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Poverty v. Culture in Student Achievement

If the role that poverty plays in student achievement was not already controversial enough, the debate is bound to become even more contentious as a result of renewed interest in the influence of culture on academic performance. The New York Times published a front-page story on Oct. 17 that traced the resurgence of what anthropologist Oscar Lewis called the culture of poverty (" 'Culture of Poverty' Makes a Comeback").

Although researchers have known for four decades that poverty and culture are intertwined, they shied away from the latter as an explanation to avoid being labeled politically incorrect. But as pressure has built to narrow the gap in performance between racial groups, social scientists are casting aside their reluctance and addressing the issue head on.

According to Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, an expert on ghetto life, culture is the way "individuals in a community develop an understanding of how the world works and make decisions based on that understanding." His definition is not an excuse for the undeniable self-defeating behavior of some ghetto residents. Instead, it is an explanation that needs to be given serious thought. Let's not forget that in 2004, Bill Cosby was harshly criticized for charging that poor blacks had themselves largely to blame for their situation by dropping out of school and for irresponsible parenting.

Part of the reason for the brouhaha is the existence of students who have come from poor backgrounds, where ghetto culture reigns, and yet have overcome these disadvantages to succeed. If they can do it, then why can't all students follow in their footsteps? It's a fair question. The answer is that there will always be exceptions to every rule. No racial group is a monolith. However, the argument that rugged individualism is the solution to the problem is an oversimplification. Poverty and culture are not destiny, but neither is rugged individualism assurance of ascension.

Asians serve as an example. Often referred to as the model minority, there are notable deviations from their overall academic success. Southeast Asian students, for example, post low standardized test scores, high dropout rates, and low college enrollment and completion rates. Education Week published a story that cautioned against stereotyping Asian students that is worth reading again ("Asian-American Students Struggling Under NCLB, Group Says," May 8, 2008).

Trying to disentangle the effects of poverty from those of culture may appeal to researchers, but ultimately it is an exercise in futility. Both play powerful roles in student achievement. It's far more productive for reformers to recognize their existence and seek ways to work within the parameters.

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