washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Unconventional Wisdom
Richard Morin

The Name Game Is No Game

By Richard Morin
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page B05

Here's a reason to think twice before naming your newborn Ashlee, Da'Quan or LaQuisha: Economist David Figlio says his research shows that children with such names fare worse in school than siblings with more typical first names.

And it's not the children's fault, says Figlio, a professor at the University of Florida. He argues that teachers subconsciously expect less from students with first names that have unusual spellings and punctuation. As a consequence, he says, these boys and girls suffer in terms of the quality of the attention and instruction they get in the classroom -- differences that show up on test day.

_____Unconventional Wisdom_____
Aid From the Gray Lady? (The Washington Post, Mar 13, 2005)
Dollars and Scents (The Washington Post, Feb 27, 2005)
Up in Smoke (The Washington Post, Feb 13, 2005)
Previous Columns
E-mail Rich Morin at morinr@washpost.com.

Figlio said these kids also pay a price for their names when teachers and administrators make decisions about who gets promoted to the next grade level or selected to participate in "gifted" student programs: "Drews" are slightly more likely to be recommended for enrichment classes while "Damarcuses" are rejected, even when they have identical test scores.

"I find that teachers tend to treat children differently depending on their names, and that these same patterns apparently translate into large differences in test scores," Figlio asserts in a working paper published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research. "These results are consistent with the notion that teachers and school administrators may subconsciously expect less of students with names associated with low socio-economic status . . . and these expectations may possibly become a self-fulfilling prophesy."

Figlio first attempted to quantify names that connote low socioeconomic status. He used birth certificate data from all children born in Florida between 1989 and 1996 to identify first names that had a high probability of being associated with a mother who was unmarried or a teenager at the time when her child was born, was a high school dropout and came from an impoverished family, independent of the mother's race. He then computed what he dubbed the "Scrabble" score of each name, giving points for infrequently appearing consonants, an apostrophe or names formed by multiple syllables. "These names, empirically, are given most frequently by blacks, but they are also given by white and Hispanic parents as well" -- with similarly debilitating effects for children of all races, he found. (Exotic names popular with less affluent white families included "Jazzmyn" and "Chlo'e," he wrote in an e-mail.)

Then he used detailed data on 55,046 children in 24,298 families with two or more children collected in the late 1990s from a large school district in Florida. He analyzed the records to see how children with these sorts of name variants fared in school compared to their brothers and sisters who had less unusual names.

In exchange for access to student records, including their names, Figlio promised not to reveal the name of the school district or identify individual students in any way.

To measure student classroom performance, he used scores based on the Stanford-8 or Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which are administered annually by the state to students in selected grade levels. He also controlled for the student's birth weight (a measure of the adequacy of prenatal care), parental ages, martial status and educational achievement, and other variables known to play a role in a student's development and academic performance.

Figlio determined that children with names associated with low socioeconomic status scored lower on their reading and mathematics tests than their siblings with less race or class-identifiable names.

He also tested Asian-sounding names and found a pattern that also seemed rooted in a racial stereotype: Students with identifiable "Asian" first names were more likely to be recommended for special enrichment programs than siblings with more stereotypically American first names and similar test scores.

Of course first names are not destiny, Figlio said. Lots of kids with unusual names have flourished in school while Marys, Johns and Davids have floundered. Nor is he suggesting that parents stick with the same old names. But, he said, names can have a subtle effect, and teachers need to be aware of this potential bias.

Those Superstitious Boys of Summer

Play ball!

But first, make sure you use your lucky toothbrush. Or always shower in the same stall. Or chew three sticks of gum before the start of a game -- not one stick, or two, or four. And by all means, don't forget to re-tie your shoe during the sixth inning.

Those were some of the superstitious behaviors reported by 50 Major League Baseball players in the United States and 27 in Japan who were interviewed as part of a study by psychologists Jerry M. Burger and Amy L. Lynn of Santa Clara University.

CONTINUED    1 2    Next >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company