Educational Achievement and Culture Research Paper

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Culture plays a crucial role in educational achievement. Pedagogical models and practices tend to be culturally embedded. A significant portion of cross-cultural and cross-ethnic differences in achievement may be attributed to cultural factors.


  1. Introduction
  2. Overview of Cultural Approaches to Teaching, Learning, and Achievement
  3. Cross-Cultural Differences in Mathematics Achievement
  4. Cultural Explanations for Cross-Ethnic Differences in Achievement in the United States
  5. Ethnic Differences in Cultural Factors Affecting Achievement
  6. Directions for Future Research on Cross-Cultural Achievement

1. Introduction

Educational achievement is an important concern for parents, educators, psychologists, policymakers, and others in cultures throughout the world. Many factors (e.g., pedagogical practices, educational resources, socioeconomic status [SES], parental education level) contribute to differences in the learning outcome of students. Culture has been found to play a critical role in educational achievement in cross-cultural and cross-ethnic studies. Significant differences in educational achievement have been reported among students from different countries as well as among different ethnic groups within the United States. For example, compared with many other countries, the United States has a wide range of ethnic groups that share within-group backgrounds, languages, values, beliefs, thinking, and norms of behavior. Available research has shown that some ethnic minority groups of students (e.g., African Americans, Hispanic Americans) achieve below the national average of all students. One exception is the high educational achievements demonstrated by Asian American students. These ethnicity-related differences have been documented in standardized achievement test scores, grades, high school graduation rates, dropout rates, and other measures of educational achievement. However, in understanding cultural or ethnic differences in educational achievement, it is important to note that there are vast variations among students within each cultural or ethnic group. Research findings that reflect between-group patterns in achievement may or may not apply to individual students within the groups. In other words, despite reported patterns of group differences, there are high-achieving students and low-achieving students within each cultural or ethnic group. Therefore, it is important to avoid stereotyping in understanding educational achievement and culture. One should be wary of prejudging students based on their cultural or ethnic status.

This research-paper first presents an overview of cultural approaches to teaching, learning, and achievement. Then, it discusses research on cross-cultural differences in mathematics achievement and the explanations for the differences. This is followed by a review of different theories that have been proposed to explain cross-ethnic differences in academic achievement in the United States. In addition, the article discusses ethnic differences on several cultural factors that are important to educational success. Finally, it recommends directions for future research on cross-cultural and cross-ethnic achievement.

2. Overview Of Cultural Approaches To Teaching, Learning, And Achievement

North and South America represent an extremely diverse hemisphere characterized by struggles for quality and equality in education. In 2000, Mazurek and colleagues discussed educational practices and reforms in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile. They pointed out that in the United States and Canada, demands for reforms come from interest groups, the media, politicians, and parents organizations. In Brazil and Chile, national social/political movements and a return to democracy are behind educational reforms. In Mexico, reforms appear to be a response to a combination of social and political turmoil within the country.

In Western Europe, education has taken on a new priority involving technology and business orientation at all levels. In some countries, this includes a particular focus on vocational education to prepare students for entry into the workforce. Some countries (e.g., Switzerland, Sweden) have introduced a stronger emphasis on vocational training in their schools, whereas others (e.g., France, Spain) continue to focus on the teaching of traditional academic subjects. At the same time, a number of Middle Eastern and African nations (e.g., Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Pakistan, South Africa), characterized by some as ‘‘nations in turmoil,’’ are struggling to solve serious political, social, and economic problems while modernizing their countries and reforming their educational systems—a task that each country takes very seriously. At the postsecondary level, most countries throughout the world are trying to determine what should be the proper direction and focus of their educational efforts.

2.1. Cultural Models of Schooling

Schools throughout the world are experiencing a period of rapid change and, in many cases, are finding it extremely difficult to achieve a balance among a number of critical concerns. Some of the issues that educators and schools are facing include uncertainty about what academic and cultural knowledge and skills will be needed by students in the future, wholesale revisions of curricula, experimentation in teaching strategies, the need for teachers and students to become aware of and competent in using new technologies, dramatic changes in bureaucratic and legislative policies and regulations, and increased demands on teachers.

With the exception of the education system in the United States, perhaps no other education system has been studied more intensively than that of Japan. In 2001, in a well-balanced presentation of the Japanese model of schooling, including its similarities to and differences with that in the United States, Tsuneyoshi characterized the American approach to education as one that places an emphasis on competitiveness, individual attention from teachers along with individual accomplishment on the part of students, development of cognitive abilities, and separation of teachers in terms of their disciplines. In contrast, the Japanese approach (particularly at the elementary school level) focuses on the ‘‘whole child’’; close interactions between teachers and pupils for long periods of time in cooperative settings with attention to collective goals, tasks, and rewards; and efforts to provide the same or very similar treatment for all students. One advantage of the American approach that is seriously missing in the Japanese approach is the former’s attention to diversity and a sensitivity and concern for minority rights. On the other hand, the Japanese approach has a clear advantage in its ability to focus on the whole child within a community structure designed to provide close, cooperative, face-to-face student–teacher relationships.

2.2. Approaches to Teacher Training

There appear to be as many approaches to teacher training as there are teacher training programs. As several recent studies show, a majority of the world’s cultures have made substantive changes in teacher training and certification, whereas others are just beginning to do so. For example, in Brazil, a secondary education teacher must pass a course of study corresponding to a teaching degree. In Russia, teachers are generally trained to teach one or two specific subjects, although many rural teachers can, and frequently do, teach between three and five subjects. An early unique feature of teacher training in Turkey was the establishment of ‘‘village institutes’’ where elementary teachers were trained to work with selected bright village children. Today, teachers are required to be university graduates, preferably from education faculties; however, they can receive teaching certificates if they graduate from other 4-year programs. Yet in 1998, Murray strongly suggested that teacher education reform has largely failed, and he argued for the position that teacher education, developmental theory, and research are important and interlocking elements in bringing about a reform in school practices as well as the modification of school outcomes. It is for these reasons that Murray recommended that efforts to establish or change teacher education curricula should seriously consider the use of developmental psychology, especially pedagogical content knowledge and genetic epistemology, as a foundation.

In closing, research shows that pedagogical models tend to be embedded within cultures and that attempts to transplant them from one society to another, no matter how beneficial some may believe this will be, might not always be possible and, if attempted, will require serious planning, preparation, and attention to indigenous concerns.

Mazurek and colleagues, in discussing the debate over pedagogy, pointed out that while some countries are employing so-called progressive approaches such as student-centered teaching and individualized assessment, others are continuing to use traditional approaches such as teacher-centered instruction and standardized curricula and evaluations. Still others are experimenting with a wide variety of alternative and combined approaches. At the same time, these authors pointed to a common theme, namely that countries appear to be moving away from pedagogical strategies that are uniform and system-wide in their approach and toward those that are represented by greater diversity.

3. Cross-Cultural Differences In Mathematics Achievement

Research literature reports very few well-designed and carefully conducted cross-cultural studies in the area of mathematics achievement. Most notable are those carried out by Stevenson and colleagues, nearly all of which showed American students lagging behind their counterparts in other industrialized countries. In 1990, in a classic study of math achievement among American, Chinese, and Japanese children, Stevenson and Lee attributed American children’s poor performance to several factors, including a lack of emphasis on academic activities, the absence of a shared goal in academic achievement, an overestimation of children’s accomplishments by parents and children themselves, low parental standards for achievement and little direct involvement by parents in their children’s schoolwork, and a belief that all children, except those who may be seriously disabled, should be able to learn and do well in elementary school. In 1998, in another study of differences in mathematical achievement among students in China, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, Lee demonstrated that achievement differences are closely related to cultural expectations about teaching and learning. For example, in general, Asians believe and expect that everyone is capable of learning, whereas Americans believe that individual differences are inherent and, as a result, that people are expected to behave and perform differently. Lee concluded that it is this American philosophy that prevents the development of common standards and makes it difficult to institute new teaching strategies. Lee suggested that this view may seriously impair efforts to improve teaching and learning among students and teachers in the American culture for quite some time into the future. In fact, evidence from several sources shows little improvement in American mathematical performance over the past decade or so, with proficiency being even lower than it was during the 1970s.

In 2005, Gardiner and Kosmitzki reported trends similar to those just cited. In 2001, in an earlier summary of the themes and results of cross-cultural studies of mathematical achievement, Gardiner pointed first to the dominant role in this process played by mothers and second to cross-cultural evidence strongly suggesting that informal learning styles, such as those found in many Asian cultures that focusing on building interest, are more effective in teaching children a variety of skills, including math.

4. Cultural Explanations For Cross-Ethnic Differences In Achievement In The United States

The relationship between educational achievement and culture is also shown in research in the United States. As indicated earlier, cross-ethnic comparisons of educational achievement have shown that Asian American students outperform European American students, who in turn outperform African American and Hispanic American students. A significant portion of these differences may be attributed to cultural factors in values, beliefs, expectations, cognitive styles, and the like. These factors directly or indirectly influence students’ motivation for learning and their approaches to school achievement. Over the years, several theories have been advanced to explain ethnic differences in educational achievement.

An early explanation was the so-called deficit theory. According to this theory, students who do poorly in school are considered to be deficient in some way compared with those who do well in school. The deficit may take the forms of inferior ability, culture deficiencies, and/or language problems. Proponents use these deficits to explain why some minority group students underachieve in education. These students are viewed as incapable or inferior because they exhibit cultural backgrounds, thinking, learning styles, and communication patterns that are different from those of the dominant culture. The deficit explanation stems from ethnocentrism, that is, the belief that one’s own cultural ways are superior to those of other people. It is also known as the ‘‘blaming the victims’’ model. When children are not doing well in school, it is assumed that something is wrong with the students or with their particular culture. Most social scientists now consider the deficit explanation to be out of date.

A second explanation comes from the expectation theory, which was first made popular by Rosenthal and Jacobson in 1968. This theory posits that some children do poorly in school because their teachers have low expectations for their success. Subsequently, research has found that racial and ethnic backgrounds are factors that affect teachers’ expectations of students. Teachers often have low estimations of the academic potential of students from certain racial and ethnic minority groups and do not expect much of these students. Because of the low expectations, teachers may unknowingly teach and interact with minority students in ways that are different from the ways in which they teach and interact with other students. This may, in turn, affect the students’ own expectations and learning and result in low academic performance. The entire cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The expectation theory holds that academic performance of certain minority group students can be improved if teachers can reduce their subjectivity and modify their behavior in working with these students.

The third explanation is the cultural difference theory. This theory maintains that schools in the United States are based on the majority (European American) culture, which differs in many ways from the minority cultures. Therefore, there is a mismatch or incompatibility between the school culture and the home cultures of minority students. The values, languages, cognitive styles, interaction patterns, and behaviors required in the school are often not the same as those that minority students have learned at home. These cultural differences interfere with the learning of these students and affect their motivation to do well. As a result, schools generally fail to tap the competence of minority students. Proponents of the cultural difference theory contend that it is important for teachers to develop better cross-cultural understanding and to adopt instructional practices that are more responsive to minority cultures. A learning environment that is more congruent with the minority cultures is necessary to foster effective learning of minority students and to enhance their academic achievement.

However, not all cultural differences lead to conflicts and underachievement among minority students. For example, Asian American students have cultural and linguistic backgrounds that are different from those of the majority culture in significant ways, yet these students consistently do well in school. In 1991, Ogbu proposed an explanation to account for this phenomenon. He differentiated between minority groups as involuntary immigrants and voluntary immigrants. Involuntary minority groups are those whose members are incorporated into the U.S. society against their will (e.g., African Americans), whereas voluntary minority groups are those who came to the United States by their own choice (e.g., Asian Americans). Involuntary minority students view maintaining their own cultural identities as very important and are not inclined to become enculturated to the majority culture. In addition, sometimes there is also social pressure from parents and peers discouraging these students from conforming to the school culture. For these reasons, it is not uncommon for involuntary minority students to develop a resistance to schooling and to reject behaviors that would make them successful in school. Consequently, their academic performance suffers. On the other hand, voluntary minority students have less difficulty in crossing cultural boundaries and are less affected by identity conflict. They are able to adjust to the school culture and do well in school.

Finally, a more recent explanation was proposed by Okagaki in 2001. Okagaki developed a triarchic model to explain ethnic differences in achievement. Unlike previous explanations that focus on a single perspective, this triarchic model takes a holistic approach and looks at multiple factors that contribute to ethnic differences in educational achievement. The three major factors identified in the model are characteristics of (a) the school (e.g., the structure of school and perceived function of education by various groups within a society), (b) the family (e.g., cultural beliefs and practices of parents and families), and (c) the student (e.g., ethnic and academic identities). Okagaki maintained that all three factors shape the ways in which students approach and perform in school. Therefore, all three factors need to be examined for a thorough understanding of cultural influences on minority students’ achievement. Because of its comprehensive nature, the triarchic theory is able to explain some of the variations in minority students’ achievement that cannot be explained satisfactorily by the earlier theories.

5. Ethnic Differences In Cultural Factors Affecting Achievement

Research on ethnic differences in educational achievement over the past 20 years or so has identified a number of cultural factors that contribute to school success. Five major factors are considered in this section: educational effort, cultural values and beliefs, parental educational expectations, parental involvement, and peer influence. These factors are important because they can enhance the educational achievement of all students regardless of race or ethnicity.

5.1. Educational Effort

Educational effort has a direct impact on school performance. Students who spend more time learning and doing homework perform better than do students who spend less time studying. Educational effort has also been found to be associated with culture and ethnicity. For example, a number of studies have found that Asian American students, and to some extent European American students, are more task oriented, pay more attention in class, exert more effort, spend more time doing homework, and participate more in academic-related activities compared with other ethnic minority students. Asian Americans are also more likely to believe that high achievement is the result of motivation and hard work. On the other hand, students from other ethnic groups are more likely to attribute academic success to ability or talent—factors that are outside of their control.

5.2. Cultural Values and Beliefs

Another factor that influences educational achievement is cultural values and beliefs related to education. All ethnic groups value education. However, in 1990, Mickelson indicated that it is not the abstract belief that education is important; rather, it is the more concrete pragmatic belief about the benefit of education that separates high-achieving students from low-achieving students. Specifically, students who do well in school believe that education serves an important function for them (e.g., getting better paying jobs, improving family financial or social conditions, overcoming occupational discrimination). Conversely, students who do not see education as critical to serving a particular pragmatic function show less motivation to do well in school. In a study conducted by Steinberg and colleagues in 1992, it was found that African American and Hispanic American students did not believe that doing poorly in school would hurt their chances for future success. Asian American and European American students, on the other hand, were more likely to believe that academic success would have a significant payoff. These different beliefs among various ethnic groups affect their behaviors related to education.

5.3. Parental Educational Expectations

Research has shown that parental educational expectations is another contributing factor to success in school and is closely associated with students’ academic performance. Differences in parental expectations exist among ethnic groups. For example, compared with parents in other ethnic groups, Asian American parents place greater emphasis on educational accomplishments and have higher expectations for achievement for their children. They expect their children to receive better grades in school and to earn higher educational degrees than those of their counterparts in other ethnic groups.

5.4. Parental Involvement

Parental involvement is empirically linked to academic performance. Research has shown that parental involvement can improve children’s school performance. In general, parental involvement may take place in two broad forms: direct participation and indirect support. In direct participation, parents are actively involved in helping their children with their schoolwork, maintaining good communications with the school, participating in school activities, and the like. On the other hand, indirect support does not involve direct participation of the parents in their children’s education. Rather, parents work to maintain a home environment that is highly supportive of their children’s learning (e.g., arranging for ample time to study, paying for private lessons). In terms of direct participation, research has shown that European American parents show the highest level of involvement in their children’s education. In comparison, Asian American parents show the least direct participation in their children’s education. They seem to perceive direct involvement with the school as less important due to cultural beliefs and/or language barriers. Instead, Asian American parents provide more indirect support to their children’s education than do parents in other ethnic groups. Asian American parents are willing to make sacrifices for their children’s educational pursuits to make sure that their children have sufficient time to do schoolwork and to create a climate in which their children’s job is to study and do well in school.

5.5. Peer Influence

In addition to parental influences, studies have shown that students tend to do better with peer support for academic achievement. In some cases, peer influence is even greater than parent influence. In a 1992 study with adolescents, Steinberg and colleagues found that European American and Asian American adolescents were more likely to have friends who place a great deal of emphasis on academic achievement and, as a result, worked hard to keep up with their friends. In comparison, Hispanic and African American adolescents were less likely to receive peer support for academic achievement.

6. Directions For Future Research On Cross-Cultural Achievement

Making reliable and valid comparisons across cultures is often a bewildering and difficult task if not an impossible one. Conducting cross-cultural and cross-ethnic studies in educational achievement is fraught with a variety of methodological difficulties. Therefore, one must exercise caution in drawing definitive conclusions from such studies. Also, as mentioned earlier, vast variation exists within any cultural or ethnic group. It is critical that research findings on achievement differences among cultural and/or ethnic groups be understood in the context of differences within groups.

Several researchers have recommended possible solutions that are worthy of further consideration. For example, in 1998, Stigler outlined the benefits and problems associated with his large-scale video survey approach to teaching and learning used in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Videotape Classroom Study. Among the advantages is the fact that video data are concrete, are grounded in practice, allow for merging of quantitative and qualitative analyses, and enable study of complex processes. However, if these data are to be used successfully, a number of disadvantages must be addressed, including sampling of only a few instructional lessons, standardization of camera procedures, problems of observer effects, sampling and validity, and confidentiality.

In another approach, in 1998, Paris and van Kraayenoord demonstrated the usefulness of specially designed tasks for assessing young children’s literacy and development (e.g., asking students to examine and select books they find personally interesting and to construct meaning and stories from pictures or wordless picture books). They suggested that this approach can provide a blueprint that could lead to consistent and sensible instruction and assessment practices that are more easily understood by children, parents, and teachers.

The authors of the current article recommend that researchers seriously consider the development of a variety of new approaches, including large-scale, interdisciplinary, multimethod, longitudinal studies that focus on important aspects of educational achievement such as cooperative learning environments, multicultural literacy, and pedagogical changes in teaching and learning.


  1. Alexander, R. J. (2001). Culture and pedagogy: International comparisons in primary education. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
  2. Beauchamp, E. R. (Ed.). (2003). Comparative education reader. New York: Routledge Falmer.
  3. Mazurek, K., Winzer, M. A., & Majorek, C. (2000). Education in a global society: A comparative perspective. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  4. Okagaki, L. (2001). Triarchic model of minority children’s school achievement. Educational Psychologist, 36, 9–20.
  5. Steinberg, L. (1996). Ethnicity and adolescent achievement. American Educator, 2, 2–48.
  6. Tsuneyoshi, R. K. (2001). The Japanese model of schooling: Comparisons with the United States. New York: Routledge Falmer.

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