It's all in who you know


A book by UC Riverside education professor Robert K. Ream links high mobility to low test scores

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( -- The traditional stranglehold on access to power and money may have weakened, but who-you-know continues to open doors in school as well as in life - apparently with particular significance for children of Mexican descent.

A new book by a UC Riverside assistant professor of education shows that those who form relationships with school staff, and make and keep friends confirms that who you know really matters.

In "Uprooting Children: Mobility, Social Capital and Mexican American Underachievement," Robert K. Ream shows that the stability of students' school-based relationships may help explain their academic performance. In particular, Ream links the relatively high rate of mobility among Mexican-origin youth to their low test scores.

Experts tend to blame Mexican Americans' poor school performance on language and cultural barriers along with socioeconomic status, he says. But these factors fail to fully explain the achievement gap.

"Part of the problem is that Mexican Americans are simply more mobile than other student groups, particularly during high school," Ream says.

All students experience some upheaval as they move from elementary to middle to high school, but the vast majority of Mexican-origin students also change schools for a host of other reasons, Ream said. The effect of those moves extends far beyond catching up to a new curriculum or repeating work already done.

"These frequent moves impinge on students' relationships with their peers and with school personnel," Ream says.

Choosing sides in a kickball game, when no one knows the new classmate's name, is trivial compared to the real costs of frequently changing schools: It impedes students' efforts to make trustworthy friends and adjust socially to a new school situation. Like the frequent re-potting of plants, mobility tends to disrupt social root systems.

A social scientist such as Ream, however, faces a stiff challenge in quantifying the exact cost of disrupting buddy networks and school support systems. It's a question of attempting to measure how helpful social relationships are in furthering a student's academic needs - what social scientists call "social capital."

"Social relationships can be like money in the bank," Ream says. He set out to examine students' relationship networks and how useful those relationships are in helping them get ahead academically.

He was in for a surprise: Not only did he find that Mexican-origin students have fewer relationships that help and support their learning, some relationships that are supposed to be beneficial undercut their achievements.

Youngsters who want to get ahead academically are sometimes painted with the same brush of low expectations as those who don't.

What may appear on the surface to be a supportive teacher-student relationship, may be poisoned by low expectations, which can lead a teacher to discourage a student's "unrealistic" goals. "Teachers can 'make nice' with students rather than demanding the hard work it takes for students to get ahead," he said.

There are things parents can do to help, however. Parents who plan their moves with the child's learning needs in mind can help mitigate some of the ill-effects, he said.

Ream's book contains a number of recommendations:

1. School districts should track mobility so as to ensure that students are engaged in the educational process.

2. Educational reformers need to support programs than have proven effective, such as:

  • AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), which helps bolster peer and community networks to support students' academic goals.
  • The Puente Project, which brings parents and school staff together, and which also matches 9th graders with community mentors.

3. Everyone responsible for educating youngsters should bolster guidance counseling. School counselors, charged with helping students on the move make a smooth transition between schools, often are overwhelmed by the number of students on their plate (1:950 in California). Additional counselors would ease the effects of disruption for students changing schools.

"Uprooting Children: Mobility, Social Capital and Mexican American Underachievement" by Robert K. Ream is published by LFB Scholarly Publishers as part of the New Americans series co-edited by Rubén G. Rumbaut, University of California, Irvine and Steven Gold, Michigan State University

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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