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Dr. Yasmiyn Irizarry: Closing the Achievement Gap

Image of professor Dr. Yasmiyn Irizarry, assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, is a quantitative sociologist who studies inequality in elementary and high school contexts. Read on to learn more about her research on racial/ethnic disparities in mathematics tracking.

Developing a love of sociology through personal experiences…Dr. Irizarry began college as a bio-chemistry major, but fell in love with sociology while fulfilling an elective. “My Intro to Sociology instructor assigned an article on tracking, specifically on a phenomenon called racialized tracking, which is extremely common in racially integrated schools. On the outside, the school appears to be diverse, but this diversity is not reflected across classrooms and academic tracks. Picture a school where black and/or Latina/o students fill almost every seat in lower level courses, but are nearly absent in the highest courses and tracks. I didn’t need to imagine this scenario or the possible consequences because I lived it just like the authors described. From that point forward, I wanted to learn everything I could about sociology.”

Interest in social justice… “My father was an activist and my mother was a social worker. We didn’t have much, but my parents were rich in cultural capital. They inspired my love of learning and encouraged my questioning nature. I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, which is an area with extreme amounts of inequality, including stark racial and economic divides. Even though it was so obvious, my friends and I rarely spoke about it, because it was all we knew. But I never stopped wondering why so much poverty was surrounded by so much wealth, and why mostly black and brown cities were surrounded by mostly white suburbs. Maybe in some ways I always sensed it was wrong or that it didn’t make sense.”

Researching disparities in math course taking… “White and Asian students are much more likely to take advanced mathematics than black and Latina/o students. Why are black and Latina/o students so underrepresented in advanced math courses? I don’t buy the argument that these students just aren’t ‘math people,’ because the concept of being ‘a math person’ is itself a social construction. I want to understand the mechanisms that drive this inequality because math matters in so many ways.” Dr. Irizarry’s current research shows that black and nonwhite Latina/o students are at greater risk of being moved off of the advanced math track during the transition to high school, even after accounting for students’ final math grades and test performance.

Inspired and challenged by her students … “Part of my job as a teacher is to introduce students to new ideas, develop their analytical skills, and motivate them to think more critically about the social world and present social context. One of my favorite things about working at UT Austin is that my students are extremely engaged and motivated. I am inspired to be the best teacher and scholar I can because when I enter the classroom, they really bring it. I especially love when students surprise me with questions or insights that challenge me to think even more deeply about a topic.”