Dr. Cecilia Rios-Aguilar is an Associate Professor of Education at the School of Educational Studies. Dr. Rios-Aguilar’s research is multidisciplinary and uses a variety of conceptual frameworks—funds of knowledge and the forms of capital—and of statistical approaches—regression analysis, multilevel models, structural equation modeling, GIS, and social network analysis—to study the educational and occupational trajectories of under-represented minorities, including Latina/os, English learners, low-income, and immigrant and second-generation students. Most recently, Dr. Rios-Aguilar and her colleague Dr. Regina Deil-Amen, received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to conduct the first study to assess how community colleges adopt and use social media technology for strategic purposes.


In 2008, William Tate (past president of AERA) used maps to describe the geography of opportunity in two metropolitan regions of the United States that were engaged in efforts to transform their local political economies. His maps helped visualize that urban centers consisted largely of census blocks where residents bachelor’s degree attainment was much lower compared to places where biotechnology centers were strategically located. This finding (combined with other spatial patterns he found) strongly suggested that an uneven geography of opportunity was present in these regions. Tate, then, urged educators and scholars to think more critically about the way geography affects educational and occupational opportunities, particularly those of under-represented students (and their families and communities).

Tate’s findings and logic have extended to various locations and to many different social and educational outcomes.  For example, using census data, scholars have created maps to show that low-performing schools, non-prestigious colleges and universities, and low-income and immigrant families are all concentrated in specific areas usually characterized as “deprived”, “undesirable”, or “not-so-hot” places.

Conceptually, what we have learned from these maps is that space matters in determining the educational opportunity of under-represented students, families, and communities. Methodologically, what we have learned is how to utilize available technological tools, such as GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to improve the way we represent space(s) and attendant sociocultural processes and outcomes.  Basically, we now have developed effective, efficient, and sophisticated ways of depicting “problematic” locations. These maps are much more appealing than looking simply at various statistics. They are dynamic, colorful, and most importantly, they tell compelling stories: The same ones we have heard over and over again.

While I think we now have newer tools to visualize so-called “deprived” places, I don’t think the maps and the technology associated with creating these maps—GIS—are helping us to better understand the specific ways in which space affects educational opportunity. We have been busy and worried about mapping (a practice I describe as mapping for the sake of mapping) that we have forgotten to engage in a discussion of how we can change the patterns we have spent so much time drawing in various colors and in three dimensions.

So, my task as a scholar interested in producing research that matters for improving educational opportunity was to learn more about GIS, maps, space, and how these concepts and related methodological tools intersect with notions of equity, power, and social justice.  In 2009, my colleagues at the University of Arizona and I presented a paper at the American Sociological Association (ASA) titled: “Neighborhoods Matter: Conceptualizing and Estimating Neighborhood Effects in Educational Research Using Geospatial Methods”.

Basically, we used school service areas, instead of census tracts, to re-define neighborhoods. Then, with our newly defined neighborhoods, we built neighborhood indices that, in our opinion, captured a more complex reality of the spaces we were studying in Arizona. While not perfect, our alternative definition and our newly constructed neighborhood indices showed that the relationship between neighborhoods and school outcomes is different from what traditional research had shown. Basically, we found lower levels of “deprivation” in neighborhoods with a high concentration of immigrants. Such a finding suggests that, similar to arguments presented by Small (2008), neighborhoods/communities are more complex than their essentialized definitions like “ghetto” and “barrio” and “deprived” would presume.

We also found that not all types of “disadvantage” in neighborhoods are associated with school achievement in the same way. It is not simply neighborhood “disadvantage” that matters, but the type of neighborhood “disadvantage”.  Our findings provide evidence to support the fact that resource-challenged Latino communities seem to suffer greater adverse neighborhood effects on educational outcomes than do also other resource-challenged communities of blue collar and non-economic African and Asian immigrants. The most recent research on neighborhood effects and school opportunities for African American children support our findings. DeLuca and Rosenblatt (2012) found that even when families decide move to more affluent neighborhoods (as a result of federal housing and school choice opportunities) there are no long-term educational gains for their children. They cite a number of reasons why this was the case, but most importantly, they mention that families’ residential and educational opportunities were severely constrained by structural forces (e.g., rental market) and by parent’s ties to schools.

Finally, our study showed that immigration is key to an understanding the relationship between neighborhoods and schools, especially in neighborhoods and regions of the U.S. where predominantly Latina(o) families live. Research that carefully considers this phenomenon is still in its infancy and need to be expanded. Prior theory and analyses have focused primarily on African-American communities. In a city like Tucson (where we draw data from), that is located so close to the border with Mexico, and at the vanguard of national demographic shifts, it is indispensible to examine how immigration affects the relationship between schools and neighborhoods/communities. Furthermore, patterns of immigration today reveal it as a social force that affects all regions of the U.S., not just particular pockets on the East and West coasts and in the Southwest.

Since we presented our paper at the ASA, I have read many articles and books on the topic, and I have also attended several conferences and workshops on GIS. I have found that, for the most part, educators, scholars, and policymakers are fascinated with maps.  Sadly, the practice of mapping for the sake of mapping continues to permeate our field. But, I have also learned that some scholars, like Edward Soja, are helping us re-think how space under-represented students’ educational trajectories (from early childhood to labor market participation). We must do a better job at involving marginalized students, families, and communities to inform our GIS data, mapping making, analyses and interpretation. They have the knowledge that we need to improve our research. We also must include in our analyses various sources of data (e.g., educational institutions, non-profit organizations governmental agencies) and technologies (an array of software and social media) to capture the complexity of space in our scholarship. Failing to better understand how space intersects with educational opportunity will perpetuate the idea that only certain spaces are valuable and worthy of our investments, thus perpetuating inequities.


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One Response to “Mapping (In)Opportunity in Educational Research by Cecilia Rios-Aguilar”

  1. William Tate on 10/29/13 12:59 AM US/Eastern

    I appreciate where you are heading with your research. Enjoyed the review.

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