A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Social Status

Being a child is to be of low status. As Katz (1988) points out, if children were not considered low status, calling a grown woman a "girl" or a black man a "boy" would not be regarded as insults (p. 194). Yet children know that eventually they will grow up and have the same rights as the adults they now must obey. However, some young people also recognize that because of some distinguishing characteristic about them -- their race, sex, or some other attribute -- they may be viewed as less capable, less intelligent, less virtuous and, as a result of this bias, they may be treated by some people as "less than" for their entire lives.

Involuntary minorities. Ogbu (1978) argues that "caste" or involuntary minorities -- ethnic or racial groups drawn into the social order against their will and traditionally discriminated against -- develop patterns of low academic achievement because of biases in the social structure and in employment opportunities. For a variety of reasons, including discrimination, even when the educational attainments of involuntary minorities are the same as those of whites, they often do not achieve the same degree of success in college and the job market (Braddock and McPartland, 1987; Steele, 1992; Urban Institute, 1991a). Some young people of color see little reason to exert effort in the classroom because they do not believe their efforts will increase their chances for upward mobility.

In addition to perceiving limited job opportunities, some young people of color may underachieve because they have internalized racist views of their abilities or, tiring of the pressure to refute racist devaluations, they may "disidentify" with academic achievement:

Tragically, such devaluation can seem inescapable. Sooner or later it forces on its victims two painful realizations. The first is that society is preconditioned to see the worst in them. The second is that even if a black student achieves exoneration in one setting...this approval will have to be re[-]won in the next classroom, in the next level of schooling (Steele, 1992, p. 74).

Some young people achieve academic excellence in spite of limited societal expectations; others attempt to accomplish only as much as is expected for someone of their social status; and a few become so alienated they drop out of school and may pose a threat to themselves or others. Huffine (1989) attributes the high rates of suicide among young American Indians and Mexican-Americans in the Southwest to "loose and uncertain social integration" -- they do not feel they "fit" in their traditional culture or in the larger society (pp. 2-59). Less dramatically, alienation may lead to disengagement from school for some American Indian young people (McCarty, 1971).

Immigrants. Children of color whose parents are recent immigrants to America may not experience the same biases as other young people of color but they may also feel alienated (Huang, 1990; Olsen, 1988). Southeast Asian immigrant children, for example, tend not to be stereotyped in the same ways as other young people of color and usually adjust well to U.S. society. Unlike many young people of color, children from Southeast Asia do not experience racist devaluation of their intellectual potential. However, similar to native- born children of color, some Southeast Asian immigrant youth suffer alienation that may lead to academic or behavioral problems. Ridiculed and harassed for being newcomers (and potential competitors), many of these young people must face constant assaults by their classmates:

I wish that I was born here and nobody would fight me and beat me up... I want to tell them that if they...were afraid of being caught and killed and lost their sisters, they might feel like me, they might look like me, and they, too, might find themselves in a new country (Olsen, 1988, p. 35).

Asian youth who have lost close family members, were physically or sexually abused during the migration process, and/or settle in areas in which there are few if any residents from Southeast Asia are more susceptible to feelings of alienation and are at much higher risk of school problems, depression, and violent antisocial behavior (Huang, 1990; Nidorf, 1985). A Southeast Asian youth describes the attraction of gangs:

Gangs allow us to identify with something....Americans look at us as "other." Our parents don't understand us. So where do we get that (belonging)? From our friends (Suryaraman, 1991).

Other low status groups. In recent years, researchers have increasingly drawn parallels between the tendency for some young people of color to become academically disengaged and the school experiences of female students, young people with disabilities, and gay students. The parallels are interesting because they suggest that low social status may negatively impact student performance regardless of economic status.

Some researchers, for example, argue that female students are discouraged from pursuing male-dominated professions, so many young women see no reason to excel in subjects (e.g., math and science) required for these professions (Chester, 1983; Earle, Roach, and Fraser, 1987; Noddings, 1992). Ekstrom et al. (1987) find that young women who drop out are more likely to agree with such statements as "Most women are happiest when making a home" and "It is usually better if the man is the achiever and the woman takes care of the home" than are young women who choose to stay in school (p. 58).

Similarly, as a result of bias, young people with disabilities may be steered toward careers beneath their abilities. Instead of expecting and encouraging children with disabilities to use their talents, people may focus on their limitations and restrict the educational opportunities offered to these children (Biklen, 1989). Too often, people pity children with disabilities and view them as burdens on their families and society without "any consideration of the possible contributions, benefits, or pleasures" these children may provide (Fine and Asch, 1988, p. 15). As a result, many people with disabilities view prejudice and discrimination, rather than their functional limitations, as the primary barriers to their aspirations (Hahn, 1988).

Citing research that indicates gay students are more likely than other youth to attempt suicide, to abuse drugs or alcohol, and to experience academic problems as a result of harassment and low social status, some researchers argue that these young people should also be identified as "at risk" and provided with supportive services (Harry, 1989; Rofes, 1989; Sears, 1991; Uribe and Harbeck, 1992).

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