Micere Keels

The Long View: Understanding Children's Development in Context

At first glance, the subjects of Micere Keels’ research seem generally connected—race, poverty, childhood, gentrification, education, violence—but upon closer look, they are all part of a continuum: how a difficult upbringing can have an impact not just later in life, but in later generations. 

“I was always interested in inequality,” says the associate professor, Department of Comparative Human Development, of her decision to study human development and social policy at Northwestern. After receiving her PhD there, she put down roots in the area and now conducts research focusing on various Chicago neighborhoods and public schools. 

Currently, Keels is working on a website called Edtalkproject.org, where she translates her work into layman’s terms to make it more accessible to the public. One such example is her recent work regarding children’s exposure to violence in Chicago. Only a small percentage of Chicago’s worst violence against children is brought to public attention, she says, using the example of the 2015 murder of nine-year-old Tyshawn Lee. “A lot of the public narrative is, ‘this is such an awful, egregious, and spectacular thing, but it’s just a single incident,’” she says. “But looking at the data, this is not out of the ordinary.” In fact, she says, there are many Chicago neighborhoods where that type of violence is a typical occurrence and thus doesn’t receive as much attention. In order to make this information more visible and to draw attention to the fact that many, instead of a few, Chicago neighborhoods need support, she’s working on another website to integrate her data with individual stories of violence. “We need those individual stories to make people care.” Ultimately, she thinks the city should consider implementing programs such as Trauma Informed Schools, where teachers and administrators “assume that the kids are under constant stress and as such think about how they deliver education rather than thinking, ‘When an incident occurs, then we’ll provide the kids support.’” 

This focus also relates to one issue she has examined, which is the effect gentrification has on various Chicago neighborhoods. After conducting research in the University Village area of the city, she discovered that families who settle in socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods don’t typically send their children to the local schools, which often are low-performing and remain that way when many students are sent out of the area to charter, magnet, or public schools. 

Keels’ work also looks ahead to college-aged students. “If you look at the most striking numbers among black college students, 35%% of black college students are men.” Keels has looked at how this disparity may relate to early childhood educational experiences. “Girls appear to do better in a structured educational context: they are less likely to misbehave and to receive disciplinary sanctions.” Meanwhile, she says, when it comes to minority boys, “if they do misbehave, it appears that minority boys are more likely to get the strongest sanctions; to miss class time and to have a lot of negative experiences.” Keels’ research shows that even from the very start of school, minority boys are more likely to “have experiences that just begin to disengage them from educational contexts.”

This educational disparity then trickles down to future generations, Keels has found. “What are the consequences of the fact that black boys have all of these negative educational experiences and are then less likely to graduate high school or go to college?” she says. She has discovered that many college-educated minority women choose to become single mothers because they find it difficult to see their partners as “suitable marriage partners” due to their abbreviated education. This results in difficulty finding a job to support the family. More single mothers, Keels says, often means less resources to raise children, and the cycle repeats itself. “With regards to racial and ethnic gaps in education, the experiences of these the boys have larger consequences,” she says. 

In forthcoming research, Keels is further examining the role the education gap plays for minority students. She’s following 500 black and Latino college freshman for their first four years of college to better understand their transition to college and their success while there. “Getting a college degree has become so important in wage inequality so I’m looking at the factors that are going to impact their success.” 

- Claire Zulkey