she belongs. The term culture refers to the behaviors, beliefs, arts, language, values, practices, and social institutions that are characteristic of a community of people and that are transmitted from one generation to the next (Berndt, 1997). When we think of cultural differences, we most often conjure up images of people in far away countries. In fact, we need not look beyond the borders of our own country to find numerous examples of cultural differences. Some cultural differences may reflect a distinction between recent immigrants to the U.S. and those who were born here. Other differences may be less dramatic -- although no less important -- and reflect regional differences, such as between students in urban and rural communities or between students raised in the Northern and in the Southern U.S. Other cultural differences may have less to do with immigrant status or geographical distance and more to do with ethnicity (i.e., national origin or heritage; Santrock, 2008). In this country, there is no disputing that there are important differences in the lives of, for example, White Americans, who form the dominant culture, and African Americans or Native American Indians. The lives of these different groups have been very different historically and, as a result, each is characterized by attitudes, behaviors, practices, and institutions that are at least partly unique to it. These ethnic differences have an impact on the life of the classroom and thus teachers must know something about these differences. At the same time, however, it is important for teachers always to keep in mind that different ethnic groups also have much in common and that not all members of any one ethnic group can or should be characterized in the same way (Santrock, 2008). In other words, teachers should be attentive to cultural background but not let it blind them to the unique characteristics and needs of the individual student.
We will not attempt to provide a detailed description of the development of particular ethnic groups. There simply are too many such groups and too many facets of the culture and psychological development of each group that would need to be described for us to do justice to this topic. Instead, we begin with some facts about the academic achievement of individuals from ethnic minorities (i.e., ethnic groups outside of the dominant White culture) and give some examples of how ethnic diversity among students is related to teacher behavior and the activity of the classroom. More detailed introductory discussions of ethnicity can be found in Elliott et al. (2000), and Santrock (2008).
Students from many ethnic minority groups do not fare well in U.S. schools. Consider the following observations:
1. African-American students and Latino students are more likely to be enrolled in remedial programs and receive special education services than are White or Asian-American students (Santrock, 2008).
2. African-American students and Latino students are less apt to be enrolled in college preparatory classes than are White or Asian-American students (Santrock, 2008).
3. Latino and other ethnic minority students often do well in the early school years, only to show a decline in academic achievement in the later elementary school years (Elliott et al., 2000).
4. African-American students are more likely to be suspended from school than are White students and students from many other ethnic minority groups (Santrock, 2008).
Why do students from so many ethnic minority groups fare so poorly in schools? There are at least three reasons:
1. Because of the long histories of discrimination against, and oppression of, ethnic minority groups in the U.S., students from such groups are more likely than White students to live in poverty, and poverty does not prepare children well for school (Spencer & Dornbusch, 1990).
2. Ethnic minority students must master not only the curriculum of the school, but also its culture, and the culture of most schools is largely that of middle class, White society (Tharp, 1989). This puts ethnic minority students at a disadvantage compared to White students from the very first day of school.
3. Teachers interact with ethnic minority students in ways that are less than optimal for the latter’s academic development (Sadker, Sadker & Klein, 1986; Spencer & Dornbusch, 1990).