Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Unraveling Underachievement among African American Boys from an Identification with Academics Perspective

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Unraveling Underachievement among African American Boys from an Identification with Academics Perspective

Article excerpt

Many theories attempt to explain why, despite all efforts, African American boys continue to lag behind their White counterparts. This article reviews three prominent theories addressing the social and cultural factors that can inhibit academic excellence among these youth: Steele's stereotype threat model, Ogbu's cultural-ecological perspective, and Majors and Billson's "cool pose" theory. All three emphasize the barriers that prevent African American boys from incorporating academics as an important part of their self-concepts, theoretically explaining the achievement gap. The article reviews possible courses of action to facilitate identification with academics and thus improve achievement.

Educational and psychological research repeatedly has shown that students from disadvantaged U.S. minority groups tend to receive poorer academic outcomes than do White or Asian American students. Included among these poorer outcomes are lower grades in school (Demo & Parker, 1987; Simmons, Brown, Bush, & Blyth, 1978); lower standardized tests scores (Bachman, 1970; Herring, 1989; Reyes & Stanic, 1988; Simmons et al., 1978), higher dropout rates (American Council on Education, 1990; Steele, 1992), and lower college grades (Nettles, 1988). Similar findings appear in the literature for Latino students (Bruschi & Anderson, 1994; Whitworth & Barrientos, 1990). Further, when students are paired on academic preparedness, subsequent achievement is lower for African American and Latino students than for White or Asian American students (Jensen, 1980; Ramist, Lewis, & McCamley-Jenkins, 1994). In sum, there is convincing evidence that students from disadvantaged minority groups achieve poorer outcomes at every level, even given equal preparation, than do their White and Asian American peers (Steele, 1997).

Numerous explanations exist for this trend, including differences in cognitive (Shade, 1982) and communication styles (Kochman, 1981); aversion to intellectual competition (Howard & Hammond, 1985); genetic differences (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994), low achievement motivation, anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, and feelings of helplessness (Epps, 1970); and disparities in social-psychological environments (Katz, Epps, & Alexson, 1964; Steele, 1997). However, many of these theories tend not to be conclusive. For example, if cultural differences are the culprit, why do children who emigrate from cultures drastically different from the United States (e.g., from Middle Eastern and Asian countries) often perform better academically than students of color born in the United States? Why do African immigrants (children not born into the majority White U.S. culture) do better in school than do African-descended children born into this culture?

It is questions such as these that tend to make genetics and lingual/cultural theories unsatisfying. Other observations also raise interesting questions. For example, the racial achievement gap is neither developmentally nor historically static. Neisser (1998) has argued that the historic racial gap in academic test scores is decreasing. Further, the gap between White and minority U.S. students, which is minimal or nonexistent at the beginning of schooling, has been shown to widen by as much as two grade levels by sixth grade (Alexander & Entwhistle, 1988; Valencia, 1991, 1997).

Recently, the concept of identification with academics has emerged as an important contribution to the racial achievement gap. Several authors, including Steele (1992, 1997), Ogbu (1992), and Majors and Billson (1992), have argued that factors inherent in U.S. society prevent students of color from viewing themselves as scholars and students and thereby valuing academics personally. Empirical evidence supports this argument (Osborne, 1995,1997b). Theoretically, lack of identification with academics has been shown to cause or contribute to poorer performance (Osborne, 1997b; Osborne & Rausch, 2001). …

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