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From Shallow to Deep: Toward a Thorough Cultural Analysis of School Achievement Patterns

MICA POLLOCK Harvard University What do anthropologists of education do? Many observers think that we provide quick glosses on what various cultures typically racialized, ethnic, and national -origin groups do in schools. Herv Varenne and I each name an alternative form of analysis that we think should be central to the subfield. Varenne argues that ant hropologists of education should expand analysis of teaching and learning beyond (American) schools and classrooms and examine everyday life in various places as containing countless moments of teaching and learning that are worth understanding. Varenne reminds us that teaching and learning occur nonstop in ever yday life, not just in classrooms. Education is about far more than what we typically call achievement, which usually translates into grades, graduation, or test scores. This long-standing way of think ing anthropologically about education is essential to exploding simplistic notions of what, when, how, and from whom people learn. In my essay, I contend that U.S. anthropologists of education also need to analyze thoroughly how U.S. school achievement patterns tak e shape in real time. I argue that it is our particular responsibility to counteract shallow analyses of culture in schools, which purport to explain achievement gaps by mak ing quick claims about how parents and children from various racial, ethnic, national-origin, or class groups react to schools. Such shallow analyses dangerously oversimplif y the social processes, interactions, and practices that create disparate outcomes for children. Shallow c ultural analyses are common in both journalism and popular discourse and in schools of education as well (see Ladson-Billings 2006 for a related critique). They are explanatory claims that name a group as having a cult ural set of behaviors and then name that cultural behavior as the cause of the group s school achievement outcomes. (E.g., some argue that group x [e.g., Asians ] employs a group x behavior [e.g., push their children] that causes high or low achievement.) Such claims allow people to explain achievement outcomes too simply as the production of parents and children without ever actually examining the real-life experiences of specific parents and children in specific opport unity contexts. Going deeper requires pressing for actual, accurate information about the everyday interactions among real-life parents, children, and other actors that add up to school achievement patterns (graduation rates, dropout rates, sk ill-test scores, suspension lists, and the lik e). When anthropologists of education say that we study culture, we mean that we are studying the organization of people s everyday interactions in concrete contexts. Shallow analyses of culture that purport to describe only how a group s parents train its children blame a reduced set of actors, behaviors, and proc esses for educational outcomes, and they include a reduced set of actors and actions in a reduced set of projects for educational improvement. Anthropologists of education should mak e clear that we examine childrens experiences both in context and in appropriate detail; we study interactional processes that other observers might describe too quick ly or with insufficient information. I think that if anthropologists of education ex plicitly, publicly, and colloquially name what counts as deep, thorough cultural analysis of American school achievement patterns, we will mak e ourselves far better prepared to respond to harmfully shallow claims made by journalists, colleagues, and educators alik e. We will also support other stak eholders in children s lives (including teachers and teacher educators) to think more thoroughly about which actions, by whom, and in what situations produce children s achievement. This short essay suggests four k ey ways that anthropologists of education can, do, and should get deep in analyzing American achievement patterns. I invite colleagues to edit and extend this list in future editions of AEQ.