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Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Nature of America's Most Needy Schools

The Nature of America’s Most Needy Schools:
An Epistemological Analysis and Discussion of Grounds for Solutions

Leon I. Gordon

Northwestern University


This article seeks to address one of our nation’s most pressing concerns: the need for effective teachers in America’s neediest schools. As many search for means to solve this dilemma, it is essential that we ground our search for a solution with an epistemological understanding of the societal constructs that substantiate the prevalence of low-achieving schools in poor, urban communities across our nation. Doing so provides valuable insight to the nature of the omnipresent battles that low-income urban schools face as they grapple with the social, cultural, historical, political, and bureaucratic dimensions of their given ecological contexts. Uncovering the societal underpinnings of these struggling schools exposes rigid nature of the deep-seated obstacles they face as they struggle to improve. Moreover, this approach ultimately provides a clarifying logic that strengthens the foundation and validity for where our nation’s schools, districts, policy reforms, and research institutions have come to fixate their efforts of educational improvement: providing students with effective teachers as a pivotal lever of change. This article seeks to provide a thorough analysis of the dilemmas faced by struggling schools in low-income, urban communities in hopes to provide a “solid-footing” for the solutions it proposes in order to strengthen and increase the supply of effective teachers and end the perpetual stagnation of America’s neediest schools, the impoverishment of their communities and the marginalization of their minority populace.

Key Words: High-Need Schools, Urban Education, Teacher Effectiveness, Resilience, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, Epistemology

Assembling Effective Teachers for America’s Neediest Schools

Article Overview

This article begins first with a careful analysis of what constitutes and defines America’s neediest schools- through which- it moves to present an overview of the challenges and short-comings these schools face. Next, in acknowledging teacher effectiveness as a vital lever for improving student achievement, this article moves to discuss specific challenges struggling schools face to recruit and retain quality teachers. Lastly, through a brief review of practices of successful teachers in urban contexts, this article will argue that teacher resiliency capacity and use of culturally relevant pedagogy will significantly improve the recruitment and practices of teachers who prove effective for classrooms of low-income, minority students.

Academic Achievement: Moving from a National to a Community-Level Focus

Our nation’s education system is undeniably linked to our future livelihood. In a recent report titled: The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools (McKinsey, 2009), the authors make the claim that “the extent to which a society utilizes its human potential is among the chief determinants of its prosperity” (p.5). According to this report, the United States, in comparison to other advanced nations, is significantly behind in educational performance- and, had our academic performance improved in recent years, the GDP in 2008 could have been “$1.3 trillion to $2.3 trillion higher” (p. 5). The conclusions bolstered in this report paint the picture that there is a positive relationship between the achievement-level in our nation’s schools and our nation’s overall productivity. Surely, if this the case, what can be said about a nation collectively can be said about its subcomponents; such that, communities that often struggle to promote academic achievement are also often communities that experience economic short-comings.

This gives hint to the widely known fact that America’s impoverished communities are homes to the neediest schools. Such is the concern of this article, that is, what lies beneath the aggregate report of America’s collective academic performance: a concern for the individual communities of our nation and the schools within them- more specifically- those schools that struggle to “make the grade”. Accordingly, McKinsey & Company’s report (2009) provides a comprehensive review of who in America is achieving at what level, disaggregating the data behind America’s collective achievement.

It is essential to adjust this evaluative scope to hone in on the microcosms of societal operation (i.e. - the many district-, city-, and state-wide communities) to review which subgroups and what conditions constitute struggling schools as well as how and why improving these schools is so difficult. Doing so will shed light on a foundational logic that substantiates providing these communities and their schools with quality teachers as the vital lever for promoting positive change within. In looking to understand why improvement in America’s most needy schools is confounded, this article moves next to reveal the philosophical and societal underpinnings, conditions, and populations that substantiate their existence.

Examining Philosophical and Societal Underpinnings of America’s Struggling Schools

In his discourse on The Origin of Inequality, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1754) wrote:

“..the human soul [is] altered in the midst of society by a thousand constantly recurring causes, by the acquisition of a multitude of bits of knowledge and of errors, by changes that [take] place in the constitution of bodies, by the constant impact of passions…” (p.33).

We interpret Rousseau’s use of the term “human soul” to be synonymous with “frame of mind”, (i.e. - our on-going perception and interpretation of the world). As suggested by the quote above, the individual frame of mind (and subsequently how we process the world) is influenced by a myriad of factors. In being born unlearned, the individual frame of mind is constantly shaped by human interaction with ecological context and works to influence the cultural practices, embedded beliefs, emotional dispositions, and perceptions of individuals within societies (See fig.1 below, Flavell & Miller, 1998).

Fig. 1 (Flavell & Miller, 1998, p. 855)

Human mind frames develop through their changing participation in the socio-cultural activities of their communities, which also change; further, the dimensions of historical context interact to shape the lives of individuals which shape what, how, when, where and why one learns and is taught (Rogoff, 2003; Dien, 2000). The individual mind frame is what wields one’s participation within society, facilitating decisions and actions- through which individual citizens demonstrate their capacities of collective skill and performance- to produce varying outcomes along one’s life trajectory.

Further, the collective skill and performance of communities of individuals are what drives their ability to be productive. This deduction, suggests that a society’s prosperity rest largely in the cultivation of the mind frames of its individual citizens. As such, the concern for cultivating the mind frames of individual citizens (so as to promote a collective communal prosperity) should become the primary concern for impoverished neighborhoods. However, as formal schooling is the major societal construct to which we turn to in hopes to improve the lives of individuals and communities of individuals, the consistent presence of low-achieving schools present in the challenging ecological context of poverty point to an interdependent relationship of academic achievement in schools and the prosperity of a community. This article moves now to examine this interdependence to hone in on why and how America’s impoverished communities are usually homes to the neediest schools.

Interdependence between Academic Achievement and Community Prosperity

As explored in the latter section, the collective life outcomes that result for individuals and communities of individuals are part of an ongoing performance on the stage of societal living- in which the script is regulated by the indelible calligraphy of the social, emotional, and cognitive milieu of learning to live and, ideally, succeeding in life. According to McKinsey & Company (2009) “the extent to which a [community] utilizes its human potential is among the chief determinants of its prosperity” (p.5).

How, then, do communities utilize human potential; furthermore, why do impoverished communities struggle to do so? History is replete with societal frameworks that stratify the quality of life among their respective citizenry. The United States, in its belief in and practice of a capitalist free-market economy (which establishes divisions of labor among its citizens, see Smith, 1776), will always produce a hierarchy of wealth-- and thereby- access to differing life opportunities among its citizenry. As such, a heterogeneous distribution of wealth is expected; such that, while some individuals and communities of individuals are prosperous, others remain likewise impoverished.

We will begin to understand how communities struggle if we look to the societal construct responsible for cultivating its human potential (which communities hope to utilize in their efforts to be prosperous): formal education. American citizens, for most of their lives, progress with the goal of competing for, or earning, a status in society, in which, formal education is a vital construct relied upon to cultivate human potential for productive participation. Hence, we return to the notion that the school is a major societal construct to which we turn to, in hopes to improve the lives of individuals and communities of individuals.

In communities that are home to a degenerative quality of life, the role of the school is of increased and utmost significance as studies have shown that, the ecological framework (i.e.- community constructs, dynamic of home-life and responsibility and school environment) present vulnerabilities that lead to the sustained marginalization of populations (Burton, 2005).Further, the challenges of impoverished communities make it extremely difficult for schools to serve as catalysts for improvement and change and, in fact, work to further confound their prosperity, rendering both these communities and the schools within them needy (Lee, Spencer, & Harpalani, 2003).

Having now established the interdependent relationship between community prosperity and school performance, this article moves now to make more specific the nature of America’s most needy schools. Who are the subgroups subjected to these poor educational outcomes? What deficiencies and circumstances contribute to these schools’ inability to provide adequate education? How can we look to improve them? This article moves now to provide answers to the latter questions.

Concrete Look at America’s Struggling Schools

The quality (or lack thereof) of education received can enable (or hinder) the ability of a community (and its respective citizens) to achieve upward mobility. What continues to be problematic is the stagnation and perpetual impoverishment of particular communities and subgroups whose pursuit of the “American Dream” or access to the pathway of upward mobility- via education- is disproportionately confounded. This consistent, seemingly systematic arrested mobility of particular subgroups raises questions as to whether these subgroups or communities are being given an equal opportunity to vie for a position of increased life opportunity and success.

In disaggregating America’s overall academic performance to examine different subgroups or communities, McKinsey & Company (2009) substantiate widely recognized claims that significant short-comings of achievement exist among and in between different subgroups--elucidating the reality of what is widely known as “the achievement gap”. The authors examine achievement gaps found within the U.S. school system based on race, income-level, and differing school systems and/or regions. Their results show that America’s disadvantaged are low-income, minority youth (i.e.- Blacks and Latinos) who, “on average, are roughly two to three years behind white students of the same age” (p. 9) and that these discrepancies exist for both test scores (across reading and math) as well as for graduation rates.

Moreover, they report these gaps to exist in every state and that they are even more so pronounced in large urban school districts. According to McKinsey & Company these “avoidable shortfalls in academic achievement impose heavy and often tragic consequences, via lower earnings, poorer health, and higher rates of incarceration” (p. 5). These are the conditions that surround America’s needy schools and the outcomes which the students in these communities face and fail to overcome via academic achievement.

Searching for a Solution to Improving Struggling Schools

Where are we to find a viable solution to improve these schools and, subsequently, the life opportunities for their students? School success is measured by its ability to promote student achievement which, in turn, is cultivated through effective instruction. What is it that confounds America’s neediest schools’ ability to provide effective instruction?

Aside from the environmental challenges brought on by poverty, the factors that influence instructional practice at struggling schools are many: from inadequate funding, limited resources (e.g. - quality of books, curriculum materials, laboratories, and computers) larger class sizes, to less-qualified and less-experienced teachers (Darling-Hammond, 1998; Darling-Hammond & Berry, 1999). The on-site factors that impact instructional efficacy are many and, in an ideal world, improving these schools’ performance would consist of a concerted effort to address all of these deficiencies.

The truth of the matter is that the gears of school operation that impact instruction are subject to many players at many levels (i.e. - federal, state, city, district, individual school) and putting together a concerted effort is more easily said than done (Spillane & Diamond, 2007). Everyone involved (i.e.- teachers, administrators, policy-makers) have different ideas about what it is that will drive improvement, and each level holds a degree of control in which, if interests and intentions are misaligned, a concerted effort for improvement can indeed be difficult (Weiss, 1990).

However, as the goal of these schools is improvement in promoting student achievement, it would seem (beyond all other factors) that the necessity of human capital is the most essential resource. After all, achievement is wielded through effective teaching and, teaching is the business of human improvement (Cohen, 1989). Further, since the seminal study known as the “Coleman Report” it has been hinted that no other resource matters as much as human capital in making a difference in student achievement (Coleman et al. 1966).

Through teaching we “[promise] students intellectual growth, social learning, better jobs, and civilized sensibilities (Cohen, 1989, pp.37). As struggling schools (and all schools for that matter) seek to churn out quality students, logically, it seems that the most essential ingredient is the vital necessity of human capital required to engage in this uncertain, difficult, and complex work of “human improvement”. Talented individuals are needed at the ground-level such that our greatest investment to finding a solution should be to provide students with an effective teacher who proves capable of delivering instruction that results in increased achievement.

This conclusion, albeit arrived at through an epistemological analysis, is one that “holds water”, as “research affirms that teaching quality is the single most important factor influencing student achievement, moving students well beyond family backgrounds’ limitations” (Munoz & Florence, 2008, pp. 159). Furthermore, providing effective teachers for America’s low-income struggling schools (whose performance is confounded by circumstance of poverty and all the challenges that lie therein) is fitting as a vital lever of change as research has consistently shown that” the schools that students attend and what their teachers know and do have more influence on student achievement than students’ family characteristics and ethnicity (p. 159).

Having reached this intended conclusion, this paper now ends its epistemological analysis of the circumstances that influence and perpetuate the existence of America’s struggling schools and moves next to hone in on why providing our struggling schools with effective teachers is more easily said than done.

Overview of Challenges to Providing Effective Teachers for Struggling Schools

Struggling schools face a number of challenges in their attempts to secure effective teachers for their students. This article moves next to provide a brief overview of these challenges which include: (1) difficulty of low-income, urban districts to hire/recruit and retain certified teachers, (2) the challenges of using alternative certification as a means to overcome the limitations imposed by policy and (3) defining and recognizing the qualities of effective teaching.

General Recruitment and Retention Challenges for High-Need Schools

America’s neediest schools (i.e. - large inner-city, low-income school districts) often find it difficult to staff their schools with certified and experienced teachers (Hanushek & Rivkin, 2006). This is partly because urban school districts typically face greater challenges and operate under more trying circumstances than do rural or suburban schools (Darling-Hammond, 1998). These challenges range from high teacher and student absenteeism, high teacher turnover, high numbers of uncertified teachers and great numbers of inexperienced teachers.

The attraction of a school district that offers a more desirable work environment and higher salary provides a rather strong incentive for credentialed and experienced teachers to seek teaching positions outside high-need areas (Hanushek, Kain & Rivkin, 2001; Laczko-Kerr & Berliner, 2002). In the face of these challenges, “the very children [from struggling schools] who most need strong teachers are assigned, on average, to teachers with less experience, less education and less skill” (Peske & Haycock, 2006, p. 2).

Challenges of Recent Policy on Teacher Hiring

What has proven just as confounding to this search for effective teachers has been the raising of teaching standards via the regulations of the infamous No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) (U.S. Congress, 2001). The NCLB act focuses on teacher quality as a means to ensure that schools serving America’s neediest students (who typically have a shortage of experienced and certified teachers) receive teachers who are highly qualified --as one of the major goals of NCLB was to close the achievement gap (Darling-Hammond, 2006). In order to be considered “highly-qualified”, teachers must have a bachelor’s degree, be state-certified, and demonstrate they possess a satisfactory-level of knowledge of the subject they teach (i.e. - via passing subject matter tests and/or meeting course-taking requirements).

In order to comply with the provisions outlined in NCLB and receive the federal funding they have come to rely on for base-line operation-- public schools around the country found themselves scurrying to staff their schools with “highly-qualified” teachers. The increased accountability at the school-level promoted by NCLB has now, more than ever before, caused individual schools and districts to grapple with the reality that is the difficulty of finding effective teachers. No longer would schools be allowed to compromise teacher qualifications and simply “staff” their schools with under-qualified teachers. This reality pushed struggling-inner city schools into an increasingly exhaustive search for experienced teachers within an inner-city workforce, where those who meet “highly-qualified” (especially in areas such as mathematics and sciences) are often few and far between (Peske & Haycock, 2006).

In the face of the provisions of NCLB, schools, especially inner-city schools in need, turned increasingly to alternative certification programs in hopes to meet their staffing needs. In fact, The National Center for Education Information (as cited by Kane, et. al, 2006) estimates that one-third of teachers enter the field via alternative certification. Alternative certification programs help schools meet the regulations outlined in NCLB as they churn out credentialed teachers in less-time and via less formal training- where teachers are often allowed to teach while they garner their certification. This pathway has been very attractive to “hard –to-staff” schools as it presents a legitimized “loophole” that allows schools to meet staffing needs and comply with NCLB. Not only this, teachers who are alternatively certified have been found to be more willing to work in high-need areas (Peske & Haycock, 2006).

This hints that alternative certification programs perhaps have the potential to serve as a means to reduce the difficulty of “hard to staff” schools in meeting the technical provisions of NCLB, such that they provide a consistent supply of certified teachers who are willing to take on the challenges of a high-need school context. While many concerns have risen as to whether alternative certification programs adequately prepare teachers for practice (compared to traditional certification pathways), recent research efforts (Kane, et, al 2006) have began to lay many of these concerns to rest, showing that certification is not the major factor of ensuring teacher quality. These findings show that experience matters in the classroom and that the greatest lever for districts to improve achievement lies in effective retention of teachers who prove to be effective (Schlecty & Vance, 1983).

If this is the case, clearly certification pathway is not the most important factor in ensuring teacher effectiveness. However, what remains unclear or problematic, is the whether or not meeting qualifications results in effective teaching. This article’s focus now shifts to explore the surface of the ubiquitous notion that the practices of effective teaching are not easily recognized and disentangling them is a very complex process and, in our inability to completely or accurately discern the qualities of effective teaching, our efforts to provide effective teachers for high-need schools are further confounded.

Defining the Qualities of Effective Teachers

There is much conversation as to whether teachers who satisfy qualifications and are considered “highly-qualified” actually translate into their being effective in the classroom, these provisions, more or less, serve as an indicator that a given teacher has received, at the very least, the minimal training necessary to practice. Much research has investigated whether or not meeting prerequisite standards such as those set-forth by NCLB, as well as evaluation of other measures seen as potential “proxies” for predicting teacher effectiveness (e.g.- competiveness of undergraduate institution, SAT/ACT scores, whether a teacher has a master’s degree), translates into increased levels of student achievement. While obtaining a master’s degree and completing requisites to achieve “highly-qualified” status, as prescribed by NCLB, does not guarantee a teacher effectiveness (Hanushek & Rivkin, 2006; Kane et, al, 2006; Loeb & Reininger, 2004; Darling-Hammond & Snyder, 2000), studies have shown mixed results in regards to the explanatory/predictive power of these proxies and their measured impact on student achievement (Boyd et. al., 2008; Hanushek & Rivkin, 2006; Kane et, al, 2006; Rockoff et. al. 2008).

Some notable characteristics that researchers have linked to improved student outcomes (and thus effective teaching) are higher test scores, more selective undergraduate institution, having substantial content knowledge, and years of experience. While the positive correlation between these characteristics and student achievement offer some insight into the types of teachers that may prove effective in the classroom, they are far from being the apotheosis of the far-more complex, multidimensional measure that is teacher effectiveness. To make more concrete the complexity of teacher effectiveness, I quote Bransford and Darling-Hammond (2005) as they offer the following comprehensive analysis:

“On a daily basis, teachers confront complex decisions that rely on many different kinds of knowledge and judgment and that can involve high-stakes out-comes for students’ futures. To make good decisions, teachers must be aware of the many ways in which student learning can unfold in the context of development, learning differences, language and cultural influences, and individual temperaments, interests, and approaches to learning ” (p.1-2).

Painted in this light, we see that teacher effectiveness is influenced by a myriad of factors, each with the potential to perhaps confound student achievement. Every school community in America has distinct factors contributing to the unique nature of what is necessary for a teacher to be effective in improving student performance which, of course, can leave us with differing qualities that prove effective in different contexts (see Shulman, 1987; Gay, 2000). Rogoff (2003) argues that “the variation in teacher quality is driven by characteristics that are difficult or impossible to measure”(p.2); further, Loeb and Reininger (2004) attest that the subtle findings linking particular teacher characteristics with student achievement still leave us lagging in our ability to discern specifically what makes for good teaching.

While we agree that it can be difficult (and at times impossible) to measure the characteristics that drive teacher quality, we should remain dutiful to identifying and examining observable teacher actions that significantly impact student learning. In doing so, we increase our ability to ensure that all students have effective teachers (who possess the necessary skills that respond to the given ecological context in which they teach). Having now discussed the challenges to providing effective teachers for schools in poor, urban contexts, this article moves now to discuss the qualities of such teachers for high-need schools.

Recognizing Effective Teachers for High-Need Schools

Providing and facilitating a learning environment is a complex process that has many dimensions. The ultimate goal of a learning environment is to prove effective at providing the necessary supports and procedures that support student learning such that students prove capable in demonstrating mastery of a presented subject matter. In this sense, teacher quality is a demonstration of capability to promote student learning and achievement. The ability of a teacher to promote student achievement lies in a continuum of ecological change, where many obstacles to student learning will arise. This article asserts that in order to prove effective in high-need schools:

(1) teachers must be capable of enacting resilience in the face of the many challenges struggling schools face and
(2) teachers must be responsive to the cultural tools of thinking and emotional processing that students embody so as to maximize their understanding of content.

Teacher Enactment of Resilience and Effectiveness

Effective teachers for low-income minority students in America’s struggling schools have the ability to, in the face of constant challenge, create an environment that “[engages] in sustained and continuous progress toward a performance goal [(demonstrated achievement)] over time” (Elmore, 2002, p.2). In order to create such an environment, these teachers must prove resilient in the face of the challenges high-need schools face (Patterson, Collins, & Abbot, 2004). While research that provides data on the hypothesis of teacher resilience as a control for effectiveness is sparse, research efforts on recruitment and retention (Kane et. al, 2006) attest that the greatest lever for ensuring effective instruction is to work to retain teachers who prove effective; furthermore, Ingersoll (2000) as cited by (Peske and Haycock, 2006) attests that the true nature of the teacher shortage in high-need schools is not so much a shortage of certified teachers but a more of a shortage created by a high rate of turnover of certified teachers who either prove ineffective or unable to withstand the challenging conditions of high-need schools. In this, the logic of resilience as a factor of teacher retention stands indeed in the forefront as a positive causal link for exhibited teacher effectiveness in high-need schools.

Patterson, Collins, and Abbot (2004), in their study of teacher resilience in urban schools define resilience as “using energy effectively to achieve school goals in the face of adverse conditions” (p.1). This study showed that teachers who proved effective (via promoting student achievement) in classrooms of “difficult to teach” students enacted resilience such that they exhibited seven key strengths

(1) remaining positive in spite of adversity,
(2) staying focused on what you care about,
(3) remaining flexible in how they achieve their goals,
(4) taking charge,
(5) work to create a climate of personal and professional support,
(6) maintain high expectations for success for students, teachers, and parents, and (7) work to create shared responsibility and participation.

Although the teacher strengths mentioned above sound straightforward and concise, the actions through which these teachers took to exhibit these strengths are highly situated. Undoubtedly, more research is needed to dissect the nature of these strengths and their relation to teacher enactment of resilience. Further research on resilience as a teacher attribute for success can and will uncover context specific enactment of teacher actions that perhaps can strengthen the practitioner knowledge base of best practices with respect to resilience.

Teacher Responsiveness to Student Culture

The classrooms of America’s most needy schools are filled predominantly with minority student populations. Many cultural practices exhibited by poor, minority families do not align with the cultural practices aligned with middle-class success in achievement, given this the cultural practices of lower-class populations are often viewed as deficits (which ultimately contributes to their continuous marginalization). In her book The Cultural Nature of Human Development, Barbara Rogoff argues that western schooling systems often do not provide adequate supports for the socio-cultural tools of thinking that diverse learners embody. In order for teachers to be effective in high-need schools, they must facilitate learning environments for learners who embody cultural-tools for thinking that differ from typical, middle-class practices.

To concisely demonstrate this, consider a salient, albeit singular, example of this concept: A study involving middle and high school basketball players found that students were better able to solve problems about average and percentage when the questions were set in the context of basketball as opposed to a typical math worksheet format (Nasir, Hand, & Taylor, 2008). The problems presented in a basketball context afforded the use of the cultural practices or cultural tools for thinking embodied by the students such that they achieved a greater demonstration of mastery; however, when the students were presented with problems that did not afford the usage of these cultural tools for thinking, students demonstrated less capability of mastery.

This hints at the fact that perhaps a major area for improvement in our efforts to provide effective teachers is to identify cultural practices of low-income students of color that can aid in their understanding of academic content. This speaks largely to the work of Carol Lee which examines ways to utilize the intellectual reasoning that students embody as a means to coach and scaffold student understanding and mastery of the normative communicative practices that often limit their achievement (Lee, 2001). This calls for teachers, administrators and teacher education programs to restructure their curricular practices to attune to the socio-cultural cognitive practices of its student population. In being aware of the socio-emotional needs of learners we can identify and utilize them as vehicles to cultivate successful participation that supports learning in an otherwise seemingly difficult-to-engage learning environment.


Finding teachers that willfully commit themselves to the day in and day out struggles of teaching within the context of needy schools is undoubtedly a necessity if we hope to see improvement both in these schools and their respective communities. In order to successfully educate students in these communities, schools must be attentive to and strive to meet the social, cultural, and emotional needs of their students. Moreover, these social, cultural, and emotional needs must be actively attended to as students are constructing knowledge. Teachers must work to develop keen sensitivity to the embedded beliefs and thinking practices students bring into the classroom so as to help students leverage them as tools to promote their own learning. Further research on teacher resilience in high-need schools stands to: (1) aid in administrative efforts to identify teachers who may have a strong threshold for resilience enactment and (2) provide further “best practices” of resilience that educators can hone in on to increase their effectiveness in struggling schools. Likewise, further research on successful implementation of culturally relevant pedagogy stands to strengthen the knowledge base of practices that result in increased achievement for minority students(who otherwise remain consistently behind their white middle-class peers).

This article offers these two respective avenues (teacher resilience and culturally relevant pedagogy) as valuable research paths that can contribute greatly in the battle to find viable solutions to closing the elusive “achievement gap”. Through this epistemological analysis, I have come to view this achievement gap as more of an open wound, one that is crusted over and continuously broken open time and again- generation after marginalized generation of communities of individual souls seeking to adapt to and learn the accoutrements that will enable them to heal and flourish in adaptive expertise. The scar tissue that has formed represents the hard lessons we have learned as a society in our struggle to move toward equality.

The truth in the scars left behind are loud and clear: America’s high-need schools remain perpetually present in high poverty, high-minority communities; moreover, in order to prove effective schools in these communities must recruit and cultivate resilient teachers as well as cultivate and implement culturally relevant pedagogy that cultivates a student frame of mind capable of successfully navigating the challenging pathway toward upward mobility via educational attainment. The question remains, what will we do now that we know the truth?


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The Social Dimensions of Teaching and Learning

The following is a synthesis of current theories about how social, cultural, and emotional elements impact how, why and what one learns. This is a summative analysis of what I learned from Dr. Carol D. Lee as a student in her class.

LS402- Social Dimensions of Teaching & Learning: Final Exam

Leon I. Gordon

Northwestern University

Prompt One:

What have you learned across the readings in this course about how the following influence learning: belief systems, development, emotion, perception, interaction, skill and performance? Include in your discussion how these operate not merely as characteristics of individuals, but how they are influenced by social contexts (i.e. people engaged in goal directed behavior in interactions with other people and artifacts within and across settings).

Throughout the quarter, as suggested by the course title, we have explored and wrestled with much of what constitutes the social dimensions of learning. In particular, we have concerned ourselves with how belief systems, development, emotion, perception, interaction, skill and performance work to influence learning within a variety of cultural milieus. As learned, these issues are not mutually exclusive; they intersect and overlap to shape the lives of individuals and, more broadly, societies of individuals. I will now attempt to dissect the nature of the aforementioned issues individually- via defining the operation and significance of each as characteristics influenced by social context- in which I use to elucidate how these issues influence learning of individuals.

For the sake of providing a common understanding of what constitutes learning, I review two key understandings presented by Lee (2008):

(1) Learning is demonstrated as human ability to adapt to an environment.
(2) “People can and do live in multiple cultural communities of practice”
(p. 273).

In this respect, “learning” refers to more than institutionalized “academic learning”; more broadly, it encompasses how we learn to survive and navigate the world. How we learn (to navigate the world) depends largely on the social dimensions of learning (which I will now move to explain the significance of those mentioned above).

Belief Systems

What are belief systems and how do they influence the learning of individuals? To answer this question, I must first explain the relevance of belief systems with respect to cultural communities. Belief systems manifest themselves within patterns of cultural community regularities. In this sense, belief systems are not merely individual characteristics but are a much larger entity influenced by social context. For example, large-scale cultural communities (e.g. – American culture and Mayan culture) establish beliefs of what should constitute the linear trajectory of social development; however, beliefs among these different communities vary with respect to what this developmental trajectory should entail. As a result, “different cultural communities may expect children to engage in activities at vastly different times in childhood, and may regard “timetables” of development in other communities as surprising or even dangerous” (Rogoff, 2003, p.4).

The origin of the beliefs behind the exhibited practices of whole communities of individuals can be traced back to pre-existing norms of cultural influence. In this sense, we can make the connection that belief systems (which dictate collective community practices and norms) are largely influenced by culture. To explain, in being human, we are born into a world where there are pre-existing societal values and normative behavioral practices already in place (which can vary widely depending on ecological context) (Rogoff, 2003). The practices and beliefs that are particular to a given cultural community are not static, but ever-changing. Thus, we develop in cultural communities that present many variables of contextual influence on our individual embodiment of beliefs and practices. The cultural canvas of the individual is painted by the collective life experience of an individual within his or her respective collective index of contextual spheres of influence (e.g. - home life, school life, ethnic-associative norms). The presence of community belief systems does not determine the beliefs of individuals; instead they only influence the beliefs of the individual. In other words, each individual has the capacity to form a unique pathways of selectivity to the extent of and manner in which they participate or do not participate in the community practices and the beliefs present in his or her respective spheres of contextual influence.

How exactly then, do belief systems influence learning?

I offer this brief summative analysis:

Beliefs dictate the actions and practices that communities employ. These beliefs structure the norms of action that mediate what communities believe should be learned and the value society places on learning particular knowledge. This, in turn, influences the beliefs and subsequent practices and actions employed by individuals as they learn.

To make more concrete the abstract analysis above I offer the following example:

Say for instance a cultural community (let’s just say, the U.S.) engages in a belief in a free market, capitalist society (see Smith, 1776). The capitalist free-market calls for divisions of labor among its citizens; as such, successful participation within this system calls for adequate literacy practices. Rogoff (2003) points out, “in a community in which literacy is key to communication and economic success in adulthood, preschoolers may need to learn to distinguish between the colors and shapes of small ink marks. However, if literacy is not central in a community’s practices, young children’s skill in detecting variations in ink squiggles might have little import” (p. 21). Here we see large-scale societal beliefs impacting the societal value placed on what knowledge should be or is expected to be learned. On an individual level, however,- as a society may have norms or values in place that equate schooling with a better-life- the individual has the autonomy to disregard or construct their own construal of what constitutes a life worth living. This, in turn, would lead to an individual’s deliberate negation of “standard learning goals” for the personal reservation of what they determine to be worth learning or not worth learning.


What is the nature of the concept of human development in its relation to and influence on learning? The concept of human development is but one component of the social dimensions of learning; it in itself is very complex and multi-faceted in nature (as are all of these issues to be covered). The most logical way to approach an understanding of how human development influences learning is to examine the lineage of its formation as an entity influenced by social context; hence, I start from its point of origin: biological foundations of human development.

Human development- as dictated through its biological foundation- works to influence our individual capacities and orientations of socio-emotional cognitive practices (discussed later). In turn, these socio-emotional cognitive practices work to influence our individual life trajectories and dispositions to learning.
To provide more specificity to this summative analysis I offer this further detail: the foundations of human affect/emotion are biologically regulated through hormone release/uptake pathways that exist in the body (i.e. - serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, endorphins).

Our capacity for and inclination to learn about the world also has ties to a biological basis via our ability to hold a “database of past events and a mechanism to use that knowledge to make predictions about the future to guide action to obtain life-enhancing goals” (Quartz et. al, 2002, p. 101). That mechanism has been shown to be our dopamine release/uptake system that guides our motivation/decision making and pursuit of reward in meeting goals (i.e. – learning). It has been shown that “differences in the amount of stimulation an environment affords can result in billions of extra neural connections” (Quartz et. al., 2002, p.242). This further demonstrates validity for developmental influence (via biological processes) on capacity for learning/intelligence. Quartz et. al. (2002) reports a number of studies that demonstrate how measurements of intelligence and longevity of cognitive keenness (among other things) can be impacted by neuron development and synapse formation via “neural networking” or “hard-wiring” (specifically within early development and life-span patterns).

There is significant proof that environmental factors impact the biological processes associated with the development of our socio-emotional cognitive capacities which, in turn work to afford or constrain our capabilities as learners. The biological foundations of human development are inherently influential on how one learns through what has been termed called “cultural biology”. The regulatory systems associated with the biological foundations of human development are merely the tip of the ice-burg of the far-reaching influential power of development on learning. Our biological development dictates the nature of development specific to our individual affective dispositions (in which these vary to afford and constrain learning via the operation of such socio-cognitive entities as emotional disposition (i.e. – temperament) (see next section)).

I would be remiss if I did not make clear that the influence of development on learning is not restricted merely to biological foundations. However, I chose to elaborate on the biological foundations for human development because it is with these processes that the work of interpreting the world begins. By and large our embodied mental framework works to dictate how we approach learning. From the moment we are conceived the biological processes that dictate our development interact with the surrounding environment. As we continue to develop, this system greatly influences our engagement with the world; this includes what things we value, what decisions we make, and our behavior within a particular context and cultural participation (Quartz and Sejnowski, 2002).

As Lee (2008) points out, that “we are hardwired to be adaptive” and that among many other factors that influence learning, the nature of development, “shapes both how such adaptiveness develops and to what we as groups and as individuals learn to adapt” (p. 270).


The thinking/learning behaviors and practices of humans are heavily influenced by emotion and motivation. I introduce motivation alongside emotion because emotion and motivation are very closely related, such that “emotions are viewed as motivational forces that play a role in social behavior” (Eisenberg, 1998, p. 1). Our embodied processing of both emotion and motivation can constrain or afford learning, depending on the context.

In the case of emotions for instance, it is through context (which includes development- as mentioned in previous section) and cultural membership that we develop emotional dispositions. Cultural membership has the ability to influence the development of individual dispositions of temperament, which includes differences in reactivity and self-regulation of emotions (Eisenberg & Damon, 1998). The development of these emotional dispositions of temperament in childhood are linked to adulthood personality (e.g. - agreeableness, extraversion, inhibition), as well as differences in social behaviors (e.g. - reactions of aggression or anger).

How do these constructs work to afford or constrain learning? Emotional understanding, communication and regulation are key components to navigating the social world. Cultural membership can influence an individual’s disposition for how they choose to control their emotions and how to react to the emotions of others. Not only that, Bugental and Goodnow (as cited by Eisenberg & Damon, 1998) suggest:

“emotion also affects a variety of cognitive processes fundamental to the socialization process, including attentional focus, memory retrieval, appraisal and response selection, and the capacity for rational or reflective processing”(p.4).

Cultural membership can impact how individuals learn to regulate emotions. For example, membership in a culture that practices emotion-focused coping can afford learning for an individual in contexts that are demanding or seemingly beyond what an individual is capable of because they are capable of reducing emotional distress (see Lazarus and Folkman as cited by Eisenberg, 1998). Likewise, individuals who embody cultural practices that do not allow for such “emotion-focused coping” can find learning in such an environment very difficult.

Studies on cultural influences and memberships have shown that motivation can have a significant impact on learning as well. For example, cultural membership based on ethnicity has been shown to significantly impact motivation in and demonstration of academic achievement via what has been termed as “the stereotype effect” as well as the dynamics of discrimination (See Aronson & Steele, 2004; Graham & Hudley, 2005). Emotional and motivational constructs that an individual may embody work to shape an individual’s identity or construal of self (see next section). This, in turn, can impact individual expectations for success as well as the importance or value an individual attaches to life choices about education and achievement, among other things (Eccles, 2005).

This “subjective task value (stv)” can considerably impact how and what one chooses to learn, especially in academic learning (i.e. - depending on an individual’s beliefs and perceptions which guides the discernment of a stv of a particular component of academic learning, he or she may discredit the necessity of learning that particular task. On the other hand they may find significant interest and place substantial value on learning that particular task.)


The belief systems into which we are born impact our developmental dispositions of emotional processing which, in turn, work to manifest as a mental-framework for how we perceive and interpret the world around us. Social cognition is the embodied mental framework with which the individual processes and understands the world. This mental framework goes through foundational structuring from the moment we’re born. Much of the foundational structuring becomes the “static-like” platform from which we seek to make sense of the people and things in our lives (i.e. – learning); although, this platform is not totally static. Each of us possesses a mental framework unique to our life and experiences in which we have built working concepts of self/identity and our own specific understanding of human behaviors and emotion. It is through this framework that we think and interact (see next section) within the given context of our environment.

As suggested above, the formation of one’s perception is influenced by social context. The cultural contexts that we are subjected to impact how we make sense of the world; and, in our collective ability to make sense of the world we are often members of multiple cultures. As we develop and learn to navigate life, our cultural memberships help build the vehicle that is our identity (which includes our perception of self and perceptions of others (see Markus & Kitayama, 1991)). As a collective whole, the human identity is a construct of social-cognitive processing that manifest itself as a "theory of mind" unique in all individuals (see Flavell and Miller, 1998) that can either promote learning or make it difficult in different contexts. It is in the collectiveness of our identity that we each possess a unique construal of processing or theory of mind.

D’Andrade and Schwartz (as cited by Cole, 1996) elaborated that “Human activity involves elaborate and shifting divisions of labor and experience within cultures, so that no two members of a cultural group can be expected to have internalized the same parts of whatever “whole” might be said to exist” (p.124). Perception or social cognition is concerned with “humans and human affairs [and] it bears strictly on the social and psychological world” (p.851 Flavell and Miller). Perception is inextricably tied to how one makes sense of the world (i.e. - learning)- employing the emotional dispositions and socio-cognitive processes specific to your individual frame of mind- our unique sense of perception can work to afford or constrain learning, depending on context.

Going further, how people process the world impacts not only how and what individuals learn, but it also impacts the design of learning environments. That is, in order for learning environments (e.g.- schools) to be fruitful in promoting learning, they should be dynamic in nature such that they can accommodate the diverse social cognition learners may bring. If learners come with different lenses of processing the world, a learning environment that is successful will be like a microscope- one that can adjust and attune to the perceptive nature embodied by individual learners such that they may grasp a mutual understanding of what is presented in the learning environment.


The social dimension of interaction is rather ubiquitous and complex, as all of life is an interaction with the environment(s) in which we live. Among other things, this includes interaction with, people, the perceptions that people bring, and societal norms, practices and beliefs. The environment or ecological context works to shape us, and we reciprocate by working to mold and shape the environment or context around us. Lee (2008) iterates the latter fundamental proposition as one of three commonalities between seminal works in the field of psychology. Another proposition listed alongside the latter is the notion that “the cognitive, social, physical and biological dimensions of both individuals and contexts interact in important ways. When we seek to elucidate the influence that interaction has on learning, it is important that we understand that interaction is multi-faceted and takes place on varying levels (i.e. - biological, cognitive, social, physical, individual, community). Broadly put, interaction works to influence learning through the varying interaction of multiple, multiple-level entities of influence associated with the human social, physical and psychological world in our life experiences within ecological contexts.

What are some concrete examples of these “psychological” or “social entities” of influence with which we interact; and further, how do they work to influence learning? Two examples of “socio-psychological factors with which we interact are discrimination and racial stereotypes. “Discrimination and racial stereotypes are structural variables that impact motivation and perceived competence of people of color, an impact that is filtered by how individuals think about their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group” (Graham & Hudley p.406). “Perceived discrimination and coping with racial and ethnic stereotypes [are] structural variables that influence achievement strivings and the quest for competence among persons of color” (Graham & Hudley p. 393).

This reinforces much of what I presented earlier about the influence of motivation on learning. Stereotypes impact motivation via their ability to have a psychological impact on individual mindset/ beliefs, and demonstrated achievement. Discrimination can be deliberate or unintentional, and both instances present the case of how motivation can be impacted negatively or positively (e.g. – responding with dissociative behavior or resiliency).

Discrimination and racial/ethnic stereotypes have an undeniable psychological presence in our society where their very existence (devoid whether or not they are actually at work) alters human behavior and motives through a variety of coping mechanisms. These coping mechanism also influence learning. To explain, as individuals we interact with our ecological context such that environmental or societal factors and constructs present “vulnerabilities” to which the individual must respond (Spencer, 2006). In their learned responses to these “vulnerabilities” individuals develop an identity of self through coping mechanisms. These vulnerabilities present “risks factors” to which the individual often finds it challenging to adapt and can potentially lead to poor outcomes or decisions. Some individuals are able to employ “protective factors” that can aid an individual giving them a buffer-like immunity to these vulnerabilities granting the ability to exhibit resilience.

Risks change throughout one’s life span and across different contexts and the stable coping outcomes an individual employs becomes an integral part of their emergent identity. Spencer’s phenomenological and ecological systems theory (PVEST) works to explain the nature of interaction among these socio-psychological constructs as they impact the life of the individual. These interactions outlined in PVEST “[underscore] the importance of a person’s perceptions of experience across settings” (Lee, Spencer, Harpalani, 2003, p.8). This theory elucidates the ways that existing factors of socio-psychological interaction contribute to individual and group marginalization (i.e. - difficulties to adaptation and learning).
For example, Burton et al., (2005), looked specifically at African American youth and how their ecological framework (i.e.-community constructs, dynamic of home-life and responsibility, and school environment) impact present potential vulnerabilities that lead to sustained marginalization.

In particular, this article demonstrated how intergenerational poverty is difficult to overcome in these communities as it presents the risk factors that are substantially difficult to overcome and how attempts to create actualized protective factors often work against the coping behaviors employed to navigate another component of their ecological environment (e.g.- home life responsibility v. successful school participation). Undoubtedly, one can conclude that interaction, in its ubiquitous and complex nature, is a social dimension that has a seemingly endless and omnipresent influence on learning.

Skill and Performance

Skill and Performance are demonstrations or actions that are the “out-put” or result of our intentions. Our intentions are determined by the summative influence of our thinking practices, beliefs, emotional/physical dispositions, perceptions, and desires. In this light, we can see that how the previous five issues of cognitive science (i.e.- belief systems, development, emotion, perception and interaction) combine to influence or explain the actions (i.e. – skill and performance) of individuals. In being determined by these factors, skill and performance are inherently influenced by social context (i.e. – because thinking practices, beliefs, emotional/physical dispositions, perceptions and desires are influenced by social context, so too are the actions which they influence).

The skill and performance of tasks by individuals are represented by the “Actions” bubble in the diagram below (Flavell, & Miller, 1998, p. 855). In this theory of mind framework, one can see how actions lead to reactions which, in turn, work to impact the understandings that individuals embody as they interact within a given ecological context. As individuals interact with their environment, they learn. The variety of what can be learned from interaction with the world is infinite, and what is learned works to impact or reconstruct the processes (e.g. - beliefs, perceptions) already established in our theory of mind- in which we used these processes to conduct the action that led to the learning. In this sense, when individuals exhibit their level of skill and performance for a given task within a given ecological context, they experience feedback through the interaction of the entity that is their theory of mind and the entity that is the ecological context (this which includes people, the perceptions that people bring, and societal norms, practices and beliefs). This interaction, in all its complexity and nuance, dictates what an individual may (or may not) learn. Here we can see that the influence of social context on learning comes full-circle through this feedback with the environment, making it a life-long, continuous process.

Prompt Two:

You have been given a copy of the article “What No School Can Do” by James Traub (2000). Based on what you have learned from this course, write a response to Traub. Your argument should cite and describe the research base for any claims you make.

Dear Mr. Traub,

In your article “What No School Can Do”, published in January of 2000, you offer a very detailed and elaborate analysis of the many factors of ecological context that confound the achievement gap between poor students of color and middle-class students (who are predominately white). On the whole, I find myself in agreement with much of your analysis and application of relevant research that work to explain the perpetual marginalization of poor students of color. A central issue you present in your article, as denoted by your title, is the claim that despite efforts of educational reform, increased spending, and efforts of schools to implement best practices, schools that serve poor children will fall short in closing the achievement gap. Further, you present the notion that the ability to close the achievement gap extends beyond the capabilities of schools and efforts that align with potential success should seek to change the ecology of the poor student to increase his or her academic achievement (and subsequently their life-time trajectory for achievement). In reading your article, I grappled with a few notable propositions you use to support your central claim and I hoped to present, for your consideration, a few points of inquiry in hopes to solicit your opinion of alternate ideas and research findings not considered in your article- yet which are relevant to your central claim.

A major point of contention to which I’d like to draw scrutiny is the notion that you present with regard to poor students of color exhibiting deficits in their achievement from a lack of exposure to middle-class practices aligned with successful achievement. You state that “we have to unambiguously embrace the virtues of a “middle-class” parenting style” (p.9). You also suggest that black culture must negate the “anti-academic” and “oppositional peer culture” that is “retarding black progress” (p.9). While I agree that many cultural practices exhibited by poor families do not align with the cultural practices aligned with middle-class success in achievement, I ask: is conformity really the answer? Many researchers in the learning sciences argue against such conformity in which the cultural practices of lower-class populations are viewed as deficits that contribute to their continuous marginalization. For example, in her book The Cultural Nature of Human Development, Barbara Rogoff argues that western schooling systems often do not provide adequate supports for the socio-cultural tools of thinking that diverse learners embody. Perhaps part of our dilemma to closing the achievement gap lies in current school practices that fail to facilitate learning environments for learners who embody cultural-tools for thinking that differ from typical, middle-class practices.

To concisely demonstrate this I’ll provide a salient, albeit singular, example of this concept. A study involving middle and high school basketball players found that students were better able to solve problems about average and percentage when the questions were set in the context of basketball as opposed to a typical math worksheet format (Nasir, Hand, & Taylor, 2008). The problems presented in a basketball context afforded the use of the cultural practices or cultural tools for thinking embodied by the students such that they achieved a greater demonstration of mastery; however, when the students were presented with problems that did not afford the usage of these cultural tools for thinking, students demonstrated less capability of mastery. The point that I’m trying to make here is that perhaps a major area for improvement in our efforts to close the achievement gap is to identify cultural practices of low-income students of color that can aid in their understanding of academic content. Rather than treating the disposition of low-income student of color as a deficit, perhaps schools should focus their efforts on utilizing the cultural tools for thinking that these students come to school with that can either afford their learning.

The notion of using prior experiences of low-income students as resources for learning rather than deficits points largely to Carol Lee’s theoretical framework of Cultural Modeling. Putting this theoretical framework into action would call for schools to restructure its curricular practices to attune to the socio-cultural cognitive practices of its student population. In being aware of the socio-emotional needs of learners we can identify and utilize them as vehicles to cultivate successful participation that supports learning in an otherwise seemingly difficult-to-engage learning environment. In youths that are typically marginalized, meeting the socio-emotional demands of learning cannot be separated from the construction of knowledge. When considering reform efforts for schools, is this a dynamic in which you had considered? Furthermore, perhaps this is something more that school could do to mitigate the achievement gap of low-income students.

I must take a step back here and say that, I am not proposing (nor do the academic researchers who support the theoretical framework for cultural modeling) that cultural modeling is the missing link as to why schools have not been able to completely close the achievement gap. In their Educational Researcher Journal article: “Every Shut Eye Ain’t Sleep”: Studying How People Live Culturally”, Carol D. Lee, Margaret Beale Spencer, and Vinay Harpalani acknowledge the limitations of cultural modeling attesting that, “by high school many students have internalized patterns of coping with stress that can make their engagement with schooling unstable…[these sources of] stress can lead students to perceive their general environments as risky and can limit the promise of Cultural Modeling or of any other culturally responsive or cognitively oriented intervention (p.8). It is here where I support your validation that even with such additional constructs for achievement intervention employed by the school, the impact of factors of ecological context work to confound the achievement of low-income students.

However, you present the notion that through programs such as Impact, we will be able to support low-income families who are exposed to these vulnerabilities that often lead to continued marginalization. My question to you is: are these external community structures enough? Margaret Beale Spencer’s (1995) Phenomenological Variant of Ecological Systems Theory (PVEST) aims to capture the developmental process that lead to the continued marginalization of low-income students of color. This framework correlates with Coleman’s findings (which you used to support your central claim) that “the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school”. The PVEST framework places Coleman’s findings in a larger framework that points to a potential solution for the dilemma over continued marginalization of low-income students of color.

More specifically, “this framework works to explain that risks change throughout one’s life span and across different contexts and the stable coping outcomes an individual employs becomes an integral part of their emergent identity. In which, some individuals are able to employ “protective factors” that can aid an individual- giving them a buffer-like immunity to these vulnerabilities granting the ability to exhibit resilience. The implications of PVEST for understanding and influencing student achievement are that it “underscores the importance of a person’s perceptions of experience across settings” (Lee, Spencer, Harpalani), and in doing so perhaps we can identify ways existing knowledge structures can be adjusted to combat marginalization. I offer support for the PVEST framework as a means to re-examine how the external (and internal) supports for poor students of color are constructed such that it works to examine the “goal directed behaviors” of poor students- not merely providing them with “support”. The PVEST framework seeks to find a solution to the underlying cause of enduring gaps of academic achievement: the factors that play roles in a person’s sense of identity, formation of goals, and willingness to exert effort toward achieving those goals. Perhaps this framework (along-side school efforts for culturally responsive teaching) will lead to more fruitful interventions that guide the efforts of external community supports for mitigating the achievement gap.

One last notable point of discussion I’d like to bring to the table is that you seem rather dismissive to any possibility that racism and segregation or at least their effects have minimal effect on the continuous marginalization of low-income students of color. What are your thoughts on stereotypes and discriminatory practices (albeit latent or non-overt) and their impact on the achievement gap? After all research has shown that stereotypes and discrimination has a significant impact on student achievement. More specifically, cultural membership based on ethnicity has been shown to significantly impact motivation in and demonstration of academic achievement via what has been termed as “the stereotype effect” as well as the dynamics of discrimination (See Aronson & Steele, 2004; Graham & Hudley, 2005). Perhaps further probing or exploration of this issue, alongside the other points of discussion above, can perhaps provide some different insights relevant to your central claim of what it will take to mitigate the achievement gap for low-income students of color.

Thank You for Your Consideration,

Leon I. Gordon
Masters Student in the Learning Sciences
School of Education and Social Policy—Northwestern University

Prompt Three:

An important dimension of understanding the cultural foundations of learning has to do with time. Time can be thought of as a medium through which culture as shared knowledge, beliefs, institutional arrangements, and dispositions are carried forward and contested. Such foundations include learning across large and small stretches of time:

• phylogenetic time (i.e. human evolution),
• cultural-historic time (i.e. the Great Depression)
• the life course (i.e. infancy, early and late childhood, adolescence, etc.)
• learning in the moment (i.e. in face to face interactions)

What have you learned about how each of these dimensions of time influences what and how people learn?

Phylogenentic Time

The core concept of this dimension of time is that through our biological processes (which are dictated by our phylogenetic disposition and foundations) we are hard-wired to adapt to our world; at the same time, through our historical presence in the ever-changing ecological context of earth- our phylogenetic dispositions are also altered by the environment. Hence, as Quartz and Sejnowski declare (as cited by Cole, 2006) “culture contains part of the developmental program that works with genes to build the brain that underlies who you are”. How exactly does this influence learning? With regard to our evolutionary existence and development, Quartz and Sejnowski (as cited by Lee, 2008) pointed out that “[our] biology has primed [us] to acquire a culture. It has endowed [us] with an internal guidance system that propels [us] from within and bootstraps [us] into culture by making the social world highly significant and fueling [our] desire to participate in it” (p.270). How can our biology “prime us to acquire a culture”? In short, we are endowed with brain structures (e.g.- the ventral tegmental area) that regulate emotional response by way of chemical transmission and delivery. The delivery and uptake of these chemicals (e.g.-dopamine and serotonin) are part of a reward system that allows us to experience pleasure. This system greatly influences our engagement with the world; this includes what things we value, what decisions we make, and our behavior within a particular context and cultural participation (Quartz and Sejnowski, 2002). As Lee (2008) points out, “we are hardwired to be adaptive, but it is the experience of human culture- ultimately in all its variation- that shapes both how such adaptiveness develops and to what we as groups and as individuals learn to adapt” (p. 270). While Quartz and Sejnowski connect our biological motivation system to our innate acquisition of culture, Lee drives home the point that context and culture not only impacts what one may learn but how one may learn.
A staple understanding within the psychological field that when we engage with our environment we influence change on the environment and the environment influences change within us. In being born, we inherit or are hard-wired with the phylogenetic by-products of past cultural-historical influences of our human ancestry. Hence, what and how one learns, in some sense, is pre-deterministic in this inherited hard-wiring. We are pre-disposed to the evolutionary phylogenetic dispositions handed down through time. These pre-dispositions work to influence the biological and developmental dispositions that subsequently dictate socio-cognitive and emotional processing which heavily influence how and what one learns. According to theory, evolution is an omnipresent continuum, where through our continuous engagement with the world around us, our phylogenetic dispositions are ever-evolving and overtime the summation of these micro-genetic, incremental changes work to create larger more significant changes to our genome which ultimately influence what and how we learn.

Cultural-Historic, Life Course, & Learning in the Moment

I combine my analysis of these dimensions of time as they are all components of Scribner’s framework for the different levels of history as they impact current life dispositions, decisions and trajectory. Cultural practices, which are inherently influential on how and what one learns, are themselves influenced by the continuum of historical context -which exists as varying factors specific to “levels” of time (e.g. – The Great Depression, infancy, circumstances of present interaction). So how do these levels of history (i.e. – cultural historic, life course & learning in the moment) work to influence what and how one learns? Broadly, the dispositions that impact what and how an individual learns are grounded in cultural practices (subjected to both particular historical time frames and current norms), which influence the decisions that individuals make (in the moment and throughout one’s life course). Ultimately, these levels of history are all omnipresent factors of influence unique to the identity of a given individual; moreover, the degree to which they resonate to impact a given individual is contingent upon which level(s) prove to be most salient or influential and conducive within the given circumstance, as processed through the unique complexity individual perception.

To make more concrete the abstract analysis above I offer the following example: Dien (2000) provides us with a view of the individual within the community and how the levels of history impact cultural shift and identity cultivation. Dien elucidates the sensitivity of identity cultivation to what history levels (i.e.- cultural-historic, life course, and in the moment) and additional factors (i.e.- current levels of maturity, disposition of cognitive awareness and disposition of emotional processing) are in fact in play or “at work” within the context and individual: “If one moves from one social group to another, such as immigrating from one nation to another, or as a child moving from the family environment of a minority culture to that of mainstream society upon entrance to public school, how that shift in cultural milieu might impact the individual would depend upon the state of the individual at the time. The impact would depend on the person’s intellectual capacity to grasp the meaning of the change and socio-emotional readiness for change, the developmental tasks at hand, and available support systems”(Dien, 2000, p.8) Rogoff (2003) explains the overarching orienting concept that “humans develop through their changing participation in the socio-cultural activities of their communities, which also change. As these dimensions of time interact to shape the lives of individuals, each dimension brings with it to the table a myriad of factors of influence that shape what, how, when, where and why one learns.

Prompt Four:

Take a researchable question of interest to you. Explain the question and why it is important. Discuss how multiple issues of social context are relevant to valid investigations of the question. Ground your argument in the readings for this course.

My research interests lie heavily in developing infrastructures for Chicago Public Schools (not only for charter schools, but the larger, public schools responsible for educating the remaining 90% of students) that align with successful student achievement. As this interest is seemingly rather broad, as I’ve progressed in my first quarter as a Learning Sciences student, I have teased out the specificities or points of inquiry of which I seek to research.

As a future school leader/administrator, I hope to learn what has made makes small charter-network schools successful; and in the process, I hope to perhaps identify key structural components that can be drawn from in hopes to build successful public schools for larger populations. In particular, I am interested in systems of accountability implemented in schools that align with successful student achievement. I have been particularly fixated on the role of administrative accountability for providing instructional leadership as it relates to student success. This is important because it seeks to satisfy the demand for quality education in inner-city schools. Recent studies have shown the success of small-networks of schools at promoting student achievement through effective instructional leadership (Elmore & Burney, 2000; Diamond & Spillane, 2002). While the success of small school networks provides a ray of hope for successful education for inner-city youths, they impact a small percentage of the population. Hence, I feel it is necessary to dissect the nature of these schools in hopes to identify strategies and structural components that can aid in building successful public schools for larger populations.

There are multiple issues of social context that are relevant to valid investigations of my research inquiry. As Rogoff (2003) so eloquently put it, “the diversity of ways that different communities handle life provides humanity with a reservoir of ideas and resources for the uncertainties of the future.” In the context of what makes successful schools successful, this reserve is a myriad of factors of cultural milieu (which may or may not impact student achievement) just waiting to be dissected.

One such issue of social context relevant to my inquiry is that there is a strong implication that the Learning Sciences must increase its focus on developing learning environments that promote successful education of a diverse body of learners. Rogoff (2003) suggest that classrooms move in the direction of “communities of learners” that resemble “informal learning and apprenticeship processes” (p. 361). In this, I see the need to identify the manner in which these smaller school networks work to structure learning environments that aim to mimic and support the nature of these evolving communities such that they support the learning and input of a diverse student body (if at all). I also realize that I am targeting to improve the education in impoverished communities. These communities are often isolated from real-life interaction with other cultural communities. In this, it is important to seek out ways in which these smaller school networks work to meaningful expose their cultural communities of learners to other cultural communities (if at all). In doing so, I will be able to distinguish how important being aware of the operations and cultural practices of others in the bigger picture of society are to student success.

Another important issue of social context relevant to my inquiry is the understanding that each student comes with life experiences that wield his or her expectations for success (via cultural beliefs, norms, aptitudes, personal beliefs and attitudes). Students’ context of development really impact what they value and pursue concerning academics and career choices (not to mention, life in general) (Aronson & Steele, 2004; Graham & Hudley, 2005; Eccles, 2005; Eisenberg & Damon, 1998; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Spencer, 2006; Burton et al., 2005). It will be important for me to identify and study very closely the social and emotional context of the communities and, more specifically, the collective context of the environment of specific schools that impact student motivations. For example, in response to the socio-cognitive and socio-emotional dispositions that students embody, it is relevant to search the degree in which teachers at these small schools are aware of or possess the ecological content knowledge of the students in which they teach and seeking how this may or may not contribute to their overall effectiveness.

I also realize that in seeking to identify that which fosters successful academic achievement among poor urban students (such that it positions them on a realistic pathway to pursue viable career/life opportunities aligned with upward mobility) schools in these areas have to be deliberate in helping these students obtain a positive sense of self-identity and competence. This by no means is an easy task, and it certainly has many factors unique to each student’s socio-cultural life experiences; hence, this issue presents yet another relevant dimension of social context to my research inquiry. In the end, in my learning of the complexity that is social context, I realize that I will not be able to untangle this web in every instance; however, in being knowledgeable of its dynamic, I will be that much closer to identifying a possible explanation and solution. I know that my methodology toolkit should enable me to take into account multiple layers of contextual variables and the interactions that take place between them.

I believe that ethnographic studies should be employed as to provide unique insight into the unique experiences present across the city and that carefully constructed empirical research could be of great value. As context and social dynamics lie on a continuum of change, longitudinal examination (though difficult to conduct) can also be valuable both retrospectively and prospectively (i.e.- examining the histories surround successful/unsuccessful schools as well as examining how they continue to develop).

Prompt Five:

Each dimension of social context that we have discussed has some implications for the kinds of data to be collected and for analytic methods to examine that data. Illustrate these relationships – i.e. dimension of social context, relevant kind(s) of data, and useful methods for analyzing such data – with examples from studies read during this course.

In examining the dimensions of social context, one needs to consider the nature of the “micro”, “socio”, and “ontogenetic” processes that influence shifting of collective practices (Saxe & Esmonde, 2005). The social dimensions of learning are complex and conducting research within this realm presents a number of conceptual, methodological and strategic considerations. More specifically, researchers’ analyses of social context should “look across [multiple] levels, especially by linking individual and community-based experiences to larger structural, institutional, discursive and ideological practices” (Orellana & Bowman, 2003, p. 1). Of course, as researchers attempt to consider these foundational guidelines, the uniqueness of every study prove make difficult the researchers’ ability to hone in on valid, generalizable and statistically relevant findings. Aside from examining the great complexity of the social contexts themselves, much of the arduousness of conducting research within the dimensions of social context surrounds the decision of what methodology may or may not prove most useful.

The course readings make it clear that studying multiple levels of context is not easy and the methods that researchers employ range from ethnographic accounts (e.g.-Dien, 2000) to systematic interviews of participants via “well-crafted” surveys and questionnaires. Nasir and Saxe (2003) point out that their methodological commitments are eclectic and that each holds value: “we see each class of methods contributing to a synergy that would enable the generation and corroboration of claims about [a given social-context being] studied” (p. 17). In support of this assertion, Nasir and Saxe point to the methods used to study the tension between academic and ethnic identities of youth from minority groups. In their studies, they examine the cultural practices of these youths, both in and out of school. They point to the importance of multi-method approaches that allow for the analyses of varying levels of social-context specific to their studies- which include- analyses of shifts in (a) positioning that take form in face-to-face interactions, (b) positioning over developmental time, and (c) the cultural capital associated with practices themselves over the social histories of communities.
Orellana and Bowman (2003) go a step further to propose a framework to guide researchers to remained dedicated to examining multiple levels of social context as opposed to single strands (i.e. – what Rogoff (2003) calls “the box” problem in researching): “researchers should consider how patterns change over time, across contexts, and in relation to different policies, programs, ideologies or environments” (p. 27).

Orellana and Bowman (2003) point to their research (i.e. – Orellana’s qualitative-centered study of Latina/o bilingual children as translators and Bowman’s quantitative-centered study on African-American culture retainers) as a framework to explain how they attempt to “move beyond [the] conceptual and methodological limitations” of “the box”. They propose a system of four guidelines beginning with the construction of new social categories in which “researchers take more control over the categories they name and set up for comparisons” and that these “new categories should be built on grounded understandings of what matters for the phenomenon under study”. The next guideline they propose is to “study the experiences and processes of category construction” (i.e.-how categories are muted or marked in different settings, how categories operate to produce social effects, what practices contribute to their construction and reification, and how the categories are constructed, enforced, maintained- and disrupted). The third guideline they propose is to “link mixed methods across context levels”. The fourth guideline they propose is to “work collaboratively”, where research “is submitted to rigorous critique”.

I would be remiss if I did not take a step back to mention the common ground for varying approaches to conducting research of social contexts. The various approaches to the study of cultural foundations are grounded in a similarity such that each has a unique approach to fostering or vying for a definitive ecological validity (Cole & McDermott, 1978). The approaches employed by quantitative and qualitative methods alike attempt to isolate the cognitive tasks or psychological processes specific to a given or definitive “life-space”. Researchers stress the importance that different methods provide different strengths and weaknesses.

A comprehensive example of varying approaches to vying for ecological validity is given in the seven theoretical perspectives reviewed by Cooper and Denner (1998). Each perspective expresses a unique foundation for defining culture; in which, there is considerable complexity in how each distinguishes itself from the other (as some encompass others in part, or wholly with an additional component or so added). Cooper and Denner express how these perspectives each “hold-water” in different ways in which they provide some measure of usefulness to the study of human learning and development that others may not (be they of community specific or of more universal explanatory nature). These theories show a large diversity in the degree to which each can speak to universal implications of human learning and development as well as how each explains and determines importance of community-specific values in defining culture (in what I’ll call discriminates for providing bounds or embodiments of culture- e.g. - looking at societal value, isolating contexts in relation to individuals, social identity, core values, caste, etc.).

In summation, through my reading of the course texts, I have learned that in order to conduct meaningful, relevant research of social contexts, one should employ “mixed-methods that cut across levels of analysis and scopes of inquiry, [that] will allow for the greatest insights into the learning and development of diverse people” (Orellana & Brown, 2003, p.30).


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