Academic Excellence: Why Bother?

An article I wrote for work was recently published and I’ve gotten a lot of very positive feedback on it.

In the article, I compared the education I had received in secondary school in Sierra Leone (1986–1990) to the one I received in high school in the U.S. (1990–1992). I argue that the secondary education I got in Sierra Leone—which was even then a very poor country—was superior to the one I got in the U.S. Basically, I didn’t think that many of my high school peers gave a flying funk about their studies and this resulted in them putting very little effort into their studies.

In my U.S. high school, it seemed like doing well in school was the lowest priority for most of the students. They just didn’t seem to care about their grades. Compare this to Sierra Leone, where students were ranked first, second, etc. in class based on their performance, and nobody wanted to be last! But this is not to say that the kids I studied with in the U.S. didn’t care about anything. They cared about how they looked, what the wore, what kind of car they drove, who they were seen hanging out with, who they spoke to. Certainly, it’s natural for kids to care about this stuff but these are purely cultural concerns, i.e., students learn to value  these things. And if they can learn to internalize one set of values, why can’t they be taught to value education?

The way I see it, many students in the U.S. do not believe that an education will get them where they want to be in life. At my high school, many of the students voiced a desire to be successful in terms of ownership of a new car or a house but they never mentioned how going to college was going to help them achieve that success. There are many possible explanations for this. Many kids came from families in which the parents didn’t attend college, so they may not have been expected to go to college either. Also, many students probably couldn’t see the sense in incurring student loan debts in order to go to college when they could just go straight into the workforce.

In fact, this is precisely what many of them did. I went to school with kids who had been doing menial, low-skill work at shopping malls and movie theaters since they were 14. The money they earned enabled them to buy clothes and even cars. But many of them also explicitly stated that they thought it was stupid to give up working in order to go to college because they would both be losing income and going into debt!!!

In addition, many American students, especially minority and poor students, receive signals from the wider society telling them that they can succeed without doing well in high school and going to college. A Black high schooler will see hundreds of images of Black rappers, athletes, dancers, and other entertainers for every one Black intellectual. Personally, I can only think of three Black intellectuals off the top of my head—Cornell West, Manning Marable, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—but I can name dozens of Black entertainers and athletes. Is it any surprise that many Black kids get the sense that the wider society doesn’t expect them to succeed academically and fail to see how being educated will help them succeed in society. Similarly, poor White kids see very few positive images of other White people who came from humble origins and made it in society. Take former president Bill Clinton, for example, who reportedly grew up in a trailer park. After his rise to political prominence, Clinton’s humble roots were all but erased to the point where, to outside observers, he was no longer someone who had risen out of poverty. But without the academic success that took him to Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale, I doubt whether Bill Clinton could ever have gone as far as he did.

This is not to let anyone off the hook. Parents, teachers, and even peers are certainly guilty for not motivating, and perhaps more importantly for not expecting, students to do well in school. But students’ attitudes are also shaped by their own perceptions of education’s role in their future success and these perceptions will affect students’ commitment to academics. These perceptions can’t but be shaped by the signals students receive from the wider society.

After all, students are rational beings. If they do not believe that an education will pay off in the future, why would they be motivated to  invest enough mental and emotional energy in their schooling?

Read the full article here.


2 thoughts on “Academic Excellence: Why Bother?

  1. African Immigrants:

    African-born blacks comprise 16 percent of the U.S. foreign-born black population and are considerably more educated than other black immigrants (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2000). The vast majority comes from minority white countries in East and West Africa (e.g. Kenya and Nigeria), and less than 2 percent originate from North or South Africa (World Factbook 2004; Yearbook of immigration Statistics 2003).

    In an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Journal of Blacks in higher education African immigrants to the United States were found more likely to be college educated than any other immigrant group. African immigrants to the U.S. are also more highly educated than any native-born ethnic group including white Americans (Logan & Deane, 2003; Dixon, 2006; Journal of Blacks in higher education, 1999-2000; Onwudiwe, 2006; Otiso and Smith, 2005; The Economist, 1996). Some 48.9 percent of all African immigrants hold a college diploma. This is slightly more than the percentage of Asian immigrants to the U.S., nearly double the rate of native-born white Americans, and nearly four times the rate of native-born African Americans (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 26 (Winter, 1999-2000), pp. 60-61).

    In 1997, 19.4 percent of all adult African immigrants in the United States held a graduate degree, compared to 8.1 percent of adult whites and 3.8 percent of adult blacks in the United States, respectively (The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 26 (Winter, 1999-2000), pp. 60-61). This information suggests that America has an equally large achievement gap between whites and African immigrants as there is between white and black Americans.

    The Canadian sociological literature on immigrants also paints a similar picture, however, less stark. All visible-minority immigrant groups whether from the Caribbean or India do better academically than their native born (non-visible) cohorts, on average. Both foreign-born and Canadian-born blacks have graduation rates that exceed those of other Canadians. Similar patters of educational over-achievements are reached with years of schooling and with data from the 1994 Statistics Canada survey. (Guppy and Davies, 1998; Boyd, 2002).

    In the UK, 1988, the Commission for Racial Equality conducted an investigation on the admissions practices of St. George’s, and other medical colleges, who set aside a certain number of places for minority students. This informal quota system reflected the percentage of minorities in the general population. However, minority students with Chinese, Indian, or black African heritage had higher academic qualifications for university admission than did whites (Blacks in Britain from the West Indies had far lower academic credentials than did whites). In fact, blacks with African origins over the age of 30 had the highest educational qualifications of any ethnic group in the British Isles. Thus, the evidence pointed to the fact that minority quotas for University admissions were actually working against students from these ethnic groups who were on average more qualified for higher education than their white peers (Cross, 1994; Also see, C, Dustmann, N, Theodoropoulos, 2006).

    According to the report The State of Working Britain, published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the highly regarded London School of Economics, 21 % of adult blacks in Britain with African origins have a university degree. Only 14 percent of adult white Britons are college educated. It has also been shown that black immigrants from Africa earn more money than do native born white Britons (C, Dustmann, N, Theodoropoulos, 2006):

    Of the African-born population in the United States age 25 and older 86.4% reported having a high school degree or higher, compared with 78. 9% of Asian born immigrants and 76.5% of European born immigrants, respectively. These figures contrast with 61.8% percent of the total foreign-born population. Immigrants groups in general tend to have higher high school graduation rates than the native-born general American population.

    Those Africans born from Zimbabwe (96.7 percent), Botswana (95.5 percent), and Malawi (95 percent) were the most likely to report having a high school degree or higher. Those born in Cape Verde (44.8 percent), Mauritania (60.8 percent), and Somalia (63.3 percent) were the least likely to report having completed a high school education (Dixon, D., 2006)..

    Of the European born those born in Bulgaria (92.6 percent), Switzerland (90.5 percent), and Ireland (90.4 percent) were the most likely to report having a high school degree or higher. Those born in Portugal (42.9 percent), Italy (53.7 percent), and Greece (59.9 percent) were the least likely to report having completed a high school education (Dixon, D., 2006).

    Of the Asian born Mongolia (94.8 percent), Kuwait (94.7 percent), the United Arab Emirates (94.5 percent), and Qatar (94.3 percent) were most likely to report having a high school degree or higher. Those born in Laos (48.1 percent), Cambodia (48.4 percent), and Yemen (49.9 percent) were the least likely to report having completed a high school education (Dixon, D., 2006).. (Most people think the Asian group includes Orientals exclusively, this is not true)

    Dodoo (1997) finds that while African immigrants are indeed the most educated of black groups in the U.S., he finds a negative return on African immigrants’ education attainment for diplomas obtained outside the United States. However, the same does not hold true for Caribbean immigrants. Although he finds that among blacks – native and immigrants – Africans earn the most, when earning-related endowments such as educational attainments are included in the analysis, this expected African advantage disappears (Dodoo, 1997).

    The African born and Employment in the U.S.:

    The African born are concentrated in management or professional and sales or office-related occupations. Of the employed population age 16 and older in the civilian labor force, the African born were much more likely than the foreign born in general to work in management and professional occupations as well as sales and office occupations. Additionally, the African born were less likely to work in service, production, transportation, material moving, construction, and maintenance occupations than the foreign born in general.

    Ethiopians, Sudanese and Somalis, who mostly immigrate as refugees, do not do as well as their counterparts from English speaking African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya. The reason was because most people from the three countries immigrate to the United States as refugees and asylum seekers, following crises in their home countries (Otiso and Smith, 2005).

    Source Materials:

    African Immigrants in the United States are the Nation’s Most Highly Educated Group. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 26 (Winter, 1999-2000), pp. 60-61doi:10.2307/2999156

    African-Born Blacks in the United Kingdom Are Far More Likely than Whites to Hold a College Degree. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 34 (Winter, 2001-2002), pp. 29-31 doi:10.2307/3134095

    African-Born U.S. Residents are the Most Highly Educated Group in American Society The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 13 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 33-34 doi:10.2307/2963153

    Boyd, M. (2002). Educational Attainments of Immigrant Offspring: Success or Segmented Assimilation?

    C, Dustmann, N, Theodoropoulos (2006): Ethnic Minority Immigrants and their Children in Britain. Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration, Department of Economics, University College London

    Cross, T. (1994). Black Africans Now the Most Educated Group in British Society. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 3 (spring, 1994), pp.92-93

    Dixon, D. (2006). Characteristics of the European Born in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. February, 2005

    Dixon, D. (2006). Characteristics of the African Born in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. January, 2006

    Dixon, D. (2006). Characteristics of the Asian Born in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. April 2006

    Dodoo, F. N-A (1997). Assimilation differences among Africans in America. Social Forces 76: 527-46

    Gelatt, J. and Dixon, D. (2006). Detailed Characteristics of the Caribbean Born in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. July 2006.

    Gelatt, J. and Dixon, D. (2006). Detailed Characteristics of the South American Born in the United States. Migration Policy Institute. May 2006.

    Guppy, Neil and Scott Davies (1998). Education in Canada: Recent Trends and Future Challenges. Ottawa: Statistics Canada and the Minister of Industry.

    Kefa M. Otiso and Bruce W. Smith, (2005). “Immigration and Economic Restructuring in Ohio’s Cities, 1940-2000”, Ohio Journal of Science, 105 (5): 133-137 December 2005

    Logan, J.R, Deane, G (2003). “Black Diversity in Metropolitan America.” Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban Regional Research University Albany

    Onwudiwe, E. (2006). “Reflections on African Brain Gain Movement.”

    The Economist (1996). 339 (7965): 27-28

    In Educational Attainment, Black Immigrants to the United States Outperform Native-Born White and Black Americans. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education © 2003 CH II Publishers


  2. Your blogs are refreshing and quite an unlikely find from the Eduwonk site.

    I read your article and can agree with you on many levels. Although I never attended school in Sierra Leone, mainly attending US public schools and universities, I can understand your view point. As a first generation American with Sierra Leonean parents and lots of friends of family who were educated in Africa, I’ve heard the same analysis of US vs. African education systems, but primarily SL schools. I’ve even heard the same comments about the lack of rigor of US schools from friends from other third world countries outside of Africa. I had the opportunity to spend some time in South Africa researching education policy issues and it is quite difficult to wrap my head around this paradox. For instance, in the context of what American schools try to do…teach to the lowest common denominator, the concept of class size matters. When you’ve traveled to schools in rural Africa and witness teaching and learning happening with class sizes as large as 50 or under a tree, class size has a different meaning.

    One thing I have grasped from my SL relatives and friends is the great pride that they have in their schools, not just in academics but in sports, culture and community. I get jealous when I’m around a group of grammar school and Annie Walsh alums who are reminiscing about sports or the likes. I’m not sure my 20th high school reunion will be the same. The class rankings of SL schools seem tough, but the stigma placed on not knowing something seems even more embarrassing. In SL students are often teased by their peers for lack of knowledge…in some American schools, this behavior is celebrated by peers. I don’t agree with either response but I say this to highlight the stark differences I’ve observed.

    I also think that your time in SL schools and before were the heyday of that pristine culture of learning. The post-war effects are evident in the current education system and a lot of the pride that existed before has been lost. Although difficult to quantify, my guess if the value placed on education is still quite high.


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