Why do Some Kids “Underachieve”?

This was the topic of a talk I went to at yesterday’s CAG Conference, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was hoping to find out some research or information about how to help Pseudonymous Kid overcome his current aversion to all things “school”-related (which is lessening, thank god, but I am impatient and want More! Faster! strategies). One thing that the speaker said in passing really bothered me, and because I saw heads nodding all around the audience, I thought I’d write about it here since it seems to be a commonly-held belief: that Black students may underachieve because of pressure not to “act white” by doing well in school.

It just so happens that I read a recent article about this exact topic at The Root: Ivory A. Toldson’s article “The ‘Acting White Theory’ Doesn’t Add Up,” reprinted from the Journal of Negro Education. Her research shows not only that black students actually perceive that educational achievement is valued by their black peers, but that “white males are the most forthright about being apathetic toward educational values.”

Much as I enjoyed the conference, it really bugged me to see a featured speaker and several of the teachers in the audience unaware of this article, or more importantly–since obviously working teachers can’t really be expected to have read every recent article about education that exists*–that it seemed to be such an accepted truism that black underachievement is part of “black culture” rather than part of the culture of education or the broader American culture (which it surely is). In the context of gifted education, which also has a problem with underidentifying gifted black students, this strikes me as a doubly-pressing issue, and attributing it to the students’ attitudes seems like a kind of victim-blaming that lets educators and educational systems off the hook, or at least functions as an excuse for not doing better.

So I sent a very polite letter to the speaker and posted the article, along with a version of what I’m saying here, on a couple of FB pages including CAG’s own page. I’ve definitely noticed that my own educational background–formal scholing, yes! up the ying yang–means that over and over in discussion K-12 education (in or out of school), I want RESEARCH and SOURCES and EVIDENCE.

*Which, let’s be honest, is one of the biggest problems in K-12 education; that teachers are so seldom given access–and almost never given the time–to keep up with research in their field. Or rather, fields: education itself, and their subject matter (math, history, etc.).

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5 responses to “Why do Some Kids “Underachieve”?

  • Jen

    I think underachieving is attributed to all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily the cause. Each child is so unique and trying to find underlying issues can be so difficult. Our daughter was having trouble that was related to giftedness and we just had no idea until we hired and educational psychologist privately. It’s really troubling to me that giftedness is so under-identified for so many reasons . . . . the poor kids – I just want them to be challenged, to find happiness and to understand themselves better so that they can thrive and adapt appropriately. I wasn’t aware of this perception or the article you mention, but it hits an area of passion for me directly – keep informing & spreading the news!

  • tedra

    Yeah, in my own son’s case I think his school problems were related to a lot of things, but could be said to boil down to frustration. And like you, we knew there were problems but didn’t really get help sorting them out until we started doing so privately.

  • Eleanor

    I also have a suspicion that academic underachievement isn’t so much a function of various ethnic minority cultures {“Oh, it’s just not in their *culture* to *value* education”} – as if there’s something pathological in Latin@ communities or black families – as that the pathology lies in the racial structure itself that doesn’t value black/Latin@/Native academic achievements. Insofar as ethnic minority underachievement is a “strategic” project at all, it makes much more sense to me that kids don’t invest their time and energy into projects for which they will be unable to reap the rewards, which won’t translate into superior prospects for the future, and expose them to even more resentment and contempt than they have to deal with every day. It’s not like black communities don’t “value” or “understand” the benefits of education, to the extent that education would be discouraged among their children – so much as they have a realistic understanding that the dominant society itself doesn’t value their education.

    And that’s assuming that underachievement is a strategy at all, rather than the predictable outcome of wildly disproportionate racial distribution of resources.

  • tedra

    @Eleanor–I think assuming that underachievement is a strategy is a serious mistake.

  • Eleanor

    @Tedra: Understanding underachievement itself as a strategy is mistaken; but understanding education consumption and scholastic practice overall as, at least in part, strategic or conscious can, I think, be helpful. It corrects an assumption of passivity, for one, and implies taking seriously kids’ appraisal of the role of education for them, and for society at large.

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