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Individual Differences


As the student population in the United States continues to become more ethnically diverse, the central challenge facing education is how to provide schooling experiences that maximize the participation and academic success of all students. The representation of ethnic minority students rose from 22 percent in 1972 to 38 percent in 2000, and is expected to increase dramatically through the year 2020, when more than two-thirds of the total public-school student population will be African American, Asian American, Hispanic, or Native American. Meanwhile, comparison studies continue to show a consistent gap in school achievement for various ethnic school populations.

Derived from the Greek term ethnos, meaning people, ethnicity refers to a sense of membership in and identification with a distinct group in which members perceive themselves, and are perceived by outside observers, to be bound together by a common origin, history, and culture. Cultural features that define an ethnic group include shared expectations for behavior, such as family roles, health practices, and work and recreational activities; shared values, such as religion, politics, and concepts of achievement, beauty, time and space; and shared symbols, such as language, art, music, and modes of dress. Although broad ethnic categories such as African American, Asian American, Hispanic, Native American, and white are used conventionally in the United States, there are, in fact, important national, linguistic, religious, tribal, regional, and generational differences within each of these broad categories.

Empirical Approaches: Cross-Cultural and Cultural Process

In the social sciences, two main approaches, distinct in their assumptions, foci, and methodologies, are used to investigate the role of ethnicity and culture in education: a cross-cultural approach and a cultural-process approach. In a cross-cultural approach, ethnicity and culture are viewed as separate from human behaviors. Cross-cultural researchers focus on the influence that ethnicity and culture have on human behavior. Alternatively, the cultural-process approach treats ethnicity and culture as interdependent with social processes; in other words, ethnicity and culture influence human interactions, and, at the same time, are constructed within those interactions.

Cross-cultural researchers tend to view ethnicity as relatively stable and fixed, while cultural-process researchers tend to view ethnicity as more dynamic with its content and boundaries continually under revision and redefinition. Cross-cultural researchers usually employ quantitative methodologies, such as survey questionnaires and experiments, with a focus on the attributes of individuals. Cultural-process researchers almost exclusively utilize qualitative methodologies, such as observations and interviews, with a focus on actions and interactions in context. For example, in studying parent involvement, a researcher using a cross-cultural approach might conduct a survey on a large sample of families from different ethnic groups to assess group differences in the amount of time parents spend on a variety of activities related to their child's schooling. A researcher using a cultural-process approach might interview parents from several ethnic groups on what it means to be involved with their child's school, while also engaging in an observational study of the interactions between students and parents, in order to detail the processes through which the parents engage with their children in their schoolwork. Ultimately, the combination of both a cross-cultural approach and a cultural-process approach is beneficial for a more in-depth understanding of the role of ethnicity and culture in education.

The Achievement Gap

The results of numerous cross-cultural studies indicate that many ethnic minority students are not faring well in U.S. schools. Ethnic group differences are found in school grades, standardized achievement tests, course enrollment, grade retention rates, high school graduation, and level of educational attainment. The achievement gap appears in the early school years, increases during the elementary school years, and persists through the secondary school years. While achievement gaps narrowed between 1971 and 1999, the average scores of African-American and Hispanic students have remained significantly below those of non-Hispanic white students.

Rates of grade retention tend to be higher for African-American and Hispanic students (particularly males), when compared to other groups. High school dropout rates tend to be highest for Hispanic students, followed by African-American students. African-American males tend to be disproportionately represented in special education classes. With the exception of Asian Americans, ethnic minority students are not adequately represented within programs for gifted and talented education (GATE).

In general, Asian-American students fare well academically, displaying high levels of performance on standard achievement indicators. With respect to the educational attainment level of students, high school graduation rates since 1971 have greatly increased overall for ethnic minority youth, however the rates in 2000 were lower for Hispanic and African-American students than for Asian-American and white students. Asian-American students, in general, show higher college graduation rates, as well as higher graduate degree attainment, than white students. It may be noted that for some of the cross-cultural studies, comparisons were not made across all of the major ethnic groups due to the relatively small sample sizes of Native American students and, in some cases, Asian-American students.

A number of issues require consideration in light of these general findings of ethnic group differences in school achievement. First, many studies do not account for socioeconomic differences, such as family income, parental employment and education, when examining ethnic groups. Given that the average socioeconomic status (SES) differs substantially among ethnic groups, the failure to disentangle ethnicity and SES can lead to erroneous interpretations. SES is a significant predictor of academic success, and ethnic minority families are disproportionately represented in the lower SES bracket. Moreover, schools with the highest proportion of low-income students are more likely to have fewer qualified teachers, have substantially fewer resources (computers, enrichment materials), and be located in a neighborhood with fewer informal educational resources (such as museums and libraries). Economic pressures at home, compounded by poor neighborhoods and poor schools, makes the separation of socioeconomic factors from ethnic cultural factors even more difficult. Thus, it is imperative for future studies to examine comparability as well as account for the disparities among ethnic groups with respect to SES levels.

Many educators and policymakers often perceive technology as a promising tool for leveling inequities in educational achievement. However, studies show that children who come from lower-income families (which are disproportionately ethnic minority families) have fewer computers in the home. The provision of updated educational technology within schools is uneven at best, and this, combined with unequal access within the home, limits such computer-based activities as homework completion, research, word processing of reports, and presentations.

Second, while many comparative studies typically focus on the major ethnic groups as broad groups, it is important to acknowledge that individual differences within each ethnic group are substantial. Such categorization may give the illusion of overall cultural similarity and obscure substantial national, tribal, or other subgroup differences. For example, the broad category of Asian Americans is comprised of diverse national backgrounds, including Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, Khmer, and Asian Indian. Additionally, much variation within an ethnic group is likely to exist with respect to variables such as gender, social class, generation/immigrant status, and level of assimilation.

Studies that examine differences within an ethnic group are useful for a variety of reasons. First, within-group studies may serve to weaken the uniform, and often stereotyped, views associated with particular ethnic groups. Second, studies of within-group differences in which the subgroups differ on various demographic variables would be helpful in understanding the role that variables such as generation/immigration status, level of assimilation, language, and socioeconomic status may play. Third, within-group studies may provide a further understanding of the cultural processes underlying achievement-related outcomes.

Theoretical Models Explaining the Achievement Gap

Researchers have attempted to explain the consistent achievement gap among ethnic groups from a number of different perspectives. The explanations offered may be grouped into three theoretical models. The first, a cultural deprivation, or deficit, model, explains the poor performance of ethnic minority students as the result of an impoverished and restricted home life. The underlying theory is that "culturally deprived" or "socially disadvantaged" students do not achieve because they lack a cognitively stimulating environment. Research may identify, for example, a lack of parental support, a low value placed on education, a language-poor environment, or even low intellectual capacity. The use of whites as the norm against which other ethnic minority groups are compared may perpetuate a deficit model in which ethnic minority groups are perceived as second-rate to the majority group.

The second theoretical model, the cultural difference model, points to differences in values, expectations, languages, and communication patterns between teachers and students–or between schools and families–as a source of difficulty for ethnic minority students. The underlying theory is that the social organization, learning formats and expectations, communication patterns, and sociolinguistic environment of schools are incongruent with the cultural patterns of different ethnic groups, and therefore limit the opportunities for student success. For some researchers in this area, the important differences exist at the level of interpersonal communication, where teachers and students are unable to fully understand each other. Important communicative differences may be identified at many levels, including formal language (e.g., English versus Spanish), conventions for interacting (e.g. distance between speakers, acceptable physical contact, and turn-taking rules), preferences for rhetorical style (e.g., the use of emotion in persuasion), and storytelling patterns.

A number of studies have also suggested that differences between social worlds, such as home and school, can be difficult for ethnic minority students to negotiate. For example, where U. S. public schooling tends to encourage independence, with competition and rewards for individual achievement, some ethnic groups may tend to encourage interdependence among members, with rewards for collaborative effort. Socialization practices also vary across ethnic groups, so that, for example, the parenting styles acceptable within one ethnic group may vary significantly from the parenting styles valued by schools and educators. Likewise, expectations for the role of parents in education may differ across ethnic groups, so that while some teachers expect active parent involvement at school, parents' conceptions of involvement may be altogether different. Additionally, some parenting practices may focus on social and observational learning and apprenticeship examples, and thus favor visual rather than auditory information processing. Insofar as early learning experiences may vary systematically by ethnic group, ethnicity can have important consequences for learning in (and out) of school.

Some researchers argue that the cultural difference model presumes ethnic differences to be inherently problematic when, in fact, it is the perception of differences and how people act on such perceived differences that is an important source of difficulty for minority students. These researchers typically utilize a cultural-process approach and focus on social interactions. Barriers to school success are identified by examining how students, teachers, and parents understand patterns of language use and socialization. In any case, the cultural difference model has made important contributions to understanding the relationship between ethnicity and school achievement by pointing out that children from different ethnic groups may vary in culturally patterned ways, some of which are relevant for educators.

A third theoretical model, which can be termed sociosystemic, moves outside the classroom in an effort to identify the social, economic, and political forces that contribute to the achievement gap. Researchers have come to recognize how differences in perceived economic opportunity affect the level of school engagement for ethnic minority students. For example, when students' families, peers, and community members hold beliefs that economic and social opportunities are limited, regardless of school achievement, students are far less likely to engage in meaningful ways with formal educational activities. Such beliefs may lead to a youth's active resistance to school or a "disidentification" with schooling overall (i.e., when students are apathetic or disaffected toward schooling). Some studies have identified patterns of differences within ethnic minority groups, where school achievement varies according to the conditions of one's minority status. Specifically, members of voluntary minority groups, including those who immigrated for improved economic opportunity, often do better in school than members of involuntary minority groups, such as those who were colonized or whose residency was forced (e.g., through slavery). Research utilizing a sociosystemic model has also identified schools as the places where societal pressure to assimilate is most keenly perceived–and often resisted. Many researchers and practitioners, for example, have noted that student peer groups link school achievement to the acceptance or rejection of various identities.

Each of the theoretical models on the achievement gap–cultural deficit, cultural difference, and sociosystemic–corresponds with specific policies (federal, state, regional, district, school), curricula, and teaching practices seeking to narrow the gap. Within the cultural deficit model, educators are encouraged to intervene as early as possible in children's development. Many federal and state programs, such as Head Start, focus on the compensation of deficits. From the cultural difference model, schools and teachers are encouraged to make better use of the knowledge and practices of diverse cultures and to form home—school connections. The various forms of multicultural education also derive from a basic cultural difference model, as do some bilingual education programs. Also included in this model are recent efforts to develop theories and practices of culturally-relevant pedagogy, an approach to teaching that modifies both curriculum and communication to reflect the diverse cultural practices of students. The cultural difference model appears to decrease the pressure on children to conform to mainstream culture standards, yet increase the pressure on teachers and schools to transform their practices to better reflect the diversity that is present around them.

For those with a sociosystemic perspective, repairing the achievement gap demands a commitment to an ongoing examination of the social and political systems, along with direct action to counter systemic bias. Few formal policies or programs with this model exist, although critical theory and criticalpedagogy are actively promoted within this perspective. Critical theory seeks to make systemic injustice visible and critical pedagogy encourages teachers and students to understand and contend with stereotyping, racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice.

Because of the tremendous variation within any ethnic group, it would be inappropriate to make generalizations about the needs and abilities of any individual student based solely on his or her membership in a given ethnic group. That said, there is no doubt that variation does exist along several lines, and educators should be aware of this. Perhaps most important of all, members of the teaching and learning community should be reflective of their own perceptions and actions with respect to all learners. It must be recognized that just as schools themselves vary, so do the students within them. Schools are the spaces where a great deal of a youth's development occurs, and on multiple levels, including academic achievement, identity, and social competence. In the end, ethnicity and culture must become part of the face of education in order to reflect and better serve our youth as they encounter an increasingly diverse world.


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