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Education researchers struggle with the fact that students arrive at school already shaped by their unequal childhoods. Would we see greater gains among less privileged students if they had a more level playing field?

I wrestle with these questions in Digital Divisions: How Schools Create Inequality in the Tech Era (University of Chicago Press, August 2020) by studying digital technology use at three middle schools. In the contemporary moment, kids’ digital skills appear in the form of their digital play with peers, like through social media use, video gaming, and creating online content. Drawing on six hundred hours of observation and over one hundred interviews with teachers, administrators, and students, Digital Divisions documents how teachers differently treat these very similar digital skills differently by school demographic.


At a school with mostly wealthy and White youth, digital play is seen as a resource that will help in class and prepare students to be the next big tech CEO. At a school for mostly middle class, Asian-American youth, kids’ digital pursuits are seen as threatening to learning and as such these activities are routinely punished. At a school for mostly working class, Latinx students, teachers dismiss the value of digital play in favor of rote skills, like keyboarding, that they believe will prepare their students for the contemporary factory floor.

While existing work focuses on the role of parenting in shaping cultural inequality, Digital Divisions offers an in-depth portrait of how teachers operate as gatekeepers for students’ potential – and differently by the race and class of their student body.

Photo by Diego Passadori.

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