Southern Rural Public Schools: A Study of Teacher Perspectives

By McCoy, Leah P. | The Qualitative Report, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Southern Rural Public Schools: A Study of Teacher Perspectives


McCoy, Leah P., The Qualitative Report


This ethnography explores teachers' perspectives of the cultural issues affecting academic performance in twelve public high schools in rural Mississippi and Louisiana. From a thematic analysis of the tape-recorded interviews of forty-one mathematics teachers, five categories emerged, each comprising a qualitative aspect of teaching high school in an economically depressed area of the deep South: society, race, students, families, and schools. Each of these categories is discussed and explicated using exemplars from the interviews to show how each category emerged from the data. In addition, the relationships among these categories, which form a destructive cycle of poverty, low expectations, poor academic achievement, and inadequate opportunity, are discussed. Implications of this research for teachers and policy makers are explored.

Key Words: Poverty, Race, Expectations, Apathy, Achievement, and Public Schools

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Public education in the United States has long been viewed as the hope for the future for all of our children. According to Oakes and Lipton (1999), "a hopeful, democratic future depends on whether all students learn and experience academic rigor and social justice in school." Educators are aware that all public schools are not created equal. A recent book by Jonathan Kozol (2005) highlights these continued inequities between public schools across the United States. Rural southern public schools, with high percentages of poor and minority students, have been identified as particularly low performing, with a myriad of problems (Harmon, 2001; McCullough-Garrett, 1993; McLaughlin, Huberman, & Hawkins, 1997; Moses & Cobb, 2001).

Gay (2000) noted that "too many students of color have not been achieving in school as well as they should (and can) for far too long" (p. 1). Rumberger and Willms (1992) attributed much of the lack of achievement of minority students to "contextual effects" of the community's racial and social culture. Hatfield (2003) further defined this "culture of failure" as implicit in the school, the home, and the community. Farkas (2003) concluded that racism and differences between the culture of the school and the culture of students are likely factors in the Black/White learning gap. Teacher perceptions and expectations of students from low income and minority backgrounds are thought to have a great impact (Campbell & Silver, 1999; Oakes & Lipton, 1999). Findings from a long-term ethnographic study, in a high school, concluded that differences in racial achievement are accepted among teachers, but are never talked about (Pollock, 2001). The influence of race and poverty on school achievement is clear and at the same time not well-understood.

In order to provide a quality education for all students, it is imperative that we fully understand and describe the cultural and contextual issues impacting the success of students in all schools, including the high minority, low income public schools of the rural south. This paper describes the findings of a study of teacher perceptions of achievement and culture in rural southern public schools. I will first detail the methodology for data collection and analysis, then consider the findings in terms of five major themes, and, lastly, present overall conclusions.

Methodology

The goal of this study was to provide insight into the reasons for the low achievement in southern rural public schools from the perspective of teachers in those schools. While the standardized tests give an overview of the achievement outcomes in these schools, this study sought to shed light on the social and cultural processes involved within the schools that influence these outcomes. In short, the large-scale tests tell "what" happened in these schools in terms of test scores, and the goal of this study was to describe the teachers' perceptions of "how" and "why" in terms of the processes of teaching and learning. …

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