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Achievement Gaps
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What are the Achievement Gaps?

  1. Achievement Gap in Race

    1. Hispanic Students

How to Explain Latino Students’ Poor Academic Achievement? School Factors Should Play an Important Role

Gilberto Conchas surveys one common explanation for Latino students’ poor academic performance and suggests how this explanation needs to be refined.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Conchas, G. Q. (2001). Structuring failure and success: Understanding the variability in Latino school engagement.Harvard Educational Review, 71,475-504. Retrieved August 8, 2002 from ProQuest database.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Why are low-income Latino students typically less successful in school than their white or Asian peers? Gilberto Conchas, a sociologist at Harvard University, examines the “Cultural Ecology” way of explaining Latinos’ underachievement. Conchas identifies the problems with this explanation and proposes ways in which this kind of explanation can be refined.

The “Cultural Ecology” Explanation

According to Conchas, the most common explanation for Latino students’ underachievement has been a “cultural ecological” one, such as that proposed by John Ogbu. Such explanations suggest that minority groups’ poor academic achievement results from their perceptions that the opportunity structure is stacked against them. That is, they perceive that racism in the work force, education, and other areas all limit their social mobility.

According to Conchas, cultural ecologists point in particular to the differences between voluntary and involuntary minorities.

  • Voluntary minorities. Theseare groups such as the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Cuban-Americans, Filipino-Americans, and West Indians who moved to the United States willingly,often for economic, social, or political motivations. Even though people in such minorities may perceive and be affected by racism, they retain an optimism about their future chances and a view that life in the United States is nonetheless better than the life they left at home. These groups tend not to suffer from academic underachievement.
  • Involuntary minorities. Theseinclude groups such as African Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans and Native Americans that, historically speaking, were incorporated into American society as a result of slavery, conquest, or colonization. According to the cultural ecology explanation, such groups may be unlikely to work hard in school because they do not want to assimilate, and because they recognize that, relative to whites, their chances of benefiting from education are quite limited. Such groups have a pessimistic attitude toward the opportunity structure and schooling.

Beyond Cultural Ecology

Gilberto Conchas regards such explanations as insufficient, however, and primarily for two reasons:

  1. Cultural ecology studies fail to examine within-group variation. Lumping students into ideas of voluntary and involuntary minorities is too crude since it cannot explain why some students from involuntary minorities nonetheless do well in school. For instance, evidence shows that middle-class Mexican-American youth do not resist schooling, as one would assume for involuntary minorities. Conversely, there is also evidence that some groups of immigrant Asian students exhibit underachievement more typically associated with involuntary minorities.
  2. Cultural ecology studies fail to examine school performance from one generation to another. According to Conchas, some research suggests that Latino students’ academic achievement declines with each successive generation. Newly arrived Mexican immigrants, for example, strongly desire to learn English, acculturate, and participate in American society. Subsequent generations of U.S.-born Mexican-Americans, however, develop more of an oppositional identity toward American culture that rejects performing well in school.

Refining the Explanation through School Programs

Even studies that have attempted to improve on cultural ecological explanations need to be refined. “The Latino student population reflects not a monolithic entity in which all Latinos perform poorly, but a heterogeneous one in which some perform well and others do not,” Conchas writes (Assessing Latinos' School Engagement section, ¶ 6). He suggests that institutional processes are important for understanding this variation.

  • The role of institutional programs. Evidence suggests that Latino students in urban schools can achieve academic success with support from specific institutional programs. Building close networks of support with teachers and other students is one significant way that researchers have found to boost Latino students’ achievement. Such programs engage students in schooling and provide positive motivation.
  • More research is necessary. Conchas argues that researchers must examine more closely how such institutional factors interact with cultural ecological factors. In particular, we need to know why some Latino students seek out support programs and form supportive institutional relationships while other students do not.

Research Design: This study is based on ethnographic data collected at a California high school. The data consist of observation of daily student-student and student-teacher interactions, interviews with students and teachers, maps of class seating arrangements, and documents such as report cards, student work, and teacher evaluations. The specific subjects of the data-gathering were 26 Latino students in the tenth through twelfth grades. Interviews and focus groups were semi-structured, tended to last from one to two hours, and then were taped and transcribed.


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