Examining Poor and Affluent Students' Perceptions of Academic Achievement

By Howard, Adam | Academic Exchange Quarterly, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview
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Examining Poor and Affluent Students' Perceptions of Academic Achievement

Howard, Adam, Academic Exchange Quarterly


This paper examines perceptions of academic achievement of students from two high schools, Independent High, a prominent private school with an affluent enrollment, and McLean High, a public school with an impoverished student body. The students' perceptions describe the different ways in which educational achievement is understood by the poor and affluent, and how these understandings reflect the educational experiences of students. The students also emphasize the pivotal role of community in defining academic achievement.

The Relationship between Class Status and Academic Achievement

The meanings and practices of literacy for a given group depend on the context. This educational context reflects the cultural and economic divisions of the larger society. Literacy is a culturally specific phenomenon in which students from dominant cultural groups are educated differently than students from other cultural groups. As Brantlinger (1993) describes, "Rather than being a common ground where all groups meet on equal footing, American schooling, in reality, is essentially stratifying" (p. 1). The stratifying practices of educational institutions directly relate to the existing stratification of the larger society. Consequently, students from affluent families are generally academically successful, and poor students continue to fail in our schools.

Researchers, practitioners, and the general public widely accept the correlation between class status and educational achievement. Since the beginning of educational research, studies and surveys consistently have found a correlation between a student's level of academic achievement and his/her parent's professional, educational, and economic status (e.g., Currier, 1923; Daniels and Diack, 1956; Weiner and Felman, 1963; Thorndike, 1973). Throughout the past decade, the correlation between class position and school achievement has continued to be well demonstrated in the literature (Anyon, 1997; Brantlinger, 1993; Crane, 1991; Kozol, 1991; Maeroff, 1999; Natriello, McDill, & Pallas, 1990; Metz, 1998). The significance of this correlation is that students from affluent families perform better in school than do students from poor families (Kantor & Brenzel, 1993). The affluent students' higher levels of academic achievement position them to be more prepared for their roles in society than poor students (Applebee, Langer, & Mullins, 1987).

The body of educational literature strongly supports a significant correlation between class status and academic achievement. The challenge, of course, is explaining or accounting for these differences in achievement patterns in order to bring about educational reform. Many educational writers and researchers have provided a variety of explanations for the difference in achievement patterns between the affluent and poor and have outlined numerous proposals for reform. These explanations and proposals, however, have not brought about effective change in our educational institutions.

Although a myriad of theoretical explanations has been offered to account for the correlation between class status and achievement patterns (e.g., Apple, 1993; Bereiter & Englemann, 1966; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Jensen, 1969; Rose, 1989), two prominent explanations have surfaced to direct and divide the larger conversations. One side of the conversations argues that school conditions are not equal for poor and affluent students, and, therefore, the differences in students' achievement patterns result from differences in schooling. Their belief is that disparities in educational resources, academic expectations, and students' overall educational experiences lead to differences in levels of academic achievement. The other side maintains that students' abilities and home conditions are the primary reasons for students either failing or succeeding in schools. In this perspective, students who academically achieve have higher intellectual abilities and better support systems at home than do students who fail.

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