The Los Angeles Times profiles two students in two different Southern California high schools today: one school, in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, predominantly white and high-achieving, the other, in South-Central Los Angeles, predominantly Hispanic and low-income. The presumed message of the story: Unjust educational inequities.
Without question, children in an inner-city school face obstacles to learning that middle- and upper-income students can little imagine — constant moves from one community to another; lack of privacy at home for studying; less competent, if not outright unqualified, teachers; parents who lack the academic knowledge to supplement their children’s school instruction; and a peer culture that stigmatizes effort. But that last factor — peer attitudes towards learning — is not a question of public or private resources but is part of the culture that students bring to a school. To its credit, the Times story acknowledges this difference between the schools’ student-created academic environment:
Let’s confront a hard truth. Any visitor to your two schools can’t help but notice that the La Cañada students [the suburban school], while hardly perfect, seem more focused, more driven to succeed than the average student at Jefferson [the South-Central LA school]. It’s something that deeply frustrates Juan Flecha, the Jefferson principal. “They’re such nice kids,” he said of his pupils, adding: “They’re so unmotivated.”
A report on the aftermath of Proposition 227 in California, the 1998 ballot proposition that created a strong presumption against bilingual education, contains two little moments of school talk that seem to anticipate Principal Flecha’s comments. The study’s researchers observed teachers in two classrooms of predominantly Hispanic, English-learning students. “Why should I assign you homework? You won’t do it anyway,” one said. “I won’t tell you to read the chapter, because we all know what will happen,” said the other.
Now these teachers may simply have been lousy at motivating their students, and we should never accept facile excuses for student failure from a dysfunctional school bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the attitudes towards learning that students bring to a school are a real, if taboo, component of the academic-achievement gap.