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From Shallow to Deep: Toward a Thorough Cultural Analysis of School Achievement Patterns


Mica Pollock is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She studies how adults and youth struggle daily over fundamental questions of racial inequality and diversity. She is the author of Colormute: Race Talk Dilemmas in an American School (2004) and Because of Race: How Americans Debate Harm and Opportunity in Our Schools (2008a). She is the editor of Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real about Race in School (2008b;


What do anthropologists of education do? Many observers think that we provide quick glosses on what various “cultures”—typically racialized, ethnic, and national-origin groups—“do” in schools. Hervé Varenne and I each name an alternative form of analysis that we think should be central to the subfield.

Varenne argues that anthropologists of education should expand analysis of teaching and learning beyond (American) schools and classrooms and examine everyday life in various places as containing countless moments of teaching and learning that are worth understanding. Varenne reminds us that teaching and learning occur nonstop in everyday life, not just in classrooms. “Education” is about far more than what we typically call “achievement,” which usually translates into grades, graduation, or test scores.1 This long-standing way of thinking anthropologically about “education” is essential to exploding simplistic notions of what, when, how, and from whom people “learn.”

In my essay, I contend that U.S. anthropologists of education also need to analyze thoroughly how U.S. school achievement patterns take shape in real time. I argue that it is our particular responsibility to counteract “shallow” analyses of “culture” in schools, which purport to explain “achievement gaps” by making quick claims about how parents and children from various racial, ethnic, national-origin, or class groups react to schools. Such shallow analyses dangerously oversimplify the social processes, interactions, and practices that create disparate outcomes for children.

Shallow cultural analyses are common in both journalism and popular discourse—and in schools of education as well (see Ladson-Billings 2006 for a related critique). They are explanatory claims that name a group as having a “cultural” set of behaviors and then name that “cultural” behavior as the cause of the group's school achievement outcomes. (E.g., some argue that “group x”[e.g., “Asians”] employs a “group x behavior”[e.g., “push their children”] that causes “high” or “low” achievement.) Such claims allow people to explain achievement outcomes too simply as the production of parents and children without ever actually examining the real-life experiences of specific parents and children in specific opportunity contexts. Going deeper requires pressing for actual, accurate information about the everyday interactions among real-life parents, children, and other actors that add up to school achievement patterns (graduation rates, dropout rates, skill-test scores, suspension lists, and the like).

When anthropologists of education say that we study culture, we mean that we are studying the organization of people's everyday interactions in concrete contexts. Shallow analyses of “culture” that purport to describe only how a “group's” parents train its children blame a reduced set of actors, behaviors, and processes for educational outcomes, and they include a reduced set of actors and actions in a reduced set of projects for educational improvement. Anthropologists of education should make clear that we examine children's experiences both in context and in appropriate detail; we study interactional processes that other observers might describe too quickly or with insufficient information.2

I think that if anthropologists of education explicitly, publicly, and colloquially name what counts as deep, thorough cultural analysis of American school achievement patterns, we will make ourselves far better prepared to respond to harmfully shallow claims made by journalists, colleagues, and educators alike. We will also support other stakeholders in children's lives (including teachers and teacher educators) to think more thoroughly about which actions, by whom, and in what situations produce children's achievement. This short essay suggests four key ways that anthropologists of education can, do, and should get “deep” in analyzing American achievement patterns. I invite colleagues to edit and extend this list in future editions of AEQ.