Sandra Romero and Bibiana Vega do their best to shrug off taunts from fellow Latino classmates at Del Mar High School in San Jose, Calif.
The 17-year-old seniors are called “whitewashed.” Mataditas—dorks. Cerebritas—brainiacs. They’re told they’re “losing their culture”—just because Sandra has a 4.0 grade-point average and Bibiana has a 3.5.
The put-downs are clear: Smart is not cool.
And too many Latino students are choosing cool over school.
But a few miles away at Hyde Middle School, in the heavily Asian Cupertino Union School District, Tiffany Nguyen detects the opposite attitude. If you’re not smart, “you’re really looked down on,” said the Vietnamese-American eighth-grader.
After years of tiptoeing around racial issues for fear of invoking stereotypes, California educators are now looking squarely at how ethnicity and culture shape achievement and attitudes toward school.
The Mercury News interviewed dozens of students from varying backgrounds to examine the “racial achievement gap” and a delicate question that underlies it: Why do so many kids—especially Latinos—believe “school is uncool.”
The challenge isn’t limited to California. Using surveys of 90,000 secondary-school students, Harvard University researchers found that white students were more popular when they had higher grade-point averages. But black students’ popularity sharply declined when their GPAs reached a B-plus. For Latinos, the price of good grades was even costlier: Popularity peaked at a C-plus, then plunged.
The 2005 study, titled “An Empirical Analysis of `Acting White,’” was based on a survey that asked students to name their friends.
`EMBARRASSED TO BE MEXICAN’
When Latinos are accused of “acting white,” the language can be cruel.
“Some of my friends have told me I’m being something I’m not—that I’m embarrassed to be Mexican,” said Bibiana, the youngest of three children in a family that immigrated from Mexico eight years ago. Her success is all the more impressive because her father did not attend school and her mother went only as far as third grade.
Throughout the state, education leaders are huddling on how to raise the achievement of Latinos, who now make up about half of California’s K-12 students and are growing in proportion.
Without finding ways to help more students succeed, the state risks churning out an undereducated generation, with dire social and economic consequences. So educators are trying to reshape the culture of learning—at home, in the classroom and among peer groups.
Motivation is one obstacle. Numerous students and teachers told the Mercury News they know kids—from all backgrounds—who are smart but choose to slack off.
“They’d rather be around friends who make them feel stronger and more powerful,” said Viviano Perez, 12, a Latino seventh-grader at Morrill Middle School in San Jose. And, he said, they pay more attention to the clothes they wear and hanging out than homework.
Think nerds vs. jocks, and it’s hard to imagine smart equals popular. Indeed, many education experts argue that mainstream America worships pop culture and athletic prowess more than intellectual accomplishment.
“At my school, the ratio of athletic to academic trophies is easily 100-to-1,” said Boston-based educational consultant Douglas Reeves.
The Harvard study didn’t break out the attitudes of Asian-American students, but interviews with local students indicate that many Asians think classmates must be smart—but not act smart—to be popular.
If you get good grades, “people look up to you,” said junior Kim Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who attends Piedmont Hills High School, an East San Jose campus where nearly half the students are Asian.
The stark difference in attitude corresponds with a striking difference in standardized test scores in California: Black and Latino students generally score much lower than Asians and whites. And it’s not just a matter of poverty. On state achievement tests, poor whites and Asians score higher than or about the same as black and Latino students who are not economically disadvantaged.
Educators stress that race and culture are only two parts of a complex matrix that influence student performance. Poverty, English-language fluency, parental education and school inequality are also factors.
But unlike ugly past controversies over race and academic achievement, this latest debate doesn’t focus on whether there are racial differences in IQ.
The issue now is how cultural values influence learning, educators say.
Critiquing culture, however, is a potentially explosive endeavor. Comedian Bill Cosby has lambasted patterns in the African-American community that undermine success—in particular, single parenthood and undervaluing education—and provoked a firestorm. His critics say Cosby is ignoring racism and injustice and instead blaming the victim.
THE CULTURE OF RACE
In the ethnic salad bowl of Silicon Valley, educators would love to season all the ingredients with the best values and attitudes from each culture.
Confucian values on education, obligation to family and high parental expectations of many Asian immigrants contribute to success in school, local educators say. Some Asian cultures also have traditions of collaboration and mutual support that lead to helpful study habits.
“Before a big test we have a study party at someone’s home,” said sophomore Doanh-Dalena Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American at Evergreen Valley High School.
Joseph Rios, an educational consultant and former administrator in the Berryessa Union School District, says Latino parents traditionally take responsibility for educating their children by teaching morals, manners and respect for family “to create a good human being based on the Golden Rule.” But education experts also say many Latino immigrants struggle to navigate the U.S. education structure, not grasping the need to advocate at school and oversee homework and progress.
And some in the Latino community are tackling what they call “cultural resignation,” an attitude born of generations trapped in poverty. “In rural Mexico, generation after generation, no matter how hard you work, you are just stuck in life,” Rios said.
What’s puzzling is why some groups advance so quickly while others don’t. The answer lies partly in how Americans receive different immigrant groups, and how newcomers’ values dovetail with white middle-class culture, said Carol Schmid, a North Carolina sociologist.
What’s clear is that, helpful or not, parents’ values percolate down.
Thoa Hoang, 17, a Vietnamese-American junior at Piedmont Hills High, said her Asian friends absorbed their hardworking attitudes from their immigrant parents. “We’re brainwashed,” she said with a sigh. “Every one of us is afraid of being stupid or looking dumb.”
WHAT ARE `GOOD GRADES’?
Students from all backgrounds told the Mercury News that their parents value education and expect good grades. Many get rewards, such as a dinner out or iTunes cards, for good performance. They’re punished—no text messaging, restricted computer access or grounding—for bad grades.
But families’ definition of “good grades” varies. It means “higher than a C,” said Victoria Mendoza, a Latina and an eighth-grader at West San Jose’s Monroe Middle School who nonetheless gets mostly A’s.
Thoa said her parents expect A-pluses, although she said she doesn’t meet that standard. “I have to bring it down a notch to be real,” said Thoa, who has a 3.6 GPA and is taking two advanced-placement classes this year.
High expectations also motivate Sarah Lin. Even when the Evergreen Valley High junior thinks she’s doing really well, her Taiwanese immigrant parents say she’s comparing herself with the wrong group. The engineer and accountant see their daughter’s competitors not at San Jose’s Evergreen—which is 46 percent Asian—but as the Asian students at high-scoring California high schools in Palo Alto, Cupertino and Sunnyvale.
Even conscientious parents risk losing the tug of war in influence when their children become teens.
And the streets offer a multitude of temptations, said Franklin Collazo, a teacher in the Evergreen School District who as a youth found refuge from a violent home in his studies. Now Collazo tells students, “Tell me who you hang out with, and I’ll tell you who you are.”
That was the problem for 12-year-old Alejandra Vazquez of San Jose. Before, “she had two friends who were always fighting. They spent a lot of time walking around the streets after school,” said her mother, Elena Vazquez. Putting her daughter in KIPP: Heartwood Academy, a back-to-basics charter school in East San Jose, changed Alejandra’s behavior and her grades.
Whether school wins out over cool depends partly on who gains a critical mass on campus, educators say.
Peer pressure weighs heavily. “If you have 100 kids and 95 value education and five don’t, then the majority can ignore the few,” said Rios, the former Berryessa administrator. “The other way around, with 95 who want to be cool but not study, it can be tough on five who don’t.”
`MAKE IT COOL TO EXCEL’
One way for schools to close the achievement gap, educators say, is to challenge students who embrace academic failure, or “acting stupid,” as part of their identity.
At San Jose’s Del Mar High, a school once notorious for gang problems that in 2007 won the coveted California Distinguished School Award, Principal Jim Russell has engineered such a culture change. He posts a student honors list on his door, convenes a monthly meeting of Spanish-speaking parents and personally urges more Latinos like Sandra and Bibiana to take advanced-placement classes.
The idea, Russell said, is to “make it cool to excel.”
The success of private schools and charters like KIPP: Heartwood, which is 72 percent Latino, also highlights the importance of culture change. KIPP, whose students are fifth- through eighth-graders, posted the highest Latino scores in the county—906 out of a possible 1,000 on the state’s Academic Performance Index last year.
KIPP students sign 20 pledges, ranging from always telling the truth to attending school from 7:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days. Parents and teachers also sign a sheet of promises.
“We are kind of productively neurotic about it,” said Principal Sehba Ali.
Elsewhere, educators know too many students have to justify their academic success to their peers—or prove themselves to others.
“Just because you’re Mexican and you have an accent, some people think you’re not going to do well,” said Sandra Romero, the high-achieving Del Mar senior.
But Sandra and her friend Bibiana are fighting back. Backed by education-focused parents, the two are college-bound and raising scholarship money for other Latino students through a group they lead, Latina Juventud, or Latina Youth.
“When somebody puts me down and tells me I don’t have a life because I have good grades, I stand up for myself,” Sandra said. “OK, I say, you think I’m whitewashed now. But I could be your boss someday.”
(Mercury News news research director Leigh Poitinger contributed to this report.)