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Ethnicity Race and Culture - Latino Growth, Racial And Ethnic Minority Students In Higher Education - CULTURAL EXPECTATIONS AND STUDENT LEARNING

american school academic schooling

Jerome E. Morris

David E. Hayes-Bautista

Shederick A. McClendon
Lamont A. Flowers


Students learn–whether in school or out. Of significance for the educational and scholarly communities is the extent to which certain kinds of learning are conducive to mainstream academic achievement within the context of formal educational institutions. The presumption is that a student's ability to acquire mainstream academic content and then demonstrate mastery of the content (often defined as learning and usually measured by standardized assessments) will lead to greater knowledge and to social and economic benefits in the dominant society. In multiracial and multiethnic societies such as the United States, a pressing issue is the various ways in which race, ethnicity, and culture might influence student learning in formal educational settings. This concern emanates from the fact that scores of students from some racial and ethnic minority groups do not "achieve" in schools at rates comparable either to those of European-American students or to those of students from other racial and ethnic minority groups. In order to examine how students' race, ethnicity, and culture might influence learning, however, one must first examine the assumptions that underlie these concepts.

Race is not a biological category but a social construction that is given meaning and significance in specified historical, political, and social contexts. Historically, race has been predicated on phenotypic characteristics that mark "racial differences" in order to legitimate prejudice and discrimination on the basis of these supposed differences. As noted by Michael Omi and Howard Winant in their influential book Racial Formation in the United States (1994), the formation of race is social and historical in nature. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, most within the scholarly community no longer use biosocial terms such as race and embrace ethnicity instead. In the United States and Europe, ethnicity is commonly associated with membership in a non-dominant group (not of predominant European ancestry) and is perceived as constituting a different culture–in terms of language, style of dress, political consciousness and worldview, foods, music, and so on–than that of the dominant group. Membership status within ethnic groups can sometimes be negotiated, situational, or optional, particularly for some white ethnics. In comparison to the concept of race, ethnicity is a mutable and more flexible category.

Embracing ethnicity in place of race has shifted the discourse around human difference from one that is biological in nature to one that is greatly shaped by nurture, culture, and historical experiences. The change in terminology, however, does not automatically change the privileges and social disadvantages of being identified and categorized as a member of a particular group. Historically, such identities and categories shaped a number of theoretical perspectives that attempted to explain academic school success or failure among various groups of students. While these perspectives are chronologically outlined below, the fact that one particular paradigm was the dominant paradigm during a particular time period does not mean that other (and equally convincing) paradigms did not also exist. Nor does it mean that theories that once predominated are no longer appropriated as explanatory models.

Theoretical Explanations of Differing Academic Achievement and Learning

Of the proponents of different theoretical perspectives used to explain student achievement, the ones that have provoked the greatest degree of controversy–the geneticists–place ethnicity and race at the center of their thesis. In general, geneticists view race as static and as a major determinant of one's intellectual capabilities.

Geneticists. The geneticists consider the differences in academic achievement among various groups of students (often measured by test scores) as indicative of the innate intelligence of certain groups, rather than a product of socioeconomic, historical, and cultural factors. During the first half of the twentieth century, geneticists such as Lewis Terman and Henry Goddard considered the low performance on intelligence tests of some racial, ethnic, and linguistic minorities to be a reflection of these groups' genetic inferiority. These theorists attempted to "prove" that some European ethnic minorities (Jews, Hungarians, Italians, and Russians) and Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans were inferior. This perspective, however, did not go unchallenged. African-American social scientists, in particular Horace Mann Bond, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Allison Davis, critiqued the studies that tried to prove African-American intellectual inferiority. Nevertheless, remnants of this belief continue to germinate within the academy, as exemplified by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles H. Murray's 1996 book, The Bell Curve. For instance, in this book the authors assert that a major reason why some groups in society today do not achieve in schools might be connected more to rank-and-file notions of intellectual inferiority than to persistent economic, structural, cultural, and historic forces.

Cultural deprivation. Emanating out of the thrust to eradicate poverty in the United States and rejecting the geneticists' arguments, cultural deprivation theorists during the 1960s viewed academic differences on standardized measures as a result of nurture–or lack thereof–rather than nature. Proponents of cultural deprivation theories attributed the academic failure among some ethnic and racial minorities to the failure of some students' families to transmit the values and cultural patterns necessary for the students to achieve in mainstream academic institutions. The deprivation paradigm guided the formulation of most programs and pedagogies for low-income populations during the 1960s such as Head Start and other compensatory educational programs.

Considered enlightened during its time, cultural deprivation theorists believed that schools should assist low-income and racial and ethnic minority students in overcoming deficits caused by their families and communities; the best time to intervene was early childhood. A landmark Research Conference on Education and Cultural Deprivation convened in Chicago, Illinois, in 1964 and included participants such as Benjamin Bloom, Erik Erikson, Edmund Gordon, and Thomas Pettigrew. Influential books that focused on addressing the needs of the "culturally deprived" included The Culturally Deprived Child, by Frank Riessman, published in 1962; Education in Depressed Areas, edited in 1963 by A. Harry Passow; and Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation, edited in 1965 by Benjamin Bloom, Allison Davis, and Robert Hess.

Cultural difference and learning styles. Also during the 1960s, anthropologists began to challenge cultural deprivation theories by positing an alternative view of the academic failures of ethnic and racial minority students. This new group of theorists argued that the extent to which students learned or did not learn in schools reflected the cultural differences of the groups, which were either congruent with or incongruent with the dominant culture of schools. Building on this view, sociolinguists during the 1970s followed by asserting that differences in culture resulted in cultural and linguistic conflicts between students and their teachers, many of whom were white. This shifted part of the discourse from the notion that some groups' cultures were deficient toward the notion that cultures varied. An assumption, therefore, was that racially and ethnically diverse students' learning could be enhanced if there was cultural congruence or synchronization between the home and the school, and if the schooling experiences resonated with the unique cognitive or learning styles and cultural patterns of students.

Examples of the scholarship that documented this variation among cultures include Manuel Ramírez III and Alfredo Castañeda's 1974 book Cultural Democracy, Bicognitive Development, and Education, which describes Mexican-American students as field-dependent learners, in comparison to white students who are described as field independent. Native American and African-American students are also considered field-dependent learners. The research on African-American students' cognitive styles has generated much debate in the scholarly community. Significant scholarly contributions include Janice Hale-Benson's 1986 book, Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles; Barbara J. Shade's 1982 article, "Afro-American Cognitive Styles: A Variable in School Success?"; and A. Wade Boykin's 1986 chapter, "The Triple Quandary and the Schooling of Afro-American Children." In general, these scholars assert that the instructional strategies used in schools do not work well with African-American students, and consequently, many do not experience academic success. Teaching strategies proposed to increase students' academic achievement include creating settings that are conducive to their learning styles such as cooperative environments, informal class discussions, a focus on larger concepts, and the de-emphasis of competition. Nevertheless, while these scholars find great value and potential in the research into learning styles for enhancing the achievement of students from diverse cultural backgrounds, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine and Darlene Eleanor York, in their exhaustive literature review from 1995, "Learning Styles and Culturally Diverse Students: A Literature Review," cautioned against using this body of research to automatically categorize students' styles of learning primarily on the basis of cultural characteristics.

Nevertheless, the cultural difference view of students' schooling experiences will remain a viable explanation because of an increasingly heterogeneous student population in which nonwhite students accounted for more than 30 percent of the school-age population at the end of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the teaching force in the United States is more than 90 percent white. Whereas proponents of the cultural difference paradigm would not assume that all white teachers are unable to teach these students, they would, however, continue to assert that for some students, this imbalance fosters the kind of cultural incongruence that leads to school failure. The curriculum and the school environment serve as major areas in which this incongruence becomes manifested.

Multicultural perspective. With roots in the ethnic studies movement of the 1960s, multicultural education and cultural-centered approaches suggest infusing a multicultural ethos into schooling experiences, so as to reaffirm the social, cultural, and historical experiences of students from diverse cultural backgrounds. Though varied in the extent of the infusion and the scope of their critique of mainstream education, in general, multiculturalists such as James A. Banks, Geneva Gay, and Carl Grant, as well as proponents of ethnic-centered paradigms such as Molefi Asante (an advocate of Afrocentric education), assert that the European-American culture of schools distorts the history, culture, and background of students from non-European backgrounds. They note that the knowledge that school officials and society expect children to acquire often invalidates these students' cultural experiences. These scholars believe that an infusion of multicultural education and/or cultural-centered education can be part and parcel of the solution to improving the academic achievement of students from these diverse cultural backgrounds. They propose teaching students in ways that are culturally synchronized, culturally centered, empowering, and culturally relevant. This infusion would move beyond an additive approach and would transform the entire schooling experiences for students. Published sources that capture the arguments and critiques of multicultural and cultural-centered education include Multicultural Education: Transformative Knowledge and Action, edited by Banks and published in 1996, and Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education, edited by Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks and published in 1995.

Structural explanations. Still another view subscribes to the notion that larger societal forces are key determinants of student learning, as are the cultural forces within a particular ethnic or racial community. For example, this view asserts that race, ethnicity, and culture are more likely to predict what educators and schools expect of students, rather than whether students will learn and achieve in schools. Proponents of this view note how some educators often create a self-fulfilling prophecy in relation to students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds: Teachers' expectations of students greatly shape student learning and achievement. Structural inequalities that can have deleterious consequences for students' learning may entail the limited access to knowledge and resources, the systematic denial of formal schooling, state-sanctioned discrimination, and gross disparities in the level of school funding. Moreover, proponents of this view assert that contemporary examples of structural inequalities include differential levels of quality teaching for some students, as well as the disproportionate placement of some racial and ethnic minority group members into the lowest academic tracks. African-American and Latino students are disproportionately placed in lower academic tracks, in comparison to white and Asian students. Jeannie Oakes's book on academic tracking, Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, published in 1985, and Kenneth J. Meier, Joseph Stewart Jr., and Robert E. England's 1989 book on second-generation discrimination, Race, Class, and Education: The Politics of Second-Generation Discrimination, were pivotal in bringing to light the structural inequalities embedded in schooling students from diverse racial and ethnic groups.

Differing cultural expectations and the impact on school experiences. Another position within this range of theories suggests that students' learning and achievement in schools reflect the values, beliefs, and traditions of some racial/ethnic groups, which may place a greater or lesser emphasis on achieving in the dominant educational context. John U. Ogbu's scholarship captures the essence of this view by asserting that the extent to which many members of some minority groups fail in mainstream schools can be linked to the way different minority groups enter into a society and, thereby, approach schooling. Ogbu's comparative research on immigrant and nonimmigrant minorities radically shifted the discourse by suggesting that a macro level of analysis should be considered when investigating why students from some minority groups achieve in school at greater rates than others.

Using a cultural ecological model to explain school failure, Ogbu developed a typology of ethnic groups based on the groups' entry into the dominant society: voluntary or immigrant minorities (which include Asian Americans, recent African immigrants, and immigrants from the Caribbean) and involuntary or nonimmigrant minority groups such as African Americans and Native Americans. In general, Ogbu noted that voluntary immigrant groups are more likely to accept the dominant achievement ideology, which holds the meritocratic view that hard work and motivation pay off. For example, although Asian-American students might come from different countries and also embrace cultural practices that starkly contrast with the dominant Anglo-American culture of schools, in general these students are more likely to be academically successful in the host society because of the way they approach the schooling process. On the other hand, students from nonimmigrant or involuntary minority groups are least likely to accept the dominant achievement model and are, therefore, more likely to resist schooling.

Building on Ogbu's theory were two 1986 publications: the highly cited article "Black Students' School Success: Coping with the Burden of Acting White," written by Signithia Fordham and Ogbu, and the book To Be Popular or Smart: The Black Peer Group, written by Jawanzaa Kunjufu. The latter work asserted that dominated (involuntary) minority groups develop secondary cultural characteristics as a resistive measure to a dominant white framework. Because of secondary cultural characteristics, some of these students do not achieve for fear of being labeled as trying to "act white." For many of these students, schooling becomes a culturally subtractive, rather than an additive, process.

Ogbu's thesis has been criticized as a "blaming the victim" approach because of its heavy emphasis on those factors and practices of the cultural group that contribute to school failure. Some scholars criticize Ogbu's model for being overly deterministic, note that it fails to capture the variation within groups, and assert that it overgeneralizes about some populations of students. In particular, Carla O'Connor posited in 1999 that ethnographic studies of involuntary immigrant groups (e.g., African-American students) should address the multiplicity of ways that students approach schooling, by also noting the heterogeneity that is present within social groups.

The Future

The literature on how race, ethnicity, and culture affect the learning of students from non-European minority groups in the United States has over-whelmingly focused on school failure, rather than resilience. Nevertheless, an understanding of the various theoretical perspectives that have been used to explain the school performance of students from some racial and ethnic groups provides a backdrop for anticipating future schooling prospects for these children. The issues are complicated because notions of race, ethnicity, and culture are not static concepts and are not so easily definable. Therefore, proceeding with caution is essential when appropriating any one particular paradigm to explain how these concepts influence student learning. Clearly some paradigms can be dismissed, while others might be most appropriate given certain contexts. Nevertheless, the influence of race, ethnicity, and culture on students' schooling experiences will continue to be debated well into the twenty-first century.


BANKS, JAMES A., ed. 1996. Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge, and Action: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York: Teachers College Press.

BANKS, JAMES A., and BANKS, CHERRY A. MCGEE, eds. 1995. Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education. New York: Macmillan.


ROBERT, eds. 1996. Compensatory Education for Cultural Deprivation. Chicago: University of Chicago.

BOYKIN, A. WADE. 1986. "The Triple Quandary and the Schooling of Afro-American Children." In The School Achievement of Minority Children, ed. Ulric Neisser. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

FOLEY, DOUGLAS E. 1991. "Reconsidering Anthropological Explanations of School Failure." Anthropology and Education Quarterly 22:60–86.


"Black Students' School Success: Coping with the Burden of Acting White." Urban Review 18:176–206.

HALE-BENSON, JANICE E. 1986. Black Children: Their Roots, Culture, and Learning Styles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

HERRNSTEIN, RICHARD J., and MURRAY, CHARLES. 1996. The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.


ELEANOR. 1995. "Learning Styles and Culturally Diverse Students: A Literature Review." In Handbook of Research on Multicultural Education, ed. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks. New York: Macmillan.

KUNJUFU, JAWANZAA. 1986. To Be Popular or Smart: The Black Peer Group. Chicago: African American Images.

MEIER, KENNETH J.; STEWART, JOSEPH, JR.; and ENGLAND, ROBERT E. 1989. Race, Class, and Education: The Politics of Second-Generation Discrimination. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

OAKES, JEANNIE. 1985. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

O'CONNOR, CARLA. 1999. "Race, Class, and Gender in America: Narratives of Opportunity among Low-Income African American Youths." Sociology of Education 72:137–157.

OGBU, JOHN U. 1978. Minority Education and Caste: The American System in Cross-Cultural Perspective. New York: Academic Press.

OGBU, JOHN U. 1991. "Immigrant and Involuntary

Minorities in Comparative Perspective." In Minority Status and Schooling: A Comparative Study of Immigrant and Involuntary Minorities, ed. John Ogbu and Margaret Gibson. New York: Garland.

OMI, MICHAEL, and WINANT, HOWARD. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

PASSOW, A. HARRY, ed. 1963. Education in Depressed Areas. New York: New York Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.

RAMÍREZ, MANUEL, III, and CASTAÑEDA, ALFREDO. 1974. Cultural Democracy, Bicognitive Development, and Education. New York: Academic Press.

RIESSMAN, FRANK. 1962. The Culturally Deprived Child. New York: Harper.

SHADE, BARBARA J. 1982. "Afro-American Styles: A Variable in School Success?" Review of Educational Research 52:219–244.

TERMAN, LEWIS. 1916. The Measure of Intelligence: An Explanation of and a Complete Guide for the Use of the Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.

WATERS, MARY C. 1990. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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