Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Sociocultural Theories, Academic Achievement, and African American Adolescents in a Multicultural Context: A Review of the Cultural Compatibility Perspective

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Sociocultural Theories, Academic Achievement, and African American Adolescents in a Multicultural Context: A Review of the Cultural Compatibility Perspective

Article excerpt

Several theories suggest that African American culture facilitates academic achievement, but others suggest that identifying with Black culture contributes to the achievement gap by undermining the academic performance among youth. These opposing perspectives are labeled "cultural compatibility theories" and "cultural incompatibility theories," respectively. A previous review of the cultural incompatibility perspective reveals limited support for those theories. The current review of the literature complements the previous review with substantial support for the cultural compatibility perspective. Implications for theory, research, and practice addressing the racial gap in achievement by considering the cultural underpinnings of academic behavior in African American youth are discussed.

Keywords: adolescence, African American, achievement gap, multicultural context, racial disparities, sociocultural theories

There is substantial evidence of differential patterns of achievement between Black and White students in our nation's educational system - commonly referred to as the "achievement gap." African American students tend to underperform in terms of lower grade point averages (GPA) and weaker aptitude test scores than White students. The 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) revealed higher rates of school readiness for White children than African American students (Aud, Fox, & KewalRamani, 2010). Research has also demonstrated that African American students have higher dropout rates from high school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2002; Osborne & Walker, 2006). Even when African American students graduate from high school, according to Aud and colleagues (2010), they are less likely to enroll in and graduate from college.

The long-lasting effects that academic achievement gaps between African American and White students have had in the larger society warrant continued theoretical and empirical analysis of the issue. Academic achievement is positively correlated with educational attainment (Hansen, Heckman, & Mullen, 2004) and educational attainment has a positive correlation with one's socioeconomic status (Pallas, 2000). Therefore, the continued existence of academic achievement gaps will contribute to the persistence of racial inequality in other areas of life. Finally, empirical tests of theories to account for the Black-White academic gap have been growing, and increasing the knowledge base could have implications for policy and public opinion about reducing racial disparities in educational outcomes.

Of particular interest and in need of further analysis are sociocultural theories about the Black-White achievement gap in academic performance. These theories can be divided into competing explanations: some theorists suggest African American culture facilitates academic achievement (Oyserman, Gant, & Ager, 1995; Spencer, 1999; Whaley, 2003); whereas others suggest that identifying with Black culture contributes to the achievement gap by undermining academic performance (Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Steele, 1997). The authors have categorized the conceptual frameworks reflecting these opposing perspectives as "cultural compatibility theories" and "cultural incompatibility theories," respectively. In this article, the cultural compatibility perspective will be defined and evaluated by a review of the evidence in support of the following three major theories: (a) socially contextualized model of African American identity (Oyserman, Gant, & Ager, 1995); (b) phenomenological variant of ecological systems theory (Spencer, 1999; Spencer, Dupree, & Hartman, 1997; Spencer, Noll, Stoltzfus, & Harpalani, 2001); and (c) the cultural-cognitive model of African American identity (Whaley, 2003, Whaley & McQueen, 2010). This review will include studies that assess the role of culture in a broader multicultural context. Finally, implications drawn from the empirical evidence for the Black-White achievement gap will be discussed. …

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