. I show a lot of this [behave this way].
What I'm telling you now is what I can say when
I'm away from school. Then there's not pressure
to be cool. I thought it would be hard to
talk to you because you're older, but it's not.
I was worried. I guess the clique teaches you to
watch out what you say and who you talk to.

The girls initially displayed curiosity in the fieldworker's notes

and would often drift over and read them as she wrote. The researcher

maintained the openness of notes written during observations throughout

the study as a rapport building device. The girls knew that observa-

tion notes were not shared with teachers, parents, or other students

and came to trust her with confidences. On several occasions the

researcher's policy of open-notes led to expanded and clarified accounts

of classroom interaction as the girls filled in details for the

researcher. This policy proved a valuable way to triangulate data.


The girls did not ask to read field notes from formal interviews, and,

as the study neared completion, showed less interest in notes taken

during observation periods.


Three types of interviews were utilized in this study: formal,

informal, and structured. Formal interviews were conducted at the

request of the researcher with all teachers in both teams, the principal,

all ten girls, and the mothers of five of the girls. These interviews

included several core or guide questions whose object was to

elicit from the interviewee what he considers to
be important questions relative to a given topic
to find out what kinds of things are happening,
rather than to determine the frequency of predeter-
mined kinds of things that the researcher already
believes can happen. (Lofland, 1971, p. 76)

During these interviews the researcher took care to make repeated

explanations, restate what informants had said, and to phrase questions

in terms of use rather than meaning (Spradley, 1979). For example,

questions such as "How do you get in with the popular crowd?" proved

more helpful than "What does it mean to be popular?" Interviews of

individual girls, the teachers, and mothers generally took place by

grade level during the three week period of concentrated observation

at that level. Core questions for formal interviews are included in

Appendices B, C, D, E, and F.

Formal interviews were also held with groups of girls by grade

level. Though the researcher would have preferred to have multiage

groups during these interviews, different schedules and requests by


the participants made this impossible. In particular, the eighth grade

girls did not wish to meet with the sixth or seventh graders. These

group interviews gave the girls time to reflect, to remember specific

incidents, and to verify or contradict each other's statements. Group

interviews were held during the first four weeks of the study.

As a part of the formal interview conducted with individual students

the researcher asked several structured questions requiring students to

select an answer on a scale from "not at all" to "all the time"

(Whitmore, 1980, Appendix L). In most cases, the researcher found

students' responses to these items to be very confusing and probed for

explanations. For example, when given the item, "I look forward to

going to school," the girls, without exception, selected "all the time."

Because the researcher's observations revealed the girls to be inatten-

tive frequently during class, the researcher expressed her confusion.

In clarifying their answers, the girls explained that school was

exciting because it was a place to meet friends. An additional example

which proved insightful to the researcher was the item, "My teachers

listen carefully to my ideas." Sally, an eighth grader who was observed

to rarely volunteer ideas, selected "all the time." When probed to

explain her choice, she informed the researcher that teachers listened

to her precisely because she never spoke out. The use of such forced-

choice items proved insightful only when additional questioning was

used to reveal the girls' perceptions of the statements themselves.

The differences between the girls' definitions of the statements and

the researcher's definitionswere considered valuable data.


Informal interviewing occurred frequently and was a method of

verifying observations. Ample opportunities for informal interviews

were provided by hanging around before or after school, eating lunch

with students, or during class itself. While the researcher refrained

from talking to students during class, in moments before or after

instruction students often initiated conversation with the researcher.

The researcher also informally interviewed several gifted boys and

several of the girls' female friends.

Constant comparison of observations and interviews enabled the

researcher to assess the validity of comments made by participants

(Becker, 1969). The researcher found, for example, that the girls'

positions in the school's social hierarchy affected their perceptions

and descriptions of events. The girls who were able to describe the

school's cliques most vividly, including clique membership, were those

girls occupying a middle status. Gifted girls who were members of the

upper clique were least likely to talk about this membership, while

gifted girls who were social isolates verbally denied the existence

of cliques or misrepresented their position in them.

Unobtrusive measures

Unobtrusive measures are those measures which do not require

interaction between the researcher and the setting under study, thus

minimizing the possibility that the observer's presence "may change

the very world being examined" (Schwartz & Jacobs, 1979, p. 75). In

this study the researcher reviewed the girls' cumulative records,


report cards, and random assignments completed in class. It was thought

that these data would be helpful in characterizing teachers' expecta-

tions and in clarifying the girls' perceptions of their achievement.

Personal journals kept by each girl as a part of the gifted curriculum

were examined along with journals kept by three of the eighth grade

girls for their advisor-advisee class. Written materials provided by

the school for its five year review were also examined. Lightfoot

(1983) stated these documents can give the researcher a sense of how

the school wished to be perceived.

While using a variety of methods to collect data increases the

credibility of a study, there are problems inherent in participant

observation which must be addressed in assessing the quality of the

study. McCall and Simmons (1969) described three categories of problems:

"(1) reactive effects of the phenomena being studied; (2) distorting

effects of selective perception and interpretation on the observer's

part; and (3) limitations on the observer's ability to witness all

relevant aspects of the phenomena in question" (p. 78). The following

steps were taken by the researcher to minimize these problems. The

researcher selected a site in which teachers and students were used

to and comfortable with a variety of visitors. The physical openness

of the school made it easy for the observer to move about without

attracting attention. The policy of the researcher to associate her-

self with the students and to allow the girls to look at field notes

written in classrooms encouraged the girls to behave as they normally

would if no researcher were present. The girls' tendency to pass notes

in front of the researcher and, on one occasion to bring alcohol to


school, are indications that they did. The lengthy period spent

collecting data, the researcher's journal, and the variety of methods

used to collect data helped the researcher overcome distorting effects

of selective perceptions. Finally, using unobtrusive sources of data

helped the researcher overcome her inability to witness all relevant

aspects of an event.

Making an Ethnographic Record

Data collected in this study were recorded in the form of field

notes, interviews, and a research journal. The major portion of the

data was recorded in written form while activities were actually

occurring. All formal interviews and several gifted classes were

recorded on tape as well and transcribed by the researcher.

Field notes written during observations were recorded in as much

detail as possible. These field notes, written at the site, represented

what Spradley (1980) called a condensed account of what had occurred.

Typically the researcher's notes reflected phrases, partial drawings,

or unconnected sentences. As soon as possible after observation

periods, for instance, when classes changed or activities within the

same class changed, the researcher expanded these notes by filling in

details. Frequently the researcher left the classroom scene and created

an expanded account while sitting in the library pit. The researcher

did not leave the school site without rereading and filling in the

day's observations. Expanded accounts were typed into formal protocols

by the researcher.


Lofland (1971) stressed the need to take notes at the lowest level

of inference, that is, to be concrete and behavioristic when in the

field. In an effort to get at concrete descriptions the use of verbatim

language was especially important to the researcher. Every attempt

was made to quote the subjects directly, and symbols were used in field

notes to indicate when the language used was not verbatim, but repre-

sented the researcher's summary or paraphrasing. Also included in the

field notes were brief descriptions of the researcher's reactions to

events as they happened or questions which occurred to the researcher

during observation periods. These were separated by brackets from the

rest of the field notes.

Other data recorded in the field notes were descriptions of entries

the girls had made in journals they kept for their gifted class, direct

examples of poetry or prose they had written, and information gleaned

from school records. Diagrams were included periodically when the

physical arrangement of a room changed or when seating arrangements

within a class changed. Other diagrams recorded by the researcher

were chalkboard work, visual displays, and social notes written by the

girls during class. These social notes were included in the researcher's

field notes only when the student voluntarily shared the note or when,

in three instances, the student actually wrote the note and passed it

to the researcher during class.

Formal interviews with groups of girls, individual girls, teachers,

and parents were recorded on tape, transcribed, and filed separately

from field notes. While recording these interviews the researcher took

written notes so that gestures, facial expressions, and posture would

be included in the expanded account.


A research journal was kept which reflected the researcher's

experiences from the initial stages of gaining entry through the final

day of observation. As a record of the ethnographer's experiences in

the field, the journal provided a tool for reflection on concerns,

insights, and problems which occurred (Spradley, 1980). Entries in

the journal were typically written after the researcher had mused over

several sets of protocols. The journal was most valuable in that it

enabled the researcher to monitor her changing role in the social

scene, providing a record of her attitudes and biases that were later

examined during data analysis. These issues are discussed in the final

sections of this chapter.

Analyzing Ethnographic Data

Ethnography is "a naturalistic, observational, descriptive, con-

textual, open-ended, and in-depth approach to doing research" (Wilcox,

1982, p. 462). As such, researchers use a variety of methods and

techniques to gather and analyze data. In qualitative research, the

analyst's aim is to provide an explicit account of the structure,

order, and patterns found among participants in the social setting under

study (Lofland, 1971).

In doing ethnography, a certain amount of analysis is required

while the researcher remains in the field. This stage of analysis is

extremely important in that it serves to guide the study, continually

narrowing the focus to fundamental issues heuristic to the setting.

Analysis as an ongoing part of this study was previously discussed in


the section on asking ethnographic questions. In summary, after examin-

ing initial data, the researcher asked descriptive, structural, and

contrast questions. These questions served to guide subsequent data

collection sessions. This cycle of questioning, collecting, and

analyzing was repeated throughout the duration of the study.

Data collected from participant observation, interviews, and

unobtrusive measures were analyzed using Spradley's (1980) four-step

method. The stages of data analysis are described below:

1. Domain analysis was begun with the first set of protocols.

In this phase of analysis the researcher looked for patterns or cate-

gories of meaning, what Spradley called domains. These categories were

discovered through continuous reading of protocols with specific

questions in mind. Spradley described nine semantic relationships

that could be used to question the data and uncover relevant domains.

The most helpful semantic relationships were strict inclusion (X is a

kind of Y), cause-effect (X is a result of Y), rationale (X is a reason

for doing Y), means-end (X is a way to do Y), and attribution (X is a

characteristic of Y). This task of "delineating forms, kinds, and

types of social phenomena; of documenting in loving detail the things

that exist" (Lofland, 1971, p. 13), continued throughout the study.

The linguistics used by the participants themselves were utilized as

included terms within domains as often as possible.

2. Taxonomic analysis, uncovering the organization of domains

themselves, was the second phase of analysis. A taxonomy reveals

relationships among the terms inside the domain, uncovering subsets

and the ways individual terms are related to the whole. Taxonomic


analysis also helps the researcher to relate domains to one another.

One taxonomy, Kinds of Ability Perceptions, became the framework for

the findings of the study.

3. Componential analysis is a search for attributes of domains

and their included terms. For example, in conducting a componential

analysis the researcher looks for characteristics of the acts, activi-

ties, relationships, setting, and participation, and the variations they

display. The goal is to determine if the domains and terms within them

are distinct elements in the social setting.

4. Theme analysis, the final stage of the four step model, involved

looking for meanings which were recurrent in domains and which illus-

trated a relationship within taxonomies. Although a theme may not unite

all domains, it should make sense of the whole and thereby have a high

degree of generality. In this study the theme was revealed through a

recurrent set of questions which clarified the organization within

domains and across taxonomies. These questions were "What is problematic

to the participants?" "What things cause them concern, irritation, or

happiness?" "When they think about their roles in school, what appears

to them as stressful, important, or difficult?"

In a discussion on gathering and analyzing ethnographic data,

Lightfoot (1983) characterized the doing of ethnography as similar to

the painting of a portrait:

Portraiture is a genre whose methods are shaped
by empirical and aesthetic dimensions, whose
descriptions are often penetrating and personal,
whose goals include generous and tough scrutiny.
It is a sensitive kind of work that requires the
perceptivity and skill of a practiced observer
and the empathy and care of a clinician. (p. 369)


Implied in her discussion are two important issues which will be dis-

cussed in the final sections of this chapter: (a) researcher qualifi-

cations and biases and (b) validity of the findings.

Researcher Qualifications and Biases

The ethnographer is the key research instrument. For this reason

a discussion of the researcher's qualifications and biases is essential

in judging the quality of the research effort. "One's frame of

reference, in part a product of one's professional training, influences

the selections one makes from the phenomenon and determines how and

what is observed" (Schwartz & Schwartz, 1969, p. 102).

The researcher's qualifications and professional training are

listed below:

1. The researcher had eight years of professional teaching

experience, including extensive work with gifted children in a regular

classroom setting and one year as a teacher of the gifted in a university

laboratory school. Five of the eight years of experience were at the

middle level.

2. The researcher has completed coursework for a Ph.D. in curriculum

and instruction, specializing in middle school and gifted education.

The researcher is certified by the state of Florida as a teacher in

both areas.

3. The researcher has taken four courses which provided a

theoretical and practical background in qualitative research and has

read extensively in this area.


4. The researcher has completed an ethnographic study of gifted

adolescent females involved in a career awareness seminar. Based on

this study two articles have been accepted for publication and one

regional research presentation was made.

5. The researcher has presented workshops and in-service presen-

tations for classroom teachers working with gifted students, has worked

as a consultant for district middle schools, and has made a presentation

at the National Association for Gifted Children.

In addition to examining the researcher's qualifications, both in

regards to her ability to conduct qualitative research and in terms of

the researcher's frame of reference, it is important for the researcher

to make clear any underlying assumptions or biases which may have

resulted in a selective perception of data. "The researcher can and

does know what his biases are, and knowing what they are, he can,

by specifying them, prevent distortion of his observations" (Schwartz &

Schwartz, 1969, p. 103). The researcher's journal enabled her to

actively look for personal biases and explore their consequences. The

following list demonstrates the researcher's awareness and provides

the reader with a framework for evaluating the study (Ross, 1978).

1. The researcher believes that gifted students require an

enriched curriculum through special programs which stress critical

thinking, problem solving, leadership, and creativity. Related to this

is the researcher's concern that practice in these skills is not being

adequately provided for all students in regular classroom settings.

2. The researcher is especially concerned about the kinds of

social and academic experiences encountered by gifted adolescent girls


in public school settings and their tendency toward underachievement

as revealed by previous research.

3. The researcher holds a social-interactionist perspective; that

is, that human perceptions are influenced by contextual settings and

that those settings, in turn, are influenced by human perceptions.

4. The researcher assumes that gifted adolescent girls' perceptions

of school experiences and their own abilities and achievements may not

be congruent with the perceptions of others within the school.

Validity and Ethical Issues

The degree to which scientific observations record or measure that

which they purport to measure determines the validity of the study

(Pelto & Pelto, 1978). This is a central issue in ethnography where

the match between the research model and the world under study is its

major strength (Lecompte & Goetz, 1982). In their discussion of criteria

which can be used to appraise the validity of qualitative studies, Ross

and Kyle (1982) have suggested the following questions as guides for

both researchers and consumers of research.

1. Is the problem studied significant, and is there
sufficient depth to the study?
2. Does the author refer to appropriate theory and
3. Does the researcher provide a comprehensive
description of the methodology?
4. Does the researcher explore alternative explana-
5. Does the researcher support interpretations and
explanations with multiple evidence?
6. Is the study well-written and organized?
(pp. 9-10)

In asking these questions the researcher acknowledges their importance

in determining the quality of the study.


The steps taken to ensure the validity of this study's findings

included the following:

1. The lengthy period of data collection ensured the researcher's

familiarity with the social setting and provided ample opportunity for

continual data analysis to refine domains and taxonomies and to ensure

the match between these categories and the setting.

2. Formal and informal interviewing of the girls, their parents,

and teachers, and the use of unobtrusive measures enabled the researcher

to get at emic perspectives and to triangulate data obtained through


3. The search for negative examples enabled the researcher to

refine constructs.

4. The acceptance of the researcher by the participants allowed

the researcher to achieve a significant level of participation.

5. The practice of keeping open field notes, or allowing the

girls to read and comment on field notes taken during classes, enabled

the researcher to clarify, enlarge, and validate observations. This

practice also contributed to the rapport which developed between the

researcher and subjects.

Yet another procedure for establishing the validity of the

researcher's findings was to discuss them with some of the participants.

In early December, 1984, one year following the onset of data collection,

the researcher returned to the school to discuss the findings of the

study with participants. By sharing findings with the teachers and

some of the girls who had been involved in the study, the researcher

received important feedback on her interpretations of participants'



In considering the ethical issues involved in fieldwork, Schaffir,

Stebbins, and Turowetz (1980) noted that, "the oft discussed questions

of what to write about the group one has studied, how to protect con-

fidentiality against legal proceedings, and the like are of greatest

concern after leaving the field" (p. 15). The researcher has, during

the writing of this study, attended to the facts and reported the

findings while making every effort to protect the identity of the

school, the teachers, and the girls themselves. For this reason,

descriptive facts which did not affect the findings of this study have

been changed or omitted. The researcher further notes that, during the

data collection period, participants were continually reminded of the

researcher's interests and were not misled or recorded without their

knowledge. Upon completion, a final copy of this research will be made

available to county personnel, as well as the school's administration,

teachers, and gifted girls.

In the next chapter the researcher's findings are described and

discussed. In the final chapter, implications of the present study

are discussed.



The goal of this study was to uncover the self-perceptions of

ability held by gifted females attending a middle school in which they

were members of interdisciplinary teams and a pull-out gifted program.

As previously discussed, this research was based on a social-

interactionist perspective, and thus on the assumption that indi-

viduals' self-perceptions of ability are constructed through their

interactions in social settings.

In this study the researcher focused on interactions which took

place in the gifted classroom, two of the school's three team areas,

and in the library, cafeteria, and other areas of the school environ-

ment which were regularly inhabited by the girls. Observations

centered on the girls' interactions with teachers, peers, and educa-

tional materials within and outside the classroom setting. Additionally,

both formal and informal interviews were conducted with each girl

individually and in groups throughout the study. Teachers on both

teams and five of the girls' mothers were formally interviewed.

Artifacts such as cumulative folders, personal journals kept by the

girls, report cards, and work completed for classes were examined.

These kinds of concrete phenomena were used by the researcher as indi-

cators of gifted adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability.



Data were analyzed into domains according to Spradley's

Developmental Research Sequence (Spradley, 1980). This process re-

quired that data be analyzed continuously to isolate relevant categories

of language, behavior, objects, people, etc. Domains which proved to be

particularly significant in uncovering gifted girls' self-perceptions

of ability included Results of Being in the Gifted Program, Ways to

Know You've Done Your Best, Kinds of Goals, Kinds of Status, Things

That Are Important, Steps in Getting a Teacher to Like You, Attributes

of Smart People, Differences Between Gifted Boys and Girls, and

Responsibilities of Students on a Team. Domains were then organized

into taxonomies. That is, data which indicated ways gifted girls

thought about their abilities were drawn from across many domains

and organized into new domains which represented factors influencing

self-perceptions of ability. Taxonomies were also constructed to

represent achievement-related behaviors within different contexts such

as the different teams and the gifted classroom.

This analysis reflected the social-interactionist perspective

which served as a theoretical framework for the findings of this

study. From this perspective, individuals create meanings for people,

things, and events in their world through their interactions in social

contexts. The meanings, or perceptions, are not inherent in the

people or events themselves, but instead are products of social

interaction. These premises of symbolic interaction (Blumer, 1969;

Mead, 1934) were found to be useful in understanding and describing

the self-perceptions of ability held by the gifted girls studied, and

the effects of the school culture (i.e., organizational features,


student-teacher relationships, and peer group influences) on their


The student perspective which emerged from the data was based on

evidence from all ten girls in the school's gifted female population,

though individual aspects of the perspective were shared by the girls

in varying degrees. As previously discussed, the majority of the ten

girls in the study group had grown up in the school's rural community,

attended the local elementary school, and participated in a pull-out

gifted program since third grade. Comparison of their perceptions

with those of girls who were new to the school community provided what

initially appeared to be negative examples. Componential analysis,

however, revealed these data to be supportive of the interactional

nature of ability formation.

The purpose of this analysis was to describe gifted adolescent

girls' self-perceptions of ability, and, more specifically, their

perceptions of the relationship between ability and achievement. As

gifted girls' perceptions are described, data from the taxonomies will

be used to illustrate and support their perspective. The excerpts

from field notes and interview transcripts used as illustrations were

selected from among numerous examples as being representative of the

experiences, statements, and shared beliefs of the group of gifted

adolescent girls studied. To protect the anonymity of the partici-

pants, ficticious names were used for students and teachers, and

details about the subject being taught were changed whenever it was

possible to do so without changing the data.


In the present study, gifted girls' beliefs about ability were

influenced by (1) definitions of giftedness held by significant

others, (2) affiliation needs, and (3) social comparison. Before

these influences on the development of self-perceptions of ability

are discussed, the community and school contexts which contributed

to the girls' self-perceptions will be described. In this section

the girls' views about themselves, as well as their perceptions of

the gifted program and interdisciplinary team membership,will be

presented. It is important to note that neither the girls' views about

themselves, nor teachers' or peers' behaviors and beliefs alone, can

sufficiently explain the perceptions of ability which emerged from the

data in this study. Rather, self-perceptions of ability must be viewed

as products of social interaction.

Ability and Motivation: School and
Community Contexts

Callahan's (1979) observation that "girls earn higher grades in

school, yet men write more books, earn more degrees, produce more

works of art, and make more contributions in all professional fields"

(p. 402), led her to note that our present understanding of gifted

girls' abilities and motivations is inadequate. Research has failed

to account for the factors which might explain the discrepant numbers

of gifted men and women, or to delineate the unique characteristics

of gifted females which might guide educators in the creation of

effective programs for these learners. Though educators have noted

the need for studies conducted from the learners' point of view


(Meighan, 1978) in order to provide descriptive data (Weinstein,

1983), little is known about the role of the school and community in

the development of gifted adolescent girls' self-perceptions of ability.

As Lipsitz (1980) pointed out:

What we can say at this point is that young
adolescents, at a critical stage of self-defini-
tion, take their signals from society at large
and from the subculture. They are dependent upon
social institutions, like the schools, for the
limitations or the boundlessness of their aspira-
tions. (p. 29)

In the present study, the interaction between community and

family values and the school experiences of gifted girls contributed

to their beliefs about ability and their motivation to achieve. Before

the girls' experiences in the gifted program and their team organiza-

tions are described, some background will be provided on the girls'

entering views about themselves. As Brim (1976) proposed, the set

of ideas, beliefs, and attitudes that individuals hold with regard

to the world and their place within it constitutes their conception

of self. For the girls in this study, community and family values

provided the background from which beliefs and attitudes about them-

selves were constructed, and therefore influenced their ideas about

who they were as well as who they might become.

Gifted Girls' Views About Themselves

Teachers believed that the nature of the rural community affected

the school's student population, and, in particular, the gifted girls

in several ways. When describing their perceptions of the girls,


every teacher, with the exception of one, referred to the influence

of the community and home values on girls' attitudes and behaviors in

school. Specifically, community values were believed to affect girls

in that they (1) provided a well-defined set of behavioral norms and

(2) restricted girls' awareness of achievement opportunities.

The set of behavioral norms to which teachers referred became

obvious to the observer when documenting seating patterns in the

classrooms and in the gifted resource room. Unless a teacher-made

seating organization was in effect, girls and boys tended to select

seats beside peers of the same sex. In the gifted room where desks

were arranged in a semi-circle and the number of students in the group

was small, the separation of sexes was most obvious. The girls ex-

plained this to the observer by commenting that boys and girls usually

did not sit by each other "unless they were going together." The

resource teacher, listening to the conversation between the gifted

students and the observer, interjected the belief that this seating

pattern reflected a community norm:

Teacher: (standing beside the group of students) I
call it Madison-itus. (Madison refers to the com-
Observer: What? What's that?
Teacher: When you go to a party around here the men
are all in one room and the women are in another.
Several of the gifted students laugh.
Gifted male: We just always sit that way. We were
sitting on the other side (of the semi-circle), but
they (the girls) pushed us around the table.

Norms of behavior which existed in Madison and the influence of

individual parents were frequently cited by teachers in explaining

the difference in behaviors they perceived to be characteristic of


gifted girls and gifted boys. The following excerpts illustrate

teachers' beliefs about the influence of norms on gifted girls:

Teacher A: I've never had a wierd (gifted) girl,
but we've had some guys. Rick (gifted boy), for
example, acts abnormally. He doesn't follow the
norms of the school or the community. Our gifted
girls all have consequences for poor performance at
home, and the majority of them are interested in
pleasing and doing well. You can't be accepted here
unless you go to the right church, [your] parents
know the right people, and you do the right things
around town. I think our gifted girls try to please,
just like other girls.

Teacher B: (standing in the back of a classroom and
pointing out a gifted girl to the observer) See Cindy?
She has her hand raised. Being polite just like her
mother expects. She's a producer.

Teacher C: It's hard to tell these gifted girls
that the skills they develop now will affect their
future progress. I know Debbie is capable of a lot
more demanding work, but I won't follow up the
parent and talk. I feel like an outsider.
I came from a big city, and I feel like I stress
academics more than anyone else here. Gifted
girls aren't super students in math. They tend to
do well in language. (pause) I guess it's O.K. to
do well in language.

An additional perspective on community norms was provided by a

life-time community resident who substituted for the gifted resource

teacher one day during February. After telling the observer that,

though she knew most of the gifted girls slightly, she knew Cindy

best through their church affiliation, she commented about the com-

munity's perception:

Substitute: The community thinks of Cindy as a very
bright girl.
Observer: Would the community be surprised if she
became a nuclear engineer?
Substitute: Well, she is well accepted (pause) be-
cause (longer pause) because she does what the com-
munity expects a bright girl to do. She's musically
inclined, she has a beautiful voice, and she's real
polite. She's like a dream girl. I heard a parent


say that one day. (pause) A lot of people would
never say they felt differently about boy-girl
achievements, but I guess we do behave that way.
We separate ourselves at social gatherings without
even knowing it. (pause) I never thought about it.
Teachers frequently described the community as a closed one which

did not value academics, and, as such, restricted students' awareness

of educational opportunities. One teacher, noting that he lived in a

neighboring city and was not well accepted by the school's community,

told the observer, "This community doesn't give kids a chance to

expand their lifestyles. Gifted kids here probably just have

more open parents."

The teacher who taught the most classes to seven of the ten

gifted girls was concerned about what she perceived to be a lack of

community emphasis on female achievement. Explaining to the observer

that she was the only regular classroom teacher at the school who had

some background in gifted education, she voiced the opinion that

gifted girls' awareness of educational opportunities might be re-

stricted because there was a general lack of awareness that girls

could be smart:

Teacher: There's a difference between the gifted
girls here and the ones I taught in the South. I
don't see the aspirations for individual achievement
here. I think it's because they don't see females
in leadership roles and aren't brought up to see
women as achievers. They may tell you they want to
be doctors and lawyers, but I think their innermost
drive is to find a husband and get married and have

The influence of parents and the community on the girls' percep-

tions of themselves frequently surfaced during formal interviews.

Comments made by the girls in answer to the question "What kinds of


things do you want to be able to achieve?" reflected the influence of

parental values. The girls' answers frequently centered on doing well

to make parents proud rather than naming actual accomplishments they

would like to achieve. "I listen to my mother," Cindy informed the

observer. "I think she knows my potential. She doesn't encourage the

idea of being a composer because it would be a hard job. Not many

people do well. But it's not that she doesn't encourage me. She

wants what's best for me." It should be noted that comments made by

the girls reflected not only the importance of parental views, but the

tendency for girls to compare ability characteristics they perceived

in themselves with characteristics they perceived in their parents.

Comments such as, "I think my strong point is that I'm organized--like

my mother" or "My father says I'm lazy just like him!" were frequently

made in connection with expressions of the desire to please parents

and make them proud. The kinds of things gifted girls wanted to

achieve were influenced by their perceptions of the abilities and

qualities valued by parents.

The influence of community organizations on the ways gifted girls

thought about themselves was also related to parental values. For

example, girls who were actively involved in organizations such as

Girl Scouts, 4-H, or community sports often gave examples of activi-

ties in these organizations to describe things they did well. These

girls tended to have parents who were actively involved in these

organizations as adult leaders or who had been involved in them as



One of the social institutions within the community which

affected the majority of gifted girls in this study was the church.

Eight of the ten girls listed God as one of the two most important

things they believed in when completing a values exercise in journals

kept in the gifted class. Family and friends were listed as second.

The following excerpt is representative of the influence of religious

values on the way girls thought about themselves and the importance of


Cindy: A lot of ladies think well, a lot of
ladies are as good as men and some are better,
but I just believe God put men on earth first and
they should take care of ladies. She should do as
well as she can.
Nancy: Man provides for women. That's what the
BibTe says.
Cindy; If I apply for a job when I'm older and a
man gets it, I'm not going to think he did just be-
cause he's a man.
Observer: What would happen if you knew you were
the better person for the job?
Cindy: Well, I guess I would just have to try
somewhere else.

While teachers were consciously aware of the influence of the

community on gifted girls' views about themselves, they were less

clear about the school's ability to expand the opportunities available

to these girls. Comments such as, "Kids come in with established

patterns and all we can do is work with them!" and "The school can't

do everything. The parent's emphasis makes a difference in the child's

emphasis" were characteristic of teachers' feelings about the school's

role. A teacher who informed the observer that she had made several

attempts to encourage one of the gifted girls to sign up for an

advanced math class, but had been unsuccessful, remarked, "Why don't


these girls want to develop their potential? I'm not sure there's

a pat answer. I guess the school's role is to expose the student to

as much information as possible to make a wise decision."

The Gifted Program

As previously described, the gifted program at the school was a

one day a week pull-out program which aimed to improve higher level

thinking skills, creativity, and leadership potential. The fact that

there was no set curriculum to accomplish these goals was seen as a

hardship by Mrs. Johnson, the gifted resource teacher. As a result,

she developed several major themes during the year and built lessons

around them for all three grade levels. The lack of appropriate

materials and resource guides, however, apparently made the development

of higher level thinking skills difficult.

Over the duration of this study, Mrs. Johnson taught units related

to space, the arts, and the history of the community. While these

units were in progress she continued weekly journal writing assignments

designed to promote creativity and affective development. In addition,

several weeks before the end of school, she required the students to

plan and organize field trips to areas of local interest "in order to

stress organization skills and to encourage leadership and responsi-


The level of interest expressed by the gifted girls in the topics

covered by Mrs. Johnson varied. Journal writing was considered an

important and enjoyable activity, as were the informal conversations


which frequently followed the voluntary sharing of journal entries.

As Ellen explained, "A lot goes on then. We have times when we talk

or just write about things and everything comes out."

No opportunities were provided for the gifted students to make

choices about topics studied other than the selection of an individual

project which followed the unit on space. The unit, which took place

during the early stages of this study, proved particularly difficult

to teach because Mrs. Johnson was able to obtain only materials and

films which were considerably below the level of the students and, in

some cases, were noticeably outdated. The end result was that few

students were excited by the unit or by the prospect of an independent

project. The project Mrs. Johnson assigned was posted on the black-

board early in January as follows:

Space Reports

1. Choose an area of study.
2. Begin research.
a. School library
b. Public library
c. University library
d. University Science Department
e. National Geographic (and other publications)
f. Materials available in enrichment room
3. Write an outline. (Due Jan. 18)
4. Develop a report.

During the month of January and the first week of February,

students in the gifted room worked alternately on creative and per-

sonal writing in their journals, thinking techniques such as brain-

storming, and activities related to the unit on space. When the

February deadline arrived for presentation of reports, however, none

of the sixth or eighth grade girls were ready to present. Thus, the


first day of presentations in those classes consisted of work com-

pleted by the gifted boys. The following two incidents are illustrative

of the level of student involvement in the projects and, in particular,

the behavior of gifted girls in the resource room:

Sixth Bobby moves to the front of the class, sets up a
grade poster and places a written report in front of him.
The other students sit in a semi-circle around
Bobby. Mrs. Johnson stands in the back with a tape
recorder and camera ready to document the report.
Jill and Marie have open encyclopedias on the table
in front of them and proceed to copy information and
a diagram while Bobby talks. Bobby has most of his
report memorized so that he does not refer to his
notes. He concludes by explaining his poster and
asks for questions. Eight males and Joan, one of
the three female sixth graders, ask questions. Jill
and Marie continue working.

Eighth Phil and Steve, two eighth grade boys continually
grade pointed out by the majority of girls as extremely
smart, are the only ones ready to present today. Mrs.
Johnson calls on Phil and explains that she will
record him as well as take pictures. In response,
Sally calls out: "Oh! My hair!" She then reaches
up and pretends to smooth it. Phil ignores the
laughter and begins his report on Saturn. Perhaps
because he is nervous, he reads his report a a pace
which becomes more and more rapid. As he speaks,
Lynn puts her foot on the table and deliberately
ties her shoe. Beside her Debbie sits quietly,
staring under the table. Ellen begins to make sound
effects which include the music to Twilight Zone.
Rushing through his final page, Phil concludes by
asking the class if they would like further informa-
tion. In a loud voice Sally responds: "I'm not
really interested." Mrs. Johnson looks at Sally, turns
off the tape, and begins discussing the good and bad
points of the audience and the report. When she
pauses, Ellen chimes in: "I liked the organization
and the visuals, but where's the beef?" The class
bursts into laughter and Ellen blushes slightly.
Mrs. Johnson rewinds the tape, plays back the first
few minutes, and becomes distressed with the giggling
and sound effects that were picked up on the tape.
Looking at the class she exclaims: "This is


The levels of motivation exhibited by both gifted males and

females in the resource room varied over time and across subject

matter. This was of considerable concern to the mothers of the girls

interviewed during this study. One mother, after being notified that

her daughter's space project had not been completed on time, told the

observer, "When she got home we put her on restriction. She said she

didn't get it done because the girl who worked on it with her hadn't

come to school. I told her maybe I'd have her taken out of gifted

because it was too much pressure on her. She says the teachers don't

understand." Several other mothers expressed the concern that their

daughters did not seem to be getting very much out of enrichment this

year. One mother remarked, "For a while I thought she was learning

a lot, but now, not so much. She thinks so too. She's at the point

where she'll be glad when she gets to high school and she's not in

it anymore."

Data analysis revealed that the girls who had the least social

status in the regular classroom tended to describe the gifted classroom

in the most positive terms. This was true even for girls like Sally

whose behavior in the gifted room frequently indicated that she had

no interest in the curriculum. As Sally explained, "The only time I

feel part of the school is when I'm in gifted."

Field notes indicated that the verbal behavior of many of the

gifted girls in the resource room was significantly different from

their behavior in regular class. For example, Marie, who rarely spoke

above a whisper in her regular classes, interacted more frequently and

with vigor in the gifted classroom. When the researcher commented on


this observation, several girls explained their more active participa-

tion by describing the gifted class as a smaller, more intimate


Sally: It's a lot different. You talk about
feelings. In there (gifted room), you put it
(express yourself) different.

Lynn: In here (gifted room) we're all friends.
There aren't any cliques and no one is more popular
unless maybe something (a status-giving event) is

Nancy: Gifted is my favorite class. We agree on
th same things, like the same things, and enjoy
being together. They understand how I feel.

Joan: I had to throw away my I-hate-Monday-Garfield-
tee-shirt this year! (Monday is the day Joan goes to
the gifted class.)

A comparison of the journals kept by several eighth grade girls

in their advisor-advisee class with those kept in the gifted room pro-

vided insight into the different levels of intimacy the girls attributed

to the two environments. During a group interview these girls informed

the observer that nothing of importance was ever written in the

journals kept in advisor-advisee, and that reading them would not

produce information for this study. Sally explained, "We never write

anything in there! Mrs. Myers reads them." It is important to note

that Mrs. Johnson also read the gifted journals, though students in

the gifted class had the option of requesting that Mrs. Johnson (and

the researcher) not read a particular entry. It should also be noted

that girls were given no directions when writing in their advisor-

advisee journals, while Mrs. Johnson usually led a discussion based on

a selected topic as a pre-writing activity. The result was that entries


written for advisor-advisee class reflected basic daily activities,

but journals kept in the gifted room revealed intimate, personal

thoughts, as illustrated in the following examples:

Gifted Connie: Friendship is what impresses me most.
jourals Everyone wants to fit in. You see someone
everyone admires, and you want to be like

Debbie: Life is like an endless standing in
Tine for something. It just seems to go on and
on and never gets anywhere. I wonder if I am
accomplishing anything.

Lynn: When you are in a fog you don't see any-
thing, but when it leaves and you look back, you
see all the opportunities you missed.

Ellen: I feel like a time bomb. Things could
explode any minute.

Advisor- Connie: This Saturday we went shopping at the
Advisee maiTT and to the movies. Ellen spent the
journals night.

Lynn: Yesterday I cleaned the house and read a
book for class. My friend came over and we went
Ellen: I called Connie and we talked on the phone
for an hour. Then Debbie called me.

Though the girls were more verbal in the gifted room than in

their regular classes, their overall behavior in the gifted room was

more passive than the behavior of gifted boys. This observation was

consistent throughout the study, despite the varying levels of motiva-

tion expressed by both males and females in regard to the gifted

curriculum. When activities were in progress, males moved about the

room more, used a wider variety of materials, asked more questions,

and interacted with each other more aggressively than did females.


When journal writing occurred, males tended to finish writing sooner

and spend the remainder of the time talking to each other or to Mrs.

Johnson. In addition, equipment such as the record player and computer

were controlled almost exclusively by the males with the exception of

the sixth grade class. These students did not use the record player,

and both males and females were equally interested in obtaining time

on the computer.

For the majority of girls, particularly the eighth graders, the

significance of being in the gifted program had gradually decreased

since their entry into middle school. Even Ellen, who described the

gifted class as a place "where everything comes out," told the
researcher that, "It used to be important to be in it (during elementary

school). I used to love to come." On several occasions, and on at

least one occasion when the observer was present, one girl skipped

class and was later found by Mrs. Johnson in her regular class.

Data analysis revealed two reasons many of the girls felt parti-

cipation in the gifted class was no longer important. First, the

girls frequently expressed feelings of wanting to be exposed to more

and different topics than were covered in the class. Human nature,

relationships, physical growth, astrology, and animals were mentioned

by the girls as topics they would like to investigate. Second, nine

of the ten girls made spontaneous comments to the observer about very

popular girls who had taken the test for entry into the program, but

had missed the cut-off score by "a few points." The girls believed

that including popular students in the gifted program would increase

its status among students, thus making it a more appealing program.


Carrie, the most popular eighth grade girl, was often given as an

example. As Ellen explained, "Carrie said she hoped she'd make it,

but when she didn't, she said she didn't really want to. Now no one

really wants to get in."

An additional explanation for the girls' feelings about the

importance of being in the gifted program was offered by the principal.

He described for the researcher the motivation-achievement conflict he

believed characterized gifted students, and in particular, girls, in

the middle school:

Principal: The only thing about gifted is there's no
real direction about what gifted kids should be exposed
to. Teachers expect them to make up work they miss
(on days absent for the gifted program) and the kids
don't feel they should. Too, gifted girls won't
sign up for advanced classes because of peer pressure.
They don't want to be different. That's what we do
when we label them. We make them different. People
don't really understand the amount of pressure these
kids are under. I don't understand it. They look
to others for leadership and follow their example.
That's just the way it works. We've had kids tell
us, "We don't want to have to work that hard."
There's a few of these kids from time to time that
don't let it affect them, but they're socially

In summary, the majority of girls were unsure that the gifted class

was one in which they were learning advanced skills. They expressed

to the observer a desire to investigate topics different from those

which were part of Mrs. Johnson's program. At the same time, however,

they perceived the class as one in which they were able to be them-

selves. The girls named Mrs. Johnson, along with the school counselor,

as the adults they would most likely go to with problems. In addi-

tion, their perception of the gifted room as a place without cliques


encouraged a feeling of being understood; thus girls who had difficulty

interacting verbally in the regular classroom did not have this diffi-

culty in the gifted room. Despite the observation that the girls

expressed their feelings more openly in the gifted room, when their

overall behavior was compared to the behavior of gifted boys, girls

were found to exhibit more passive behaviors.

Members of a Team

Membership on a team was an integral part of the student experi-

ence at this middle school. Over the duration of the study numerous

students from both teams discussed their perceptions of school with

the researcher, perceptions which were phrased in terms of team life,

and which often compared one team to another. Students who shared

their perceptions with the researcher, including the gifted girls, be-

lieved that the two teams offered very different learning experiences.

As previously discussed, the researcher spent several weeks

collecting observational data in both teams, and three-week periods

in which observations were solely focused on a specific grade level

within one team. During these three-week periods the researcher com-

pared gifted girls' perceptions of the team with the behavior of

teachers, peers, and the girls themselves. Gifted girls' experiences

as members of Team One and Team Two will be discussed separately.

Gifted girls' perceptions of Team One

Team One contained all of the eighth graders and half of the

seventh graders in the school. At the time of this study, seven of


the gifted girls were members of the team. This group of girls in-

cluded one student who was new to the school and six who had been

members of Team Two the year preceding the study. Their comparisons

of the two teams provided insight into gifted girls' perceptions of

classroom features and the effects of these features on motivation

and ability perceptions.

The majority of Team One students who discussed their perceptions

with the researcher, including the seven gifted girls, described the

team as much freer. Observations and interview data indicated that

the girls used this term in two different ways. First, the gifted

girls believed that a wider variety of classroom behavior was tolerated

by teachers in Team One. Additionally, the girls believed that the

work they produced in Team One was evaluated by less strict criteria,

and thus, they had a greater degree of freedom when completing assign-

ments. As Cindy explained it, "Team One is just freer! I like it

better because things don't always have to be perfect like the teacher

wants. In Team Two if you didn't do it exactly a certain way you lost


Data indicated that these student perceptions resulted from the

consciously organized system of beliefs about students' developmental

levels and teaching that guided the team teachers' decisions and

behavior. Team One teachers believed that seventh and eighth grade

students should be able to manage themselves without teacher-imposed

restrictions, and that teachers should concentrate their efforts on

the cognitive dimension of the curriculum. The teachers' attitudes

are illustrated in the comments below: