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Volume 15, Number 3
May/June 1999

Learning from Poor and Minority Students Who Succeed in School

Children's views on success and failure have a big impact on their learning


When Raymond was four years old, his family moved to the United States from Mexico. As in many immigrant families, everyone worked hard to get ahead in their new country. The children helped their mother deliver newspapers before she started her day cleaning houses. Their father worked on an assembly line during the day, at a gas station later in the afternoon, and at a pizza factory at night. And the parents still found time to encourage their children to achieve in school. "They helped the four of us get through college and graduate school," Raymond recalls, "not with monetary support, but by demonstrating persistence."

This is one family's story of success against the odds. Raymond and his siblings successfully navigated the journey from working- to middle-class status. The unfortunate reality is that, on average, poor and minority students underachieve relative to their middle-class Caucasian peers on a variety of indices, such as GPA, SAT scores, high school completion, and college completion. What is it about Raymond, his siblings, and his parents that has enabled them to prevail where so many others falter?

Relative to the voluminous literature on the causes of school failure, there is little research on how some students succeed against the odds. Most studies have focused on understanding differences between groups, usually comparing middle-class Caucasian students with poor or working-class minority students. Leaving aside the appropriateness of such comparisons, one important result is that we know little about differences between high and low achievers within the same group.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    J. Bempechat, S. Graham, and N. Jimenez. "The Socialization of Achievement in Poor and Minority Students: A Comparative Study." Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 30, no. 2 (March 1999): 139-158.

    C. Dweck and J. Bempechat. "Children's Theories of Intelligence: Consequences of Learning." In S. Paris, G. Olsen, and H. Stevensen, eds., Learning and Motivation in the Classroom. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1983: 239-256.

    J. Nicholls. "What Is Ability and Why Are We Mindful of It? A Developmental Perspective." In R. Sternberg & J. Kolligian, eds., Competence Considered. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990: 11-40.