second perspective contends that minority students have different (but not necessarily oppositional) cultural practices that hinder their ability to learn in the school once they arrive.

This second strand is based on a long line of theorizing about schools. Bourdieu (1973) argues that every institution, including the school, has practices (or a culture) that are taken for granted. Children whose house-holds are imbued with the very same culture as that of the school are likely to have an advantage once they enter school. This advantage is likely to be maintained over time because the very taken-for-granted nature of many school practices reduces the likelihood that school personnel will attempt to explicitly instruct disadvantaged students as to the cultural norms of the school. Indeed, school personnel may be unaware of the particularistic nature of their unspoken, taken-for-granted assumptions and the actions that flow from them.

Heath (1982) provides an example of such subtle cultural differences in her illuminating ethnography of language use at home and in school. Heath studied 1st graders and their teachers and interviewed parents during their daily routines as well. She notes that at the inception of her study, teachers reported that black students were unresponsive in class. Although all students were vocal when engaged in recess play, when asked direct questions in class, the black students did not respond. Notably for our concern with special education placement, teachers had even begun to wonder whether the black students were suffering from some mental defect.

Heath’s analysis, however, suggests that cultural difference, not mental defect, is more likely to explain the teachers’ experience. When interviewing the parents, Heath observed that white parents engaged their children by asking inauthentic questions, i.e., questions whose answers the parents knew (Nystrand and Gamoran, 1988). Thus, white parents would ask “What color is that truck?” or “What color is that car?” The asking of inauthentic questions is a staple of instruction in American schools (e.g., Nystrand and Gamoran, 1988), and thus when parents engage their children in such “discussion” prior to school entry, they prepare their children for becoming students in American schools. But there are other ways to teach language skills. For example, Heath found that black children learned language by sitting with their parents while the parents talked with other adults. When the child was invited to enter the conversation, the invitation came through the articulation of an authentic question, one whose answer the parent did not know. Parents and other adults might ask, “What is your favorite story?” or “What did you see at the store?” The answers to such questions were often complex, and children would often use their imagination to concoct fanciful stories in response to such questions.

Heath concluded that because black students operate at home in a culture that uses inauthentic questions relatively rarely, they were at a

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement