Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Exploring the Relationship among Cultural Discontinuity, Psychological Distress, and Academic Outcomes with Low-Income, Culturally Diverse Students

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Exploring the Relationship among Cultural Discontinuity, Psychological Distress, and Academic Outcomes with Low-Income, Culturally Diverse Students

Article excerpt

School counselors and educators tend to focus on the symptoms of cultural discontinuity and often view these symptoms as root causes for underachievement. In this article we use an ecosystemic paradigm to explore the relationship among cultural discontinuity, psychological distress, and academic achievement. Recommendations include ways in which school counselors can use macrosystemic interventions to forge partnerships between low-income, culturally diverse students' home culture and that of the school.


The U.S. education system is failing our nation's low-income, culturally diverse students. The persistent achievement gap between low-income African American and Latino American students, in particular, and their middle and upper income White peers has been the focus of investigation by educational researchers (Bazon, Osher, & Fleischman, 2005; Garcia, 1993; Lovelace & Wheeler, 2006; Nieto, 2004). Statistics from the U.S. Department of Education (2006) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP; Lee, Grigg, & Donahue, 2007) reveal that low-income children (those eligible for free or reduced lunch), across ethnic groups, underperform in both reading and mathematics at the 4th-, 8th-, and 12th-grade levels, compared to their middle- and upper-income peers (Grigg, Donahue, & Dion, 2007; Lee et al.). Moreover, African American and Latino American students, across all socioeconomic levels, consistently achieve lower scores on reading and mathematics on national standardized tests compared to White students (Grigg et al.; La:e, Grigg, & Dion, 2007; Lee et al.; U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Additionally, 1 out of every 10 African American students and 1 out of every 5 Latino American students drop out of high school (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).

Much of the literature on the achievement gap either focuses on low-income students or on culturally diverse learners. The focus of this paper is on the intersectionality of identity of low-income, culturally diverse students and how this confluence of class and ethnicity significantly contributes to the experience of cultural discontinuity in the classroom. Prior discussion of multiple identities has primarily focused on African American women (Williams, 2005) and sexual minorities (Garrett & Barret, 2003). An additional type of multiple identity, however, is culturally marginalized status and low income, as there appears to be a link between cultural diversity and low income. High-poverty schools have higher percentages of African American and Latino American students, as well as limited English proficiency students (U.S. Department of Education, 2006). According to Frankenberg, Lee, and Orfield (2003), nearly half of the students in schools attended by the average African American or Latino American student are impoverished. Thus, for some culturally diverse students, the intersection of poverty and racial/cultural dynamics influences the quality of their schooling experiences.

The culturally diverse groups most affected by the achievement gap are Native Americans, some Asian American subgroups (specifically, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders), Latino Americans, and African Americans. Most of the research emphasizes African Americans and Latino Americans as both groups are strongly represented in the United States, while research on Native American, Vietnamese, and Pacific Islander students is not as pervasive. Often viewed as monolithic and the model minority, some Asian Americans subgroups, such as Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders, are often not differentiated from other more successful Asian ethnic groups, such as Japanese and Korean (Kim, 2003). Additionally, the low representation of Native Americans in research samples limits overall educational research on this cultural group as well (Marshall, 2002).

It has been argued that some attempts to close the achievement gap have mistakenly viewed the students' manifestations of psychological distress as root causes of academic and behavioral problems, rather than as symptoms of more systemic, environmental stressors (Amatea & West-Olatunji, 2007a, 2007b; Butler, 2003; Lee, 1995, 2005). …

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