Culture Counts

Article excerpt

IT IS THE CONTEXT IN WHICH CHILDREN ARE RAISED AND TAUGHT

Early childhood expert Katrina Greene is looking at how the beliefs and practices of African American families affect the social and cognitive development of their children. Her three-year study will establish data for families from a range of income and education levels.

It's parent-teacher night at an elementary school in a multiracial community. The new, young white teacher is greeting the parents gathered in their child's first grade classroom. As she scans the room she notices immediately the absence of African American parents. She thinks to herself, those parents must not care.

Not so, says early childhood expert Katrina Greene, who offers another perspective. Her research has shown that traditional African American parents often view teachers as authority figures, as the knowledgeable experts into whose care they turn over their children's education. So when parent-teacher night rolls around, parents do not feel that their presence is imperative.

"Teachers often see these parents as people who place little value on education, who don't have a strong desire for their children to succeed," says Greene, an assistant professor of human development, who specializes in studying African American children's social and cognitive development. "This inference not only casts the parents in a bad light but also affects how the teachers treat their children. Sometimes the teachers don't give these children a chance right from the start."

Greene's point is that when it comes to promoting social competence and academic achievement in African American children, culture and attitudes count. Culture determines parents' attitudes about their children's education and their relationships with their children's teachers; it determines their attitude about disciplining their children; and it determines the expectations they have for their children's behavior and development.

The gap in knowledge about the development of African American children stems from a longstanding practice of designing studies that contrast African American families with white families rather than studies that look at each group in and of itself. What's more, in those studies income has often been confounded with ethnicity, so that middle class white families have been compared with low-income African American families. As a result, African American families have appeared to be "culturally deficient" in their socialization beliefs and practices.

"In a sense, the literature tells us what African American families aren't, not what they are," Greene explains.

She adds that the theoretical literature contains many references to the strong influence of the "discontinuities" between the views of parents and teachers on socializing children--such as the expected amount of participation in their child's school activities. Yet there are few empirical studies that clearly pinpoint what those cultural differences are in terms that are useful to parents or to teachers.

In a three-year longitudinal study she began last year, Greene expects to establish what is called "normative baseline data" for African American families from a range of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. This means she's looking for both the strengths and weaknesses in how African American parents raise their children-what's culturally rich as well as what's culturally deficient. She wants to examine this for poor families and wealthy families as well as middle class families. In addition, she's including families with variant levels of education. By doing so, Green will be able to make within-group comparisons, hence measuring what is known as intragroup variability, which refutes the notion that everyone in a given group acts in the same way--one of the underpinnings of stereotyping.

Using a measuring instrument of Greene's own design, the study is the very first of its kind, It's based on the elegantly simple approach of describing a typical day in an African American home. …