23
Jul
08

Breaking Down Stereotypes Starts at home.

Today I read a very interesting article about the racial achievement gap between Asian, Caucasian, Latino and Black students at a California high school. I found this article particularly interesting, because the LA Times took the initiative to talk with students about a very controversial topic.

The idea of racial profiling and stereotyping is a common and very touchy subject. I personally do not believe it stereotyping, however I do believe in statistics. Statistics, when used objectively, are great for clearly seeing patterns and trends that can provide valuable insights into a lot of things. Statistics do not lie, and assuming there is no bias in the way the statistics are collected, are entirely objective.

However the mistake people make is usually in how they use or interpret this data. Statistical data is a great generalization tool, but cannot be applied to specific individuals. This is where the problem occurs. Many people make the mistake of attributing a generalization to a specific case, and that is where stereotyping takes a wrong turn.

Now I’m not just raving about statistics for my own personal amusement. I brought it up because of an interesting statistic that appeared in the article I mentioned above:

Both the neighborhood and student body are about 15% Asian. And yet Asians make up 50% of students taking Advanced Placement classes. Staffers can’t remember the last time a Latino was valedictorian. – [LA Times]

The statistics do not lie. Clearly Asians generally do better academically than other demographics. But this is where it gets tricky. Why do Asians do better? How do we interpret this information? The same article speaks of the negative academic stereotype of the average Latino. And statistically, they are accurate. But is is because Asian people are smarter than other demographics? Or that Latino or black students are less intelligent?

How about the oft cited blanket “socioeconomic status” stereotype to explain why some do better than others? Nope. I think not. This should be obvious, as there are many kids from very, very poor families that are academically brilliant. But if my opinion is not enough for you, (and it really shouldn’t ever be) even the statistics do not support this explanation.

According to a study of census data, 84% of the Asian and Latino families in the neighborhoods around Lincoln High have median annual household incomes below $50,000. And yet the Science Bowl team is 90% Asian, as is the Academic Decathlon team. – [LA Times]

So what is it? Is there a race related intelligence deficiency at play? Cultural biases? What? These are thorny questions that need to be discussed in order to get answers. The problem, of course, is that there are too many unwilling to even ask the hard questions.

Apparently some educators walked out when it came time to discuss this aspect of the problem, apparently due to concerns about making sweeping generalizations and reinforcing stereotypes. But from my perspective, those people fail as educators. If you are unable to see how to address a problem like this in an honest, open and objective fashion, then frankly, in this bloggers humble opinion, you should not be anywhere near a classroom, let alone teaching kids.

Clearly, making any sweeping generalization is the wrong thing to do. And would, in any case, be inaccurate, since high achieving students from every demographic are not rare. So obviously something else was to blame, and during the course of the discussion, I believe they nailed it down. Really well, I might add. It is kind of simple actually:

Asian parents are more likely to pressure their children to excel academically, the students agreed.

George said his mother, a Mexican immigrant, has high expectations for him too, but she is not so white-knuckled when it comes to school. She wants him to do well — he’s now thinking of college — but the field of endeavor is up to him.

“She said, ‘I came here to do better for you,’ ” he said. “But that’s about it. Being happy and getting by, that’s what she wants.”

For Carlos Garcia, the one with the knack for math, the message from his parents was to focus on school. Neither got to finish grade school in their native countries. – [LA Times]

There are several similar statements printed in the article, but they basically all make the same reference to how the expectations of their parents, teachers, and even other students, determined how much work they put into their academics. From this, we can make one basic inference. It would appear that how well a student does is directly proportional to the expectations of their parents and their community.

In effect, it is not that any demographic is inherently smarter or dumber than another, but rather that the attitudes of the members of that demographic, and specifically of a students parents and guardians, determine how important academia is to any given student.

This, is actually a much more reasonable explanation than that of socioeconomic status, or inherent racial or genetic predisposition. And it confirms something that I’ve believed for a long time. Parents are perhaps the single greatest influence on a students ability to excel. In anything. Yes, parents are subject to the expectations of the community they live or were raised in, but the one thing that this article does prove is that even cultural expectations can be overcome by parental determination.

We can see that in many Asian households academic achievement is a high priority, where as in many Latino house holds, just working, or getting by is the priority. And yet, where the parents desires clashed with the cultural status quo, the student often defied the cultural stereotype.

So there are two thoughts I would like to leave you all with.

The first is, we all need to learn how to put our plethora of various sensitivities on the shelf, and learn not to shy away from a difficult discussion. We’ve all grown so super sensitive about so many issues that we tend to avoid them, and lash out at anyone who tries to get anywhere near those hot button issues, all the while failing to realize that true resolution and the breaking down of stereotypes and walls, only comes from putting our fears and biases aside, and talking openly and honestly about them.

The second, is for the parents. It cannot be stressed enough how much your attitudes affect your children, and our future. You are the most important influence on your kids. If you want your kids to excel, you must expect them to, you every word or action should demonstrate that you believe they can do better. This actually works for everything, from them misbehaving to teaching them about life. You attitude, your life, even the things you don’t say are as important as the things you do. Kids pick up on them all. So when you see something going wrong with your kids, please look at yourself first for the solution.

Much like in the move “The Matrix”, you may find that it is impossible to bend the spoon. So bend yourself instead…

Why do Asian students generally get higher marks than Latinos? – [LA Times]

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2 Responses to “Breaking Down Stereotypes Starts at home.”


  1. July 24, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    If it is an act of prejudice to assign gifts or handicaps to a race would be the same with a culture? Implied with in the article if a Latino boy was raised in an Asian household he would statically perform better in school. With this all kinds of things can happen, particularly in the parts of the world where people war over tiny differences in cultural identification. Can open worms everywhere…
    -pf

  2. July 24, 2008 at 8:31 pm

    Hey PF,

    Here’s my take on this. Whether it is a matter of race, culture, age, creed, religion, ect., statistics are statistics. Statistics do not impart gifts nor assess handicaps to anyone. They merely state what the current general trends are.

    If the statistics say that by percentage, Asian students get higher grades than everyone else, then it holds true that percentage wise, Asian students get higher grades than anyone else. There is neither bias, preconceived perceptual errors nor prejudice in this statement,as it is based purely on raw data. The same can be said for any set of statistics that show Latino or African American students getting lower grades, or what percentage drop out of school.

    Regardless of the prejudicial spin anyone may try to give it, there is no getting around the fact that the statistics do not lie, deceive or have any vested interest in casting any sample in either a positive or negative light. However what is very important is how we interpret and what we do with those statistics. In citing the the hypothetical example of the Latino boy raised in the Asian household, I think you’ve made the classic fundamental mistake of attempting to extrapolate the outcome of a specific scenario, based on what is, at best, highly generalized statistical evidence.

    I think the article, and the statistics presented, should be interpreted and used differently. It is clear from the article that academic achievement has less to do with race, and culture, and much, much more to do with the attitudes of the students parents. Yes, the parent’s culture or race may precondition them for a specific attitude towards education, but to focus on that is to miss the point. The point is that, regardless of the culture or race, those students that do well in school seem to primarily do so because it is expected of them, by either their parents, guardians, community, and/or peers, regardless of their race or cultural predisposition.

    Ergo, improving the parents attitude towards education should improve the academic achievement statistics for any given demographic. This, IMHO, is how statistics are to be used. Not to make blanket statements, or to apply broad generalizations to specific cases (AKA Stereotyping), but rather to isolate those traits that we want, and learn the commonalities among them, so we can try and use that knowledge to get positive results from the statistical sample that is exhibiting undesirable traits.


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