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Learning from Poor and Minority Students Who Succeed in School


  Learning from Poor and Minority Students Who Succeed in School
Children's views on success and failure have a big impact on their learning

By Janine Bempechat

When Raymond was four years old, his family moved to the United States from Mexico. As in many immigrant families, everyone worked hard to get ahead in their new country. The children helped their mother deliver newspapers before she started her day cleaning houses. Their father worked on an assembly line during the day, at a gas station later in the afternoon, and at a pizza factory at night. And the parents still found time to encourage their children to achieve in school. "They helped the four of us get through college and graduate school," Raymond recalls, "not with monetary support, but by demonstrating persistence."

This is one family's story of success against the odds. Raymond and his siblings successfully navigated the journey from working- to middle-class status. The unfortunate reality is that, on average, poor and minority students underachieve relative to their middle-class Caucasian peers on a variety of indices, such as GPA, SAT scores, high school completion, and college completion. What is it about Raymond, his siblings, and his parents that has enabled them to prevail where so many others falter?

Relative to the voluminous literature on the causes of school failure, there is little research on how some students succeed against the odds. Most studies have focused on understanding differences between groups, usually comparing middle-class Caucasian students with poor or working-class minority students. Leaving aside the appropriateness of such comparisons, one important result is that we know little about differences between high and low achievers within the same group.

Recent advances in achievement motivation theory have provided a conceptual framework for exploring the ways in which high and low achievers may differ in their approaches to learning. In particular, the focus on children's beliefs about the causes of success and failure has helped us understand why some students embrace academic challenge while others shy away from it.

Bernard Weiner's influential work at UCLA has guided much of the research in achievement motivation over the past two decades. Studying how students explain their own academic success and failure, Weiner has shown that their explanations tend to focus on three broad categories. The first is innate ability or intelligence; many students believe that those who are smart do better in school. The second is effort; many students cite trying hard as a necessary component of achievement. Third, students mention external factors, such as having been lucky enough to study the right material or being the teacher's pet. As one might expect, students tend to attribute failure to lack of ability, insufficient effort, and external factors such as bad luck. Weiner has demonstrated that, in general, those who attribute success to ability and effort tend to fare better in school than those who implicate luck or other external factors.

Students who work
cooperatively in the classroom
tend to be less worried about how
smart they are relative
to others and to focus on
learning for its own sake.


Just how children view ability can have important consequences for their levels of motivation. In separate studies, John Nicholls, author of The Competitive Ethos and Democratic Education, and Carol Dweck of Teachers College at Columbia University have concluded that children who view ability or intelligence as a quality that is unfixed and changeable are much more likely to tackle risky, challenging tasks and to rebound from failures by redoubling their efforts. Those who see their ability as fixed tend to choose easy assignments over challenging ones and to be less resilient about failures. (See "When Bright Kids Get Bad Grades,"Harvard Education Letter, November/December 1992.) Furthermore, Nicholls has shown that children's beliefs about intellectual ability can shift when they are young, but tend to gel when they reach 5th or 6th grade.

How, then, do high and low achievers within a given racial or ethnic group differ in their attributions of success and failure? Are there any commonalities among high achievers in all groups? And, given the importance of family involvement in schooling, do high and low achievers report any differences in their parents' attempts to foster academic achievement?

These questions drove a recent study of achievement and motivation in students from groups ordinarily considered to be at risk for school failure —because of poverty or minority status, because their first language is not English, or because they live in single-parent homes or have mothers who did not finish high school. From 1991 to 1995, my colleagues and I surveyed more than 1,000 5th- and 6th-graders in ten public and Catholic schools. The students were African American, Latino, Indochinese, and Caucasian, all drawn from poor neighborhoods in the Boston area.

The students completed two questionnaires. The first asked about their perceptions of the reasons for success and failure in mathematics. The second asked how often their parents provided academic help and sp+ke about the value of schooling and its relation to their futures. To assess achievement, we also administered a 10-minute computational math test. With this information, we examined what beliefs, if any, and what kinds of parental involvement, if any, were associated with higher achievement in mathematics. Additionally, we were able to investigate whether any such relationships were the same or different for the various ethnic groups.

Although there were differences in average math scores across the groups, the higher achievers in all ethnic groups had similar beliefs about the causes of success and failure. They believed that success was due to high ability and, perhaps more important, they did not believe that failure was due to lack of ability. In contrast, regardless of ethnicity, the lower achievers believed that success was due to external factors and that failure was due to lack of ability.

For example, when students were asked why a teacher might choose them to count the money for a class trip, higher achievers in all groups were more likely to answer that it would be because they were "good in math." Lower achievers were more likely to give answers like, "It was my turn."

In addition, the study showed that when compared with their public school peers, African-American and Latino students in Catholic schools had beliefs about success and failure that were more conducive to learning. They were more likely to attribute success to ability and less likely to attribute either success or failure to external factors, such as luck or a difficult test.

The higher achievers in
all ethnic groups had similar
beliefs about the causes of
success and failure.


Our findings also spoke clearly against the popular stereotype of poor parents as being uninvolved in their children's schooling. While there were ethnic differences in actual mathematics achievement (with Indochinese students the highest and African-American students the lowest achievers), in all ethnic groups parental involvement was perceived as higher when math achievement was lower. In other words, all children perceived their parents as concerned about their education—providing academic support by helping with homework, or providing motivational support by emphasizing the importance of education for future economic survival. There is evidence in educational research for the notion that parents tend to increase their involvement when their children are doing poorly. Simply put, it is the lower achievers who need the help.

In light of this study and other research on motivation, what can parents and schools do to promote both academic achievement and positive attitudes about learning? While there is no one path to academic excellence, these findings do point to some lessons for parents and teachers.

Self-Perception of Ability

It is healthy for children to believe they have some measure of innate ability. There is little question that parents' beliefs are critical for their children's academic self-esteem. Researchers such as Susan Holloway at the University of California, Berkeley, have shown that parents' beliefs about their children's mathematics ability have a profound influence on the children's evaluations of their own ability, their beliefs about the causes of success and failure in math, and their attitudes toward math. And several studies of successful adults from minority groups indicate that motivational support from parents—statements that stress the value of effort or of education—may be even more important for poor or minority children than whether the parents can help with homework.

In a 1987 study of Asian-American summer school students at Harvard University carried out by Herbert Ginsburg, now a professor at Teachers College, students recalled that their parents supervised their study habits, limited their extracurricular activities, and refrained from assigning them household duties so as to free up time for study. Parents frequently discussed the relationship between effort, schooling, and success in life, and they supported academic activities by providing resources such as calculators and workbooks. Interestingly, many parents did not provide specific help with homework.

Indeed, Weiner and his colleagues have found that children may interpret unsolicited help from an adult as an indication of low ability. Weiner has also shown that children as young as five can infer a teacher's beliefs about the causes of their success or failure from the teacher's emotional reaction to their performance. A teacher who reacts angrily to failure, for example, is communicating that the student is able to do much better.

Restructure Classrooms for Learning

The ways in which teachers structure their classrooms have a critical impact on children's beliefs about the causes of success and failure. Nicholls has shown that students in traditional, competitively organized classrooms become overly concerned with how they are doing relative to their friends. This in turn makes them very anxious about mistakes and failure. They tend to become focused on whether, rather than how, they can accomplish a task. Learning becomes an exercise in attaining a desired product—the right answer. Under these circumstances, children come to see mistakes and failures as condemnations of their ability.

In contrast, students who work cooperatively in the classroom tend to be less worried about how smart they are relative to others and to focus on learning for its own sake. In cooperatively based classrooms, children are more likely to focus on how they can accomplish a task. They tend to view mistakes as necessary components of learning, and learning as a process that involves sustained effort. Under these circumstances, many children come to see mistakes and failure as opportunities to learn, no matter what they believe about their own abilities. Depending on the type of classroom structure teachers choose, they are communicating a view of success and failure to their students that can have a critical impact on children's beliefs.

Learn from Catholic Schools Our findings suggest that ethnic minority students are at a distinct advantage when they are enrolled in Catholic schools. Relative to their public school peers, Latino students in Catholic schools believed more strongly that success is due to ability. Both Latino and African-American students in Catholic schools were much less likely than their public school peers to attribute failure to external factors such as a difficult test.

The challenge for teachers is to
help their students maintain a
healthy balance between believing
that they have the ability necessary
to learn, and knowing that effort
will help them maximize their ability.


Did the Catholic school experience foster these adaptive beliefs, or did the students arrive at Catholic schools with these beliefs already in place? It is impossible to know for sure, but the growing literature on the benefits of parochial education, especially for the poorest children, suggests that aspects of pedagogy may contribute to the development of positive attitudes about academic ability. These aspects include high expectations and standards for both academic and social performance, and the belief that all children can excel in school provided that they invest effort.

This study has given us a clear glimpse into the ways in which high and low achievers think about the causes of their successes and failures in school. The most important implication for teachers in their day-to-day work is that all lower achievers, regardless of ethnicity, are at risk for believing that their poor performance results from lack of ability. This belief is potentially very debilitating, for if students do not think they have at least some ability, it makes little sense to them to invest effort in their learning. The challenge for teachers is to help their students maintain a healthy balance between believing that they have the ability necessary to learn, and knowing that effort will help them maximize their ability.


Janine Bempechat is assistant professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Against the Odds.


For further information

J. Bempechat, S. Graham, and N. Jimenez. "The Socialization of Achievement in Poor and Minority Students: A Comparative Study." Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 30, no. 2 (March 1999): 139-158.

C. Dweck and J. Bempechat. "Children's Theories of Intelligence: Consequences of Learning." In S. Paris, G. Olsen, and H. Stevensen, eds., Learning and Motivation in the Classroom. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1983: 239-256.

J. Nicholls. "What Is Ability and Why Are We Mindful of It? A Developmental Perspective." In R. Sternberg & J. Kolligian, eds., Competence Considered. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990: 11-40.




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