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Rosa Maria Abreo, Ph.D. Concordia University Kimberly S. Barker, Ed.D. Texas A&M University-San Antonio
ABSTRACT Culture has a strong impact on learning by students that come from minority cultures. In this article the authors argue that the learners cultural background is important to academic success. They concur with Lal (2003) that cultural values, perceptions, and goals that shape the learner, will be catapulted in the learning process. They further contend that despite public acknowledgement of important differences among learners, pedagogy that most students experience a uniform and cookie cutter approach to instruction. Amid the current controversy stemming from nativist policies and sentiments, the authors contend that the moral imperative to educate all children remains unchanged to school administrators and other educators who must the address the problem in an era of diminishing resources. Ultimately, it is what happens in the individual classroom that will determine future dropout rates. The authors address the role of higher education teacher preparation as a linchpin for success.

Introduction More than 50 years ago, Nathaniel Cantor observed that the public elementary and high schools, and colleges, generally project what they consider to be the proper way of learning which is uniform


for all students (1946/1972, p.102). In 2010, much in this regard remains the same. Schools continue to function as though all students are the same; they are taught with the same curriculum, no differentiation of instruction, following the same scope and sequence, employing the same tests to measure success. In a standardized school environment, good for accountability administration, diversity takes a back seat. This ignores the reality postulated by Balsam & Tomie (1985) that the context in which someone grows and develops has an important impact on learning. These beliefs, principles, and theories need to be revisited frequently by educational practitioners and policy makers alike.

The Dropout Dilemma-A National Perspective Accountability measures in public schools throughout the United States have painted a portrait of student success. High-stakes testing pinpoints those students who are proficient at content areas such as math, reading, writing, social studies, and science. Unfortunately, the faces of many minority children are missing from the portrait of success in public schools. Considered at-risk for dropping out and not graduating from high school, non-white students complete public school at a rate well below that of white students. Despite decades of attempts to remedy this educational attainment gap, the problem remains. Minority at-risk students have a difficult time successfully traversing through the American public school system. The educational attainment gap between minority students and white students has been explored exhaustively. Initiatives in teacher training, tutoring, mentoring, interventions, and retention are some of the methods employed in public schools to increase learning success for minority at-risk students. The success of these interventions attempts is varied and localized. While some increase in achievement has been obtained, wide-spread gains have not been visible. Despite the decades of efforts made, the educational attainment gap persists

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(Gandara, 2010). With dropout rates among minority students at an unacceptably high level, educators must continue to explore reasons why the educational system is failing so many of its students. Despite a variety of reform efforts and intervention programs implemented over the past several decades, public schools have changed very little. Family structure and society have experienced tremendous upheaval (Cuban, 2003; Glatthorn & Jailall, 2000). Vygotsky (1987) noted that learning and social interaction are intricately woven together and cannot be separated. Wink and Putney (2002) observed: Vygotsky believed that our life experiences affect and influence our development. Our use of language determines our learning; and our learning determines our use of language. None of this takes place in a vacuum (p. 60). This is to say that culture has a profound impact on learning. The cultural values, perceptions, and goals that shape the learner, if accessed, can be used to catapult the learning process (Lal, 2003). Collis (1999) and McLoughlin and Oliver (2000) noted the importance of considering the cultural backgrounds of learners in designing computer based learning experiences as well. The consequences of disregarding the cultural connection are serious. Students who do not identify with schools and their teachers lose interest and motivation (Valenzuela, 1999). While on the other hand, culturally relevant teaching can promote student success among minority students (DeCuir-Gunby, Taliaferro, & Greenfield, 2010). The Historical Context The American school system has long been invested in the belief that all students should have the opportunity for success. The first U.S. Department of Education was created in 1867 to assist states that were establishing school systems for the first time and to collect information concerning educational matters (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). In 1892 a National Council of Education met to discuss and map a standardized core curriculum for high schools that


would prepare students for college, life, and work (Boyer, 1983). This Committee of Ten called for all students, college bound or not, to be educated the same, which was a novel concept for the time. It was assumed that to be ready for college was the primary purpose of the high school. This ideology created an American school system that helped Americanize new immigrants and stood as a symbol of hope for bettering oneself (Boyer, 1983, p. 50). Education was no longer to be limited to the privileged or the social elites. These early foundations of standardized education found different manifestations over the next century that included two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. It was the Cold War that fueled the first comprehensive Federal legislation targeting education. Boyer explained: it took Sputnik to push school improvement to the top of the national agenda. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 provided funds for the improvement of science, mathematics, and foreign-language teaching. It was subsequently broadened to include support for the humanities and social sciences as well. Rigor became the catchword of the day. (p. 54) As the United States traversed the tumultuous times of the 1960s and 1970s, the Department of Education enforced the civil rights of students, applying several different laws including Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Every person was deemed entitled to a free and appropriate education. In theory no person could be denied equal protection under these laws. The emphasis turned toward proving procedural due process for any child referred for evaluation and placement (Byer & Johnson, 2005). The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided programs such as Title I to help address the needs of poor and disadvantaged students. The Department of Education was

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elevated to a cabinet level agency in 1980, with the Secretary of Education overseeing the nations educational challenges and working to improve education for all students (U.S. Department of Education, 2005). It was during the late 1970s and the 1980s that growing public demand for improvement in public education culminated in the National Commission on Excellence in Educations (NCEE) 1983 report, A Nation at Risk (Angus & Mirel, 1999). It was a scathing indictment of the inadequacies and inequalities of the public school system. Angus and Mirel (1999) note that A Nation at Risk reanimated the idea that equality of educational opportunity meant that all students should have access to the same high quality programs, in other words, that identical education was indeed the true definition of equal education (p. 167). For the next decade, A Nation at Risk was the source of much debate, a variety of reform efforts, more rigorous high school graduation requirements, and a push to increase excellence in schools. States were left to make decisions as to how to improve education for their students. As statistics indicated that minorities and disadvantaged students continued to be trapped in an achievement gap despite reform, one of the most sweeping federal policies was launched in an effort to assure all students receive quality educational experiences. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) uses accountability and assessment tools to require states by law to address the achievement gap (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).

School Funding As Long-term Failed Panacea: A Nation Still At Risk The Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965 was the largest source of monies coming to states to bridge the gap between minorities whose language was other than English. The trend


continues, funds coming to states and districts, and the dropout rates continue to be the same. The academic gap that exists between monolingual and minorities is still evident. So what have all these monies accomplished? The U.S. Census Bureau (2010) reported that dropouts face an increasingly bleak career prospects. A high school dropout earns an average of $9,000 a year less than a high school graduate. With more than half a million young people dropping out of high school each year nationwide, the dropout dilemma is real and no amount of monies will remedy the situation unless a closer look is taken into the classroom and the teachers in them.

Figure 1. Averaged freshman graduation rate: 2007-2008 school year. Texas falls slightly below the national average for dropouts in grades nine through eleven (See Figure 1). The states with the largest growth in populations are Texas, California, Florida, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, Virginia, Washington, Nevada, and Colorado (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). The tremendous growth in migrant populations in these states intensifies and complicates the dilemma of the dropout problem on a national scale, particularly with growing

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nativist sentiments and policies in Arizona and elsewhere. In states where the dropout problem is severe among migrant children, programs that have been proven to work (Texas Education Agency, 2008) promises hope for transforming the system and improving graduation rates, calling for strategies that are closely tied to results at improving high school graduation rates. Short-term, isolated programs have been instituted over the last 50 years but without significant impact. Year after year new programs emerge with promises of improved drop-out rates as millions of dollars continue to be pumped into programs that show few positive results. The lack of impact reveals that costly new band-aid prescriptions for the age-old problem of student alienation and dropping out of school is not likely. Money is spent and careers are made, while the status quo remains. The real challenge facing school administrators and public policy makers is to be honest and truthful about the real problem in the schools. Until problems are first addressed in the classroom, no amount of money or no new program will prove over time to be successful in reducing the number or rate of dropouts among Latino students. Figure 1 also reveals that in the 12th grade the Texas annual dropout rate exceeded the national average. The Latino population dropout rate exceeds the overall numbers of the state. Latinos continue to drop out of school. The academic achievement gap between Latinos and other groups continues to widen. Fifty years of research, funding, and practice have been fruitless. This phenomenon will continue because it is not money that fixes problems. It is caring, committed, and skilled teachers that will make a difference. The education of preservice teachers coming into the field of education and preparing them with the proper tools is what will make caring, committed, and skilled teachers. Teaching teachers to understand diversity, using it as a tool for improving instruction is critical. Understanding how minority populations learn should be central to lesson planning and delivery of instruction. Teacher preparation and on-going staff development are


keys to achieving such high levels of cultural competence. Additional grade-by-grade breakdowns by ethnicity are provided in Table 1. Table 1 Students, Dropouts, and Annual Dropout Rate, by Student Group and Grade, Texas Public Schools, 2007-08 (Source: Texas Education Agency) 7th Grade Student Dropout Dropout Annual Annual # % # % Dropout % 50,594 <11,745 161,115 <1,305 124,415 184,122 349,153 14.5 a 46.1 35.6 52.7 100 198 385 131 370 737 26.9 52.2 17.8 50.2 100 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.2 0.1 0.2 0.2

African American Asian/Pacific Islander Hispanic Native American White Economically disadvantaged State

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8h Grade

African American Asian/Pacific Islander Hispanic Native American White Economically disadvantaged State 9th Grade

Student Dropout Dropout Annual Annual # % # % Dropout % 50,034 14.6 277 22.1 0.6 <11,520 153,930 <1,230 125,434 172,610 342,129 45.0 36.7 50.5 100 741 212 684 1,251 59.2 16.9 54.7 100 0.2 0.5 0.2 0.2 0.4 0.4

African American Asian/Pacific Islander Hispanic Native American White Economically disadvantaged State

Student Dropout Dropout Annual Annual # % # % Dropout % 64,250 15.5 2,746 23.1 4.3 12,593 194,068 1,533 140,950 202,323 413,394 3.0 46.9 0.4 34.1 48.9 100 110 7,309 33 1,665 5,981 11,863 0.9 61.6 0.3 14.0 50.4 100 0.9 3.8 2.2 1.2 3.0 2.9

The Dropout Dilemma-Arizona The Native American Communities have also been facing the


same dilemma in their students dropping out of high schools. The Arizona dropout rate has reached unacceptable levels. Many students are not graduating from high school. Most of these are from economically and socially disadvantaged minority communities. Figure 3 provides recent grade-by-grade breakdowns of the alarming lack of student success in Arizona. Though the drop-out rates do not seem high at any specific grade, the cumulative effect is extraordinary. Furthermore, every number, every statistic, is a child every number is a life that will touch many, many more lives when they age out of schooling, enter the labor force, and have a family. The impact of school failure on one child will be passed from generation to generation until the cycle is broken. Table 2 Arizona High School Dropout Rates 2007-08 STATE BY GRADE Number of Students 525474 88499 88232 91343 88160 82034 Number of Dropouts 18779 1028 1138 2542 3306 4133

Grade All Grades 7 8 9 10 11

Dropout Rate 3.6 1.2 1.3 2.8 3.8 5

12 87206 6632 7.6 Source: Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center, 2008-09

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The Cultural Connection The standardization of our educational systems has forced the efforts of many schools either to reduce or remove traces of cultural connectedness in the curriculum. For example, art programs, music, and cultural literature have been eliminated in favor of instruction that concentrates more on state exams. The dilemma is that lack of identity of students creates a lack of connectedness within the classroom. Teachers often fail to look beyond the surface features of a culture to get to know the culture bearers of a community and becoming familiar with aspects of the local language and culture (Barnhardt, 2010). Teachers, therefore, must be more aware than ever about how their personal views can hurt children and must seek to avoid cultural judgments of their students. Students need to feel a core sense of connectedness in order to feel they belong. Any adult willing to allow these students to talk about their culture and their experiences can achieve tremendous results in this manner. Feeling alienated, students who do not experience this kind of respect and acknowledgement of their culture disengage from the teaching and learning process. Without the feeling of connectedness the cycle of alienation and dropping out begins. Students that have not experienced a sense of belonging in the schools fail to grasp its relevance to their lives. When the content of curriculum is devoid of their cultural story and identity, students are deprived of an opportunity to know more about their rich cultural heritage. When this happens, an enormous opportunity to engage Latino students is lost. When honoring and valuing these children and celebrating their diversity occurs, teachers play major role in interrupting the recurrent cycle of that leads to alienation, dropping out of school, and ultimately, poverty.


Building Cultural Identity Noddings (2003), writing on caring, created a different view on the ethics and purpose of education. Relationship is seen as the basis of ethics and the core value that makes teaching effective. Noddings further explained that the aim of education should be to allow caring to flourish and the relationship between the teacher and learner is vital. Teacher as giver and nurturer is central. Schooling needs to be about education building relationships. There is strong ethical and moral imperative to identify and assist students that are at risk of dropping out. The research about caring, nurturing teachers, strongly suggests how an educator can make a difference in the lives of students. The need to seek acceptance is part of culture and human condition to belong, to be loved and to love. So what is so difficult about including caring, nurturing teachers, recruiting the best possible who care and can help build and discover the talent in the students who come from minority cultures. In doing so, this will and can have a tremendous impact on lowering the dropout rate. Valenzuelas (2005) research concludes that the gap of caring between teachers and students creates animosity between the school and the students, leading to high drop-out rates and lower academic standards. Students in this type of environment learn to give up learned helplessness leads students to anger and despair. They feel that teachers dont care about. Many simply give up.

Recommendations for Universities: Toward Greater Cultural Competence Among Pre-Service Teachers To achieve greater teaching success, to stem the growing tide of school drop-outs at all ages, pre-service teachers and teachers alike should be prepared and supported by universities in the following ways:

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1. It is each individual teacher that influences whether a child will drop out of school or whether he or she will persist, remaining in the educational pipeline through completion of the high school diploma and ultimately the college degree. The training, recruitment, selection, and induction of teachers into the teaching profession should be done with this in mind. There should be a strong sense of urgency and mindfulness of this very fact. Teacher development and team building in schools should be based partly on how well the school, the team, and the individual is doing regarding culturally competent teaching. 2. The pre-service teacher should be taught and mentored by a successful practicing teacher who knows how to teach children, who knows what to teach them, and who passionately loves the children they teach. Universities should develop and keep a track record for each of its teacher graduates. How are the former students doing as teachers? How are their students doing? Attaining a degree in teaching should include a component of demonstrating maturity and passion for teaching students who are different. A follow-up tracking system needs to be developed that identifies cultural competence and compassion of the teacher as well as other measures of student competencies. 3. Institutions of higher learning should seek to balance their teaching faculty by including the most experienced professors who have previously successfully taught in the public or private school trenches more than 3 years. These professors should spend time in the field with their former students to learn about new challenges and to find ways to support them in meeting new challenges either through research, collaboration, or professional development. 4. Institutions of higher learning should consider hiring visiting faculty members who have distinguished


themselves as teachers; especially those that have taught more than 6 years in an area that they will be teaching at the university level. 5. Mentorship programs of adults mentoring children should be encouraged and promoted. Schools can provide environments which foster the growth of volunteer mentors within the schools and at the same time offer training/development in order to understand the student and their stage of development. University faculty should become an integral part of such programs. Education majors, both undergraduate and graduate level should be required to serve in mentoring roles to young children. Research shows that at-risk youth perform much better in school and in life when a caring adult has taken an interest in their lives and their academic success. 6. Universities should offer courses and training within their classes to enhance the knowledge and understanding of students that come from diversified cultures. This will help foster the building of relationships within the school community that enhance student success. The cultural differences and the belief systems of students must be examined and understood in current and historical contexts. This enhanced perspective can help guide culturally relevant connectedness in the classroom. 7. To this end, every LEP (Limited English Proficiency) and migrant student needs to feel a sense of belonging and feel capable of learning in a safe environment of acceptance notwithstanding the national mood regarding immigration. The lack of multicultural curriculum components within many of the districts and the universities makes it imperative to access the need for the inclusion of diversified cultural training in order to promote teacher understanding of the deeper cultural roots of the students within the classroom.

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Conclusion As the dropout problem remains unacceptably high among minority populations, there is an urgency to explore possible solutions to this critical problem that exists throughout the United States, particularly in Arizona and Texas. This dilemma will be further exacerbated by the tensions arising over illegal immigration and public policy related to enforcement of immigration laws. Whatever the status of the parents, the children must continue to be served and educated for the good of American society as well as for the individuals. Because of the hostility and fear, many children will be even more at risk. This dilemma is also one faced by growing numbers of states. Too many years have passed and millions of dollars have been spent, yet we as a nation have not begun to make a dent in this national problem. Unless educators and policy makers look outside the box for viable solutions to minority education issues, the continuing practice of allowing ineffective educational spending will not promote the success of Latino children and those of other cultures. Until universities learn how to produce caring and nurturing teachers, nothing will change. Until parents take responsibility for the education at home of their children, the problem will continue. The role of the school must remain to educate those who enter through the doors, but the responsibility lies in all of the stakeholders. The diversity of this country makes it imperative to improve the educational experience and retain more minority students. In keeping with its traditional role over the past century, universities must step up and take the lead in developing a generation of culturally competent educators. This should be the end in sightto create a new generation of teachers that is both able and willing to celebrate the uniqueness in each child and inspire that child to continue learning for the rest of his or her lifetime.


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