Constructing Exceptionalism: How Schools Shape Middle Schoolers’ Beliefs About Intelligence
Michela Musto

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



University of British Columbia

Primary Discipline

Kindergarten through college students perceive boys as more intelligent than girls. However, few studies have identified how boys rise to the top of the academic hierarchy or how race intersects with gender to shape students’ beliefs. Drawing on 2.5 years of longitudinal ethnography and 196 interviews at a racially diverse, public middle school in Los Angeles, this project demonstrates how academic tracking, school disciplinary processes, and educators’ pedagogical practices contribute to the social construction of exceptionalism in early adolescence. In the school’s higher-level classrooms, educators tolerated – and sometimes encouraged – White boys’ rule-breaking, despite discouraging similar forms of misbehavior from girls and Asian American boys. By comparison, in the school’s lower-level courses, educators penalized students – especially Latinx boys – for engaging in perceived misbehavior that went undisciplined elsewhere and among other groups at the school. Over the course of middle school, educators’ leniency served as a protective force that enabled White boys to become confident public speakers who dominated school activities where “natural” intelligence and leadership skills were considered integral to success. By 8th grade, students had learned to perceive White boys as the most exceptionally “well-rounded” students in school, thus offering new insight into how gender and racial inequalities operate in education.
About Michela Musto
Michela Musto is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia. Her research examines the contexts in which education reproduces inequality – including academically tracked classrooms, youth sports and other extracurricular activities, and collegiate athletics. Musto’s research has appeared in American Sociological Review, Gender & Society, and other academic journals. Musto’s in-progress book manuscript, tentatively titled Boys Will Be Boys, examines the social construction of exceptionalism in early adolescence. Prior to joining UBC, Musto was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Sanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and received a Ph.D. in Sociology and a graduate certificate in Gender Studies from the University of Southern California.

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