When Arcadia High School sophomore Johnson Lee gets home, his mother has vegetable sushi and eggrolls waiting on the kitchen table. When he stays up late before a big exam--say, to cram with friends over the Internet--she brews a pot of coffee to keep him going. And when there's just no room in his backpack for a hefty Advanced Placement biology textbook, no problem--she copies the chapters he needs on the machine outside his bedroom.
In this household, failure is spelled B.
Up in Kern County, Taft Union High School student Dusty Watkins, the son of a petroleum company worker, wants to be a police officer or game warden. Watkins, though, seldom does his homework--"It's boring."
Sure, his father will ground him for nine weeks if he gets a shoddy grade. But what's a bad grade in this family? D.
Down at San Diego's Hoover High School, there's a group that calls itself the Crazy Brown Ladies. They wear heavy makeup--"ghetto paint," they call it--and loathe carrying schoolbooks. For their academically inclined sisters, they've reserved a special slur: "School Girls."
What gives Lee his drive? Why does Watkins shrug off schoolwork? Why do the Crazy Brown Ladies eschew all things academic?
The answer may be culture.
What goes on in students' lives outside the classroom often does more to shape school performance than what transpires inside it. One of the strongest outside influences is the mix of attitudes, beliefs and expectations about education that can mold motivation--and may underlie startlingly persistent differences in academic achievement among white, Asian, black and Latino students.
Of course, averages for large, diverse racial or ethnic groups do not account for individual achievements.
At Katella High School in Anaheim, there's Karina Valenzuela. The Tijuana-born senior has hopscotched through 10 schools since her arrival in the United States 12 years ago. For a while she and her family of six lived in a van. In spite of such hardships--usually a formula for academic disaster--Karina has a 3.8 grade-point average and is bound for college.
Yet despite such examples, in one measure of academic fitness after another--dropout rates, grades, enrollment in advanced courses--the patterns shout: Asians generally come out on top in California's schools, whites second, blacks third, Latinos last.
A Search for Causes
What's going on? Race or ethnicity by itself does not explain these differences. Social scientists have widely discredited the notion that one ethnic group is innately smarter or works harder than another.
Nor does immigration status fully account for the performance gap. Indeed, contrary to some stereotypes that criticize immigrants as a source of trouble in the state's schools, repeated studies have found that immigrant children of almost any origin tend to do better in school than ethnic peers who have been in the United States longer. The problem is that subsequent generations do worse than the first--suggesting that exposure to American culture weakens immigrants' drive, rather than the other way around.
Nor does money fully account for the distinctions. Yes, Asian Americans and whites are richer on average than Latinos and blacks. With greater income comes greater access to the tools of success--computers, books, museum trips and a quiet place to study--making money a major factor.
And of course, racial definitions always over-generalize, particularly in a population as large and varied as California's. Racial categories lump together many people of different heritages who often have little in common culturally or socially.
But still ethnic differences remain, even after accounting for income, parent education or the language a student speaks at home.
The accomplishments of Asian American students are one of "the most consistent findings" ofstudies on school achievement in America, according to Temple University researcher Laurence Steinberg, who writes about ethnic differences in academic performance in his 1996 book "Beyondthe Classroom."
"It is more advantageous to be Asian than to be wealthy, to have non-divorced parents or to have a mother who is able to stay home full-time," he writes.
Why? And what are the implications for schools?
UC Berkeley anthropologist John Ogbu offers one possibility: that years of workplace discrimination have discouraged blacks and Latinos from investing time and effort in school.
Ogbu, an African American social scientist, was one of the first to describe "the burden of acting white," a theory that suggests that many black students resist schooling to protect their self-image and distinguish themselves from a majority culture that too often devalues their abilities.