The Protective Power of Culture

March 11, 2011 - Since the 1970s, education researchers have been examining the disparities in student risk through the lens of gender. Some scholars who explored classroom dynamics and teacher influence found cause for concern about how girls were faring. Do teachers give more feedback to their male students than to their female students? Do girls have equal access to science and math disciplines? 

In 2010, a Center on Education Policy report turned the spotlight on boys with the news that, at all levels and in all states of the union, boys were falling behind girls in reading. The predictable fall-out was a frenzy of press speculation about the academic achievement of male students.

But two Penn GSE professors suggest that the picture is far more complex. Arguing that gender alone might be “too broad a category,” they use the intersection of race, class, and gender to better understand equity in the classroom.

As Duane Thomas and Howard Stevenson reviewed the literature, one group in particular stood out: “low-income African American boys remain at the most risk, relative to other groups for disparities in education and with respect to being at a disadvantage in terms of academic outcomes.”

Thomas and Stevenson present the documented low expectations and high risk factors for African American boys as a convergence of trends. For example, some researchers argue that boys are disciplined more than girls, partially due to “feminizing classroom environments” that have low tolerance for “boys’ behavioral and emotional expressions.”

Across gender, African Americans face an additional challenge: “the expectation that teachers make regarding African American students’ academic underperformance and failures in the social arena.” These students receive less encouragement to pursue science, math, and advanced courses than do their peers, while the boys in this cohort are overrepresented in school discipline procedures and special education classrooms.

How do young Black males cope? Some turn to “role-flexing,” a tactic that involves altering one’s speech, behavior, or appearance to diminish the effects of negative stereotypes and gain social acceptance. Others take the opposite approach, adopting hypermasculine personas to evoke respect. Both solutions can have a negative impact on school performance.

So how do low-income African American boys succeed, both socially and academically? Thomas and Stevenson argue that success in negotiating the racial and sexual politics of the classroom calls on social skills that can challenge even the most mature among us: anger management and deflection of rejection.

But these individual skills can only go so far – and may be out of reach for many young people. Instead, Howard and Stevenson see racial socialization as one of the most important factors in assuring the academic success of young African American males. In the process of racial socialization, “children acquire behaviors, perceptions, values, and attitudes of their respective racial groups and come to take pride in and see themselves as members of such groups.”

African American youth who develop a strong sense of cultural heritage develop a healthier sense of self than do their less self-aware peers — and their teachers seem to be taking note. In one study cited, “the boys in the sample who demonstrated limited awareness of their African American cultural heritage were more likely to have their behaviors rated by teachers as being problematic.”

Overall, Thomas and Stevenson say that interventions aimed at reducing risks of educational underachievement for low-income African American male students would benefit from “a dual focus on racial/cultural identification and sociocognitive problem solving.”

Related Research on Gender and Culture

Duane Thomas and Howard Stevenson are not alone in arguing that sociocultural identity is a major player in student success. GSE professor Sharon Ravitch and colleague Michael Reichert recently published an article arguing that, despite non-mainstream definitions of masculinity and ethnocultural prejudices, many Jewish boys find educational and social success due in large part to close connections to their ethno-religious community.