Laurence Steinberg | Why Some Races Outperform Others

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A psychologist explains the latest research into education disparity.

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Transcript:
Can you explain your research into why students are becoming less engaged in academic pursuits?

And a couple things emerged from that study that I think are really important for understanding American education policy. The first is that a very significant proportion of kids tell us that they’re just going through the motions when they’re in school; I mean that they’re not engaged, that they’re not trying their hardest, that they’re bored. And clearly we are not challenging kids in American schools as much as we should. And you see this if you do international comparisons. We didn’t in this study, but if you look at how much time kids spend on homework, for example, the average in our study — and this is a figure that you see in lots of different studies — is about four to five hours a week for a typical high school student. In Japan it’s four to five hours a day. And so you see the difference in magnitude of how hard we push kids here in America compared to other places.

The other thing that we found was that parents and peers have a huge impact on kids’ engagement in school, independent of what’s going on in the classroom. And so kids who are raised in households where their parents practice better parenting — the kind of parenting that has been called authoritative parenting, where they’re firm, but they’re warm, and where their parents are involved in their schooling, where they go school conferences and so forth — those kids do better in school. At the same time, it’s not just the home, because we also found that there’s significant peer pressure on kids that makes a difference, and unfortunately, more often than not it’s peer pressure to do not as well as you might. So a very high proportion of kids told us that they refrained from raising their hand in class to answer a question because they’re afraid that their peers will make fun of them. And so we need to do something to transform the culture that says it’s okay to be smart. You can also be cool in other ways, but it’s also okay to be smart.

Now, perhaps the most controversial finding that we came up with had to do with ethnic differences in achievement. Across all of the schools that we studied, Asian-American kids were doing significantly better than white kids, and white kids were doing significantly better than black and Latino kids. And that’s controlling for family income, it’s controlling for parental education, it’s controlling for other factors that might be correlated with ethnicity and that might have played a role in this too. And when we look at why that is, we see several important things. The first is — this is a great question that one of my collaborators said; we have to put this on a questionnaire — and the question was, what’s the lowest grade you could get without your parents getting angry, right? So the Asian kids, it’s an A-minus, all right? For the white kids, you know, it’s more like a B. And for the black and Latino kids, it’s somewhere, you know, around a B-minus or C-plus. So clearly there are different expectations in these households.

The second thing is that when we ask kids about the importance of schooling, we see really different patterns in how kids from different ethnic groups answer the question. Asian kids tell us that they are sure that if they do poorly in school, something bad will happen to them. They won’t get a good job in life, all right? Black and, to a certain extent, Latino kids don’t have that belief. So every — all ethnic groups share the belief that doing well in school has a payoff. It’s how they think about doing poorly in school that makes a difference. And the Asian kids do well in part because they’re really afraid of what the consequences of not doing well are. And I think that comes back to the standards that their parents have set for them at home.

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