How Mainstream Education Is Letting Down Ethnic Minority Students in the United States

These insights from social science have particular relevance in the field of education: sociology now sees the concept of the child, and of childhood, as a social construct, not as an objective reality consistent across all societies and cultures. Cultural characteristics (e.g. values, beliefs, child-rearing practices) suppress the manifestation of certain behavioural problems, and facilitate the manifestation of others, in a process known as the suppression-facilitation model. This means that the way a child has been raised will influence what types of learning they find most beneficial. Research shows that ethnic minority students use a different set of cultural values when engaged in activities that foster cognitive skill development than children who are part of the dominant culture. Subsequently, this fact influences which teaching methods they are most receptive to. A curriculum based on teaching techniques directed only at children from the dominant culture, therefore, could be extremely harmful to the development of ethnic minority students.

That such a phenomenon is occurring in the United States is born out of the data: research shows that Native Americans have the highest dropout rates among all students going to public school, while the majority of Latino and African-American students remain at or below basic performance on standardized achievement tests. This is of particular importance considering that by 2020 over two-thirds of the public school population in the US will be African-American, Asian-American, Latino, or Native American. Currently, these children are being sent into schools where their culture is suppressed, where they are forced through hoops designed for children with a different cultural upbringing, and it is having a detrimental impact on their achievement. Something, it is clear, needs to change.

At its most basic, cultures can be placed into one of two categories: independent, or interdependent. The former idealises personhood in terms of individual achievement and autonomy, and socializes children to “be unique”, “express themselves”, and “realize their inner goals”. An interdependent culture, on the other hand, idealises personhood in terms of dependence with family and community, and socializes children to “be sympathetic”, “play their assigned role”, and to “adjust to the group to which they belong”.

These two contrasting ways of idealizing either personhood or socialization have an impact on how the two types of culture have traditionally conceived intelligence, and therefore on the different ways they pass on knowledge. Independent societies use verbal teaching to bridge the separation between mother and child that occurs in an independently-minded society, whereas interdependent societies prefer teaching by “osmosis”, a method only achievable in the closeness obtained in a milieu of interdependence.

Modern western schooling, however, has been designed for, and embraces the principles of, an independent-based style of teaching, something that many children from interdependent societies, such as African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos, find difficult to adjust to. Parents from interdependent cultures value social intelligence more than “encyclopedic” forms of intelligence, and the value of a child’s knowledge is measured by how much that knowledge contributes to the group. Native American children, for example, learn by observing their parents, not by talking with them, and so it is no surprise that it has been found that portfolio and performance styles of assessment are better-suited to Native Americans than written tests. Similarly, in sub-Saharan Africa, practices are embedded in family traditions, daily routines, and social and community life, and skills that count towards a person’s intelligence are helpfulness, obedience, respect, and familial responsibility, while more technological skills (e.g. quick learning, memory) are only valued if they are put into the service of the social group. The approach that promotes a growth in abilities is not instruction, therefore, but participation. In most white middle-class homes, on the other hand, children learn from having their parents talk to and with them.

Despite this, the model of schooling that has emerged in the West, and which is replicated in schools across western nations, promotes solely principles of independence. This model has also been propagated across the world, often imposed in the form of imperialism and colonialism, despite the fact that 70% of the world’s population is interdependent. Developers of modern curricula assume that children should talk about their learning, and so the forms of assessment are based around this assumption, thereby removing many children from the interdependent milieu with which they are comfortable and familiar.

Schooling promotes independence in a number of ways: in school assessment cooperation is perceived negatively (it is called cheating); it also undermines social intelligence, where parents and grandparents are the repositories of knowledge. It is no surprise, therefore, that a vast number of ethnic minority students experience what is known as “cultural discontinuity”, where the cultural learning preferences of many ethnic minority students are discontinued at school. Many ethnic minority students find that they must abandon their own cultural values at school in order both to succeed academically and to optimise their psychological well-being.

However, such a process of cultural discontinuity can leave its mark, both mentally and academically. Students who reported high levels of dissonance between home and school values reported lower levels of academic and emotional well-being and higher levels of anger and self-deprecation, while a separate study showed that children who witness denials or discrimination of their culture experience higher levels of behavioural and mental health problems than those whose cultures were positively reinforced.

Such cultural discontinuity also is felt in the day-to-day aspect of teacher-pupil relations. Teachers’ expectations for student achievement are associated with their perceptions of whether students adhere to mainstream cultural value-based behaviours while at school, while when teachers believed parents’ education values differed from their own they were more likely to rate their students as less competent and to have lower expectations of them, as well as perceiving poor literacy and numeracy skills. This, obviously has little to do with objective intelligence but simply with the different ways in which different cultures conceive intelligence as well asthe different ways learning is facilitated. Mexican children, for example, are often criticised for being silent, but in fact this is the result of having been taught to respect their elders. Native American children, on the other hand, experience problems when they are asked in school for answers immediately, without having time to reflect on what they have just been taught. Such a question-and-answer format fits with independent cultures’ verbal style of teaching, but poses problems for children of interdependent cultures: as well as not giving them enough time to reflect on the question, they also feel that not giving the question its proper attention is a sign of disrespect.

What could be the solution for such cultural discontinuity? Answers may be found in the studies of education policies adopted by development organisations in developing countries; these policies have often held children back by immersing them into a system of western schooling that does not take account of their own culture. Western models of early child development have often been imposed in the name of “best practice”, without considering that what might be best practice for one culture might not be best practice for another. The studies that have been carried out suggest several solutions, several of which have already been adopted: these include integrating local teaching methods into curricula, and understanding that early child development requires a contextual approach prioritizing cultural factors.

Such an approach was adopted at Keshena Primary School on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Northeastern Wisconsin in the development of a new curriculum for its Native American children. The teachers, in conjunction with academics, chose to focus on a method of teaching known as “whole language teaching”: an integrated curriculum where content area subjects are taught around a theme without separating the different areas. The school held a meeting for tribal members to discuss what values they thought should be emphasised in a curriculum, out of which three values came out: respect for elders, each other, and surroundings; traditional tribal values; and the problem of high absenteeism. It was decided that the theme would be “Mother Earth”, so all curriculum planning was done with this central theme in mind. From this central theme several broad topics were identified, each of which was then fleshed out into narrower topics. In order to promote greater community involvement, which was seen to promote children’s appreciation of their own culture, younger children were taught tribal legends they had been taught in kindergarten, and elderly tribal members were invited to act as unofficial “grandparents” to the children.

Going forward, it is this type of culturally-sensitive teaching that needs to be adopted. This approach would not only benefit children of ethnic minorities, but for children of all backgrounds, and for the society as a whole. Schools are one of the few places within a community that can build both bonding and bridging capital, and if children are taught about the importance both of integration, and of respect for other cultures, from a young age, there is no doubt that the wider community will benefit. Similarly, more and more children are growing up expecting and needing, to be “global citizens” – a curriculum that simply reinforces an independent culture, without exploring other ways of learning, thinking, and being, leaves all children worse off, and under-prepared for life in our increasingly integrated, connected, and global world.

Author Biography

Joe Mansour is a history graduate from the north of England. He loves travelling and experiencing different cultures, and it is this that informs most of his work. He is interested in British and US politics, global inequality, and structural barriers to social mobility, and seeks to use his knowledge of history to inform his understanding of current affairs and events. In the future, he wants to go into journalism or public policy, using his writing raise awareness of the problems of inequality societies around the world face.

Cover image: Penn State under a CC BY-NC 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license

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