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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Examining the Impact of Culture on Academic Performance

A person’s culture and upbringing has a profound effect on how they see the world and how they process information.  This fact was discussed by Richard Nisbett in his work, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently…and why Nisbett worked with psychologists in Japan and China and determined that the holistic way of viewing the world typical of many students from those countries differed from that of their American counterparts, who tended to view the world in parts or distinct classes of objects that could each be defined by a set of rules. 
In other words, the Asian children see the world in terms of the relationship between things, whereas the American children see the world in terms of the objects as distinct entities. This information is helpful when we consider how cultural background might influence approach to learning and school performance.  There are a number of theories that seek to explain differences in school performance among different racial and ethnic groups.  Three theories stand out: the cultural deficit theory, the expectation theory, and the cultural difference theory.
The cultural deficit theory states that some students do poorly in school because the linguistic, social, and cultural nature of the home environment does not prepare them for the work they will be required to do in school. As an example, some students may not have as many books read to them as are read to children in other homes. Not being able to read has a negative influence on their vocabulary development. Vocabulary development may also be stifled by the amount and nature of verbal interaction in the home. As a result, some children arrive at school lacking the level of vocabulary development expected. The cultural deficit theory proposes that deficiencies in the home environment result in shortcomings in skills, knowledge, and behaviors that contribute to poor school performance.
Expectation theory focuses on how teachers treat students. Teachers often expect less from students of certain racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.  When teachers expect students to perform poorly, they approach teaching in ways that align with their low levels of expectations.  In these instances, students tend to perform at the low levels expected of them by teachers.
Rosenthal and Jacobson tested this theory in their Pygmalion Effect study. A group of teachers were told that their students were due for an intellectual growth spurt during the school year.  Even though the students were average in terms of academic performance, the teachers interacted with them based on this expectation. All students in the experimental group improved both academically and socially by the end of the year. Based on the notion of a self-fulfilling prophecy, students who experience high expectations seek to reach the level of expected behaviors. Correspondingly, students who experience low expectations act to meet the level of behavior expected of them.
The cultural difference theory is based on the idea that students who are raised in different cultural settings may approach education and learn in different ways.  It is important for teachers to be aware of the difference between the school atmosphere and the home environment.  People from different cultural traditions may have an approach to education that differs from the mainstream approach used in American schools. For instance, differences can be noted in the Polynesian concept of learning, whereby younger children are generally taught by older children rather than by adults.  This is a very different approach to learning and one that may need to be considered in an American school that is attended by Polynesian students.
Teachers need to ensure that they incorporate methods of teaching in their classrooms that accommodate various beliefs and cultural notions students bring to school. This requires each teacher to develop an understanding of their student’s culture, but also to know who their students are as individuals. It is also important for teachers to ensure that they treat all students the same and to have high expectations for each one, so that they will all strive to reach their full potential.

Examining the Attributes of Effective Schools

Although diverse school models exist, a fundamental question remains—how are we to know whether or not a school model is effective, and how can effectiveness be judged? A number of research studies focus on characteristics of effective schools. However, there is debate over which attributes should be considered when describing successful schools.
According to some researchers, student performance should be the primary indicator of a successful school. Other researchers propose that students’ social characteristics, such as personal growth should be included when determining effective schools. Another issue with school effectiveness research is that findings are predominantly based on research conducted in elementary schools or unique school settings in the inner city.  Consequently, it is suggested that these findings cannot be generalized to all schools.
 We benefit from a discussion of a number of attributes that influence school effectiveness.  As suggested above, the context of schooling will impact factors that contribute to effectiveness in specific schools. At the same time, there are attributes and factors that contribute to effectiveness across schooling contexts. By understanding an array of effectiveness attributes we are able to observe which attributes exist at a particular school and which, if adopted might facilitate effectiveness, given a particular school context. 
A 2008 study describes five common characteristics that make up an effective school; these characteristics, and the theory behind them has also been described as the five-factor theory. The first factor is quality leadership.  In other words, students perform better where the principal provides strong leadership.  Effective leaders were visible, able to successfully convey the school’s goals and visions; collaborated with teachers to enhance their skills; and were involved in the discovery of and solutions to problems.
The second factor is having high expectations of students, as well as teacher.  High expectations of students have repeatedly been shown to have a positive impact on students’ performance. More attention should be paid to high expectations of teachers. In other words, teachers who are expected to teach at high levels of effectiveness are able to reach the level of expectations, particularly when teacher evaluations and teacher professional development is geared toward improving instructional quality.
The third characteristic of a successful school is the ongoing screening of student performance and development.  Schools should use assessment data to compare their students with others from across the country. Effective use of assessment data allows schools to identify problematic areas of learning at the classroom and school levels, so that solutions can be generated as to how to best address the problems.
The fourth characteristic of a successful school is the existence of goals and direction.  According to research, the successful school principal actively constructs goals and then effectively communicates them to appropriate individuals (i.e., students, teachers, community-at-large).  School principals must also be open and willing to incorporate innovation into goals for school processes and practices. Hence it is important to invite input from all stakeholders in the process of developing school goals. Student performance has been shown to improve in schools were all in the school community work toward goals that are communicated and shared among all in the learning environment.
The fifth and final factor of a successful school is the extent to which the school is secure and organized. For maximum learning to occur, students need to feel secure.  Respect is a quality that is promoted and is a fundamental aspect of a safe school.  There are also a number of trained staff and programs, such as social workers, who work with problem students before situations get out of hand.
Apart from the five factors of a successful school already mentioned, the size of the school seems to be a school effectiveness factor.  Research has found that the smaller the school, the better students perform, especially in the case of older students.  This is the rationale behind the concept of schools-within-schools. Students in smaller learning environments feel more connected to their peers and teachers, pass classes more often, and have a higher probability of going to college.
A number of school districts view preschool education as a factor that will influence overall effectiveness across all schools located within the district. Evidence suggests that children with preschool experiences fare better academically and socially as they enter kindergarten and beyond. Experiences in literacy and numeracy among early learners not only prepares preschoolers for a kindergarten curriculum that has heighten expectations of prior knowledge, but also helps identify early learners who will need additional support to ensure they are able to have positive learning experiences later on.
Additional factors that influence effective schools include time to learn, teacher quality, and school and parental trust. Research supports the commonsensical view that the more time a student spends learning, and the more efficiently that time is used, the higher their achievement.   Schools that find creative ways to extend time on learning will likely be more effective. Further, schools with high quality teachers also tend to be more effective. Schools able to hire teachers from high quality teacher education programs increase the possibility of being an effective school.
However, school effectiveness can also be influenced by the frequency, relevancy, and quality of the teacher professional development offered by the school and/or school district. Trust and parental participation are also features of a successful school.  Trust between all parties of the school community is vital for enhancing the school’s effectiveness because it supports the prospect that parents and teachers believe in the motives and actions of each other.  Parental participation is also important because it sends the message to students that the adults in their lives—both teachers and parents—believe in the importance of education and are willing to make time to support students’ educational experiences and efforts.