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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Culture, Race, Ethnicity and Achievement

Published by Robert Pondiscio on April 7, 2008
Nice piece of enterprise journalism turned in by the San Jose Mercury News (hat tip: Joanne Jacobs) on culture, race and ethnicity in Silicon Valley schools, which takes an unblinking look at cultural expectations of student performance among various ethnic groups. Among Latino kids:

“The 17-year-old seniors are called ‘whitewashed.’ Mataditas - dorks. Cerebritas - brainiacs,” the Mercury News reports. “They’re told they’re ‘losing their culture’ - just because Sandra has a 4.0 grade-point average and Bibiana has a 3.5. The put-downs are clear: Smart is not cool. And too many Latino students are choosing cool over school.” The paper contrasts this with a heavily Asian middle school nearby where the attitude is exactly the opposite. If you’re not smart, “you’re really looked down on,” says a Vietnamese-American eighth-grader.

“After years of tiptoeing around racial issues for fear of invoking stereotypes, California educators are now looking squarely at how ethnicity and culture shape achievement and attitudes toward school,” the paper reports.

More on this theme can be found in a recent report by researchers at Vanderbilt University, which found that gifted black students who underperform in school may do so because of peer pressure to “act black.”

The SJ Mercury News piece falls down somewhat with the inevitable quotes from educators, who apparently were never kids themselves, about making academic achievement “cool.” It might be more fruitful to demonstrate the cause-and-effect relationship between education and economic achievement. Having worked with poor black and Latino children in the South Bronx for years, it was all too easy to observe families who had been in the U.S. for several generations, for whom education no longer seemed to be a means to any viable end. Families of recent immigrants, by contrast, tended to be much more committed to education, regardless of ethnicity. As a teacher, I came to believe I still do that one of the most important strategies for long-term change is to do more, not less, for low-income, high-achieving students (the ability to read on or above grade level doesn’t meet the test for well-educated) to enhance their opportunities. Students and families need to see examples lots of them in their own communities who demonstrate the economic advantages of a good education. That’s plenty cool.

If you merely tell a kid that education is important, but doing well in school never did a thing for his parents, or their parents, he’s not a fool for not taking your word for it. But you might be for expecting him to. The triumph of hope over experience is not a turnaround strategy.

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