Cultural Factors and Student Achievement

Oppression has transcended many diverse groups of people; students living in the culture of poverty are one of these groups.  The cultural factors that these students endure, impacts their education in a manner that limits their success at completion of high school. What pathways do they then have in front of them with little education? Working to eradicate poverty is a popular theme amongst governments and celebrities, however, what programs are being used and do they work, also, are there current theories that are meeting with success to help impoverished students overcome challenges. Education should be a tool to transform students living in poverty and empower them to overcome the barriers in their lives. The cultural factors that affect student achievement, once addressed, can be altered to lead students out of poverty. In this research paper, culture and poverty will be defined as well as the demographics of students living in poverty with a focus on the province of Alberta. The cultural factors will be examined as to the impacts on high school completion and the post-secondary options this group faces as well as programs that are currently meeting with success to reduce the effects of poverty.

Defining the Culture of Poverty

Egbo defines culture as “the knowledge, values, customs, attitudes, language and strategies that enable individuals and groups to adapt and survive in their environment” (Egbo, 2009). Gurnett defines poverty as “the economic circumstances of people living without adequate financial resources to lead a dignified modest life” (Gurnett, 2009). Poverty does not necessarily mean that people lack skills or assets to lead successful lives, however it erects many barriers and at times can exclude people from the mainstream society. This exclusion or “othering” as defined by Kumarshiro (2000), in his paper on anti-oppressive education, leads to the development of a culture of people that share the same characteristics Egbo defines as representing a particular culture group.

According to the Canadian Counsel on Social Development, Canada’s poverty rate in 2007 was 16.2% and in Alberta the poverty rate was 13.8% (2007).  Gurnett also states that Aboriginal people experience poverty more than any other group in Alberta (2009). There has also been a 61% jump in people accessing local food banks, this stressing the lack of basic needs being met and unemployment within Alberta has more than doubled in the past 2 years, this being felt by majority of low-income wage earners (Gurnett, 2009).  Surviving in an environment of poverty, people naturally turn to social service and non-profit agencies for support of basic needs. With unemployment rates drastically low and food bank usage up, impoverished people, as Kunz states, experience exclusion from many opportunities other groups of society have access too including jobs, services, and community involvement (2004).


In Alberta, one in twelve children live in poverty and of that, four out of five live in a family which contains one or more adults that work less than full-time in a given year (Gurnett, 2009). Of the working population, one in four Albertans (one in three woman) work for low wages and 61% of woman over the age of 25 earn $15 per hour or less (Gurnett, 2009).  Before the recession in 2009, the number of Albertans receiving social assistance was a record low; however there was an increase of 36% and the majority of recipients of social assistance were single female parent families (Gurnett, 2009).  The increase in unemployment and the increase in people accessing social assistance programs have dramatically increased in the last few years. Aboriginal people and single female parent families have felt the increase more so than other demographical groups, the next highest being recent immigrants from other countries. Aboriginal people’s overrepresentation in the demographic statistics from Gurnetts’ (2009) report on Alberta resembles similar data found in Fleury’s (2004) report on Canada’s Working Poor. Of people living in poverty in Canada, 41.7% have less than a high school diploma and while a lack of education alone cannot be regarded as the sole factor for families living in poverty, it does represent a substantial proportion of the demographical statistics (Canadian Counsel on Social Development, 2007).


Cultural Factor Impact

Education may perhaps not be the only pathway out of poverty; it can however level the playing field for many of our students. Overcoming the factors that increase drop-out rates will help limit the exclusion felt by this group of students and possibly enable them to remain in school longer. The Community Health Systems Research Group in Ontario identified several risk factors that serve as barriers to high school completion. They are grouped into two areas including school related and non-school related. The following are the non-school related risk factors:

Family Identity Issues
Social Isolation Risk-Taking
Disabilities Adult Status
School-Home Link Moves/Interruptions
Immigration/Resettlement Youth Culture
Location Gender
Minority Status Social Class

(Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, Special Education Branch, 2005)

Having a combination of these risk factors can lead to a significant risk of a student not completing high school. In the same report, Aboriginal students have another risk factor in that they find themselves having to take on adult responsibilities and role modeling in their households (2005). Within Alberta, the past lure of jobs in the oil and gas industry and with the mandate by some companies to hire Aboriginal workers, many students left high school to seek employment. However, in the report Workers in Low Income Households in Alberta, many workers that do not have a high school diploma make less money than those that do have a diploma (Saunders, 2007). But again, while completion of high school does not guarantee a high-income job, the opportunities within high school to explore vocations within the trades allow for higher income employment.

The cultural factors listed lead to increased exclusion from mainstream society that is reinforced within the walls of a school. Schools are reflections of societies dominant norms and values and when impoverished students are facing exclusion as a result of their circumstances outside of school, it is hard to feel a sense of inclusion within the school that resembles those societal values. Without an attachment to or the ability to develop positive social relationships with schools and other agencies, this culture remains limited with respect to being able to rise out of poverty.

Students living in poverty have not made this choice for themselves. They come from families that perhaps have been living in poverty for many generations. The involuntary nature of their culture can continue to entrench their feelings of exclusion. For involuntary minorities, Ogbu discusses a cultural-ecological theory for educators to address the cultural factors they face. While the theory is not pedagogically rooted, it does offer strategies for educators to utilize in their classrooms by examining the cause of poverty faced by students (Ogbu, 1998). As stated previously, poverty is not the sole factor for high school non-completion; it does however help teachers to understand the dynamics behind the factors that may lead/contribute to an unsuccessful high school career. The theory Ogbu outlines advocates for teachers to treat students individually, however by understanding the group mentality, teachers are better equipped to develop strategies that meet impoverished student needs. Forming authentic relationships between students, parents, and educators will begin to foster a sense of inclusion not felt before. Building trust with this group becomes a part of the solution to retaining impoverished students in schools. When educators begin to understand why students are living in poverty, they are able to address the exclusion felt and any associated pressure thrust on this group to fit in with mainstream students. Understanding the dynamics of the involuntary culture of poverty, the cultural-ecological theory will enable educators to lead impoverished students to higher standards of student achievement. While shattering the outside society’s influence may be a daunting task, teachers are able to make a difference in students to begin the shift in the dominant views.

Post-Secondary Pathways

In the report Boosting Educational Achievement in Western Canada, it states that the pathway students take are determined before they enter high school (Canada West Foundation, 2009).  Those that do complete high school in Alberta either never enter post-secondary programs or delay entry until a later time and within Aboriginal communities, their entry into post-secondary programs is lower due to low exposure to adults with a high level of education (Canada West Foundation, 2009). The same cultural non-school related factors also play a role in students not attending post-secondary institutions. Given that Alberta has one of the highest high school dropout rates in the western provinces, it also has one of the lowest direct entry rates into post-secondary institutions (Canada West Foundation, 2009). Again as a result of the economic boom in the oil and gas industry in Alberta, many students left high school and pursued employment opportunities leaving them little options to pursue post-secondary educations. The accumulation of factors from the cultural barriers and the exclusion from mainstream society gradually disengages students from their educational careers. Immediate opportunities to earn an income far outweigh the long-term benefits of receiving an education.

Solution-Focused Programming

Within Alberta with the high competition between needing to earn immediate income versus long-term goals of high school and post-secondary completion, what programming needs to be put into place to re-engage the disengaged? Given that society has marginalized certain cultural groups, what are some strategies that schools can use to enable students to reach academic successes?

Before examining programming that addresses the high-school completion, first strategies that explore the nature of the dynamics of poverty will be reviewed. As previously stated, Ogbu’s cultural-ecological theory enables educators to develop some level of understanding of the group dynamics of impoverished students and assist them with supporting students to achieve academic success. While the removal of all the non-school related barriers may not always be possible, the removal or realignment of the dominant view of the culture of poverty will work to help this group feel attached and then engage in their education.

Kumariso, in his article on anti-oppression, puts some context into which cultural groups are considered marginalized and students living in poverty are considered to be a group that is oppressed as their shared identity causes them to be disengaged from the privileges of society. In his article he critiques four approaches educators can use to help combat the dominant view of the privileged society and advocates for educators to utilize a combination of the four approaches: education for the other, education about the other, education that is critical of privileging and othering, and education that changes students and society (2000). Using the approaches will enable educators to look past the stereotypes placed on marginalized groups and work to reduce the oppression they face, both in school and out. In order to engage in strategies that challenge the dominant views and attempt engagement of the disengaged student, educators must be willing to examine their roles and establish whether or not they feel that society’s views need to change. Without a process of self-reflection to establish one’s participation in certain stereotyping, educators may only continue to reinforce rather than combat oppression of students living in poverty. Looking for support from communities and other agencies need to be incorporated to reduce the marginalization of impoverished students. When students see that communities are collaborating to enable them out of poverty, they may feel more connected and a sense of belonging and thus decide to engage in their educations.

Identifying potential high school dropouts needs to occur before students enter high school. Heubert stresses the need for early intervention and tracking markers for absenteeism, low grades, retention, school climate, as well as the cultural factors listed previously (2001). While attempts to reach disengaged students in high school needs to still be undertaken, early intervention programs meet with more success. The cultural factors that impact students’ non-completion need to be reduced or their protective factors need to be increased. The Community Health Systems Resource Group also outlines protective factors that include community support and access to social programs, employment, healthy living, strong school-home connection, friends/family, educational support and a personal sense of motivation (2005).  The cultural factors are interconnected and need to be targeted at various levels within the students’ community. Essentially, educators need to understand the group dynamics of impoverished students, be flexible with expectations while maintaining realistic standards, and continue to forge authentic relationships between all members of the students’ life. Richards supports early intervention programs to address poverty and engaging students to increase potential for success (2007).  Also by infusing culturally relevant information into curriculum that helps establish a connection for traditionally marginalized groups will reduce cultural factors that provide barriers to academic achievement (Richards, 2007).  This is also supportive of Kumaishro’s combination of strategies to address anti-oppressive education: educating about the other can encourage empathy in both educators and other members of society.

Alberta offers Early Childhood Services within schools and children can access this program as early as age two and children with disabilities can receive funding for extra supports (Alberta Education, 2010). In partnership with Children and Youth Services, there are forty-six parent-link centres across Alberta that work to support parents of children under the age of six to promote literacy and healthy living (Alberta Education, 2010). Silva examined schools in Alberta that were meeting with success at combating poverty (2007). In her report, she highlight programming available to Alberta high school students including the Registered Apprenticeship Program, the Green Certificate, Work Experience, Careers: the Next Generation, and the Youth Apprenticeship Program (2007). These programs allow for flexibility in order for disengaged students to make connections between education and employment. The above programs provide students with work related skills while enrolled in a high school and the opportunity to earn an income. The programs have been very successful and often students will continue to pursue post-secondary education within a given trade. With such programs, what makes them successful Silva states, is community support, mentoring opportunities, funding for the programs, incorporation of life skills in programming, and access to educational and community opportunities (2007). These programs not only work at re-engaging students, but also allow them to feel connected to their communities fostering inclusion.

These programs have been created to not only engage students, but to provide them opportunities to become successful, why then does Alberta remain with one of the highest dropout rates and lowest rate of direct entry representation into post-secondary programming? The dominant view of the privileged members of society needs to be changed. Having the programs in place does little to help reduce poverty when the students meant to benefit, still feel excluded from school and society. Kumashiro and Ogbu’s theories need to be incorporated into educators’ professional practice and teacher training programs. Further work needs to be undertaken to address the needs of students living in poverty as the programs are in place, but the cultural factors remain marginalized.



Alberta Education (2010). Early Childhood Services. Alberta Educaion: retrieved from on December 1, 2010.

Canadian Council on Social Development, (2007). Employment and Education: Urban Poverty in Canada 2000. Canadian Council on Social Development.

Community Health Systems Resource Group, The Hospital for Sick Children (2005). Early School Leavers: Understanding the Lived Reality of Student Disengagement from Secondary School: Final Report. Ontario Ministry of Education and Training, Special Education Branch.

Egbo, B. (2009). Teaching for Diversity in Canadian Schools. Pearson Education Canada: Toronto.

Fleury, Dominique and Fortin, Myriam (2004). Canada’s Working Poor. Social Development Canada.

Gurnett, Jim Kolkman, John Moore-Kilgannon, Bill (2009). We Must Do Better: It’s Time to Make Alberta Poverty-Free Edmonton Social Planning Council.

Heubert, Jay P., Beatty, Alexandra, and  Neisser, Ulric (2001). Understanding Dropouts : Statistics, Strategies, and High-Stakes Testing. National Academies Press.

Kumashiro, Kevin K.  (2000). Toward a Theory of Anti-Oppressive Education. Review of Educational Research Vol. 70. No 1. pp. 25-53.

Kunz, Jean Lock and Frank, Jeff (2004). Poverty Thy Name is Hydra. Policy Research Initiave.

Ogbu, John and Simons, Herbert (1998). Voluntary and involuntary minorities: A cultural-ecological theory of school performance with some implications for education. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 29(2), 155-188.

Richards, John (2007). Next. C.D. Howe Institute.

Saunders, Ron and Brisbois, Richard (2007).  Workers in Low-Income Households in Alberta. Canadian Policy Research Networks.

Silva, Mame McCrea and Philips, Susan M (2007). Trading Up – High School and Beyond: Five Illustrative Canadian Case Studies. Canadian Policy Research Networks.



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