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

Chapter 5: An Integrated Perspective for Understanding Student Performance

How well do past and present theories of academic failure "fit" recent research? We analyze some of these theories below, then we incorporate previous research into a somewhat more inclusive model that illustrates how risk factors, resources, and their interactions may lead to differing degrees of school success.

Cultural Deprivation versus Socioeconomic Disadvantages

Does parenting or social structure determine children's success in school? During the 1960s, researchers who adopted the first perspective argued that culturally disadvantaged black and low-income youth were disabled by home environments that failed to stimulate intellectual development, reward student achievement, and support school completion (Deutsch et al., 1967). According to these researchers, "culturally disadvantaged" students fail because they are not prepared for the high expectations and standards of their middle- class teachers.

There are two main flaws with the "cultural disadvantage" perspective: (1) it suggests the average low-income family is dysfunctional, and (2) it views cultural difference as cultural deficit. Although the reported incidence of family conditions that place children at risk (e.g., neglect or abuse) is higher for low-income families, there is no evidence that the average low-income home fails to foster healthy child development. Differences in child- rearing practices may be appropriate responses to environmental differences -- it is wrong to assume, for example, that an optimally functioning black family would behave precisely like a middle-class white family (Slaughter and McWorter, 1985, p. 12). Recent research does suggest that cultural dissonance may lead to problems in the classroom and between parents and teachers, but that should not imply that the home culture is inferior or not supportive of learning. Rather, it suggests that teachers, parents, and students must adapt (not necessarily assimilate) to one other.

Other researchers have asserted that socioeconomic disadvantages constrain educational opportunities for poor children and children of color (Bowles and Gintis, 1976). Emphasizing social inequalities, these researchers argue that the instruction that poor children receive is inferior to the instruction of middle-class and upper-class students. For example, Ryan (1976) states that instead of "blaming the victim" by pointing to deficiencies in the ability, character, or family functioning of students, researchers need to look at structural problems in schools and society.

Research suggests that structural problems in schools and society do explain much of the variance in student performance. As examined in previous chapters, economic disparities and low social status can influence a child's ability, willingness, and opportunities to learn. However, while socioeconomic explanations may explain broad disparities in student outcomes, they do not explain the variations in performance among students with similar backgrounds or among schools that serve similar demographic groups. Thus, family and socioeconomic explanations, by themselves, do not identify the specific school inputs and external resources associated with high (or low) academic performance.
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