Is Culture the New Dumping Ground?

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). It’s not the culture of poverty, it’s the poverty of culture: The problem with  teacher education. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 37(2), 104-109. Retrieved from

Howard, T. C. (2010). Why race and culture matter in schools: Closing the achievemen gap in America’s classrooms. New York, N.Y: Teachers College Press

Losen, Daniel J (2011). Discipline policies, successful schools, and racial justice. Boulder, Col: National   Education Policy Center.

The journal article, It’s not the Culture of Poverty, It’s the Poverty of Culture: The Problem with Teacher Education by Ladson-Billings (2006) asserts that anthropology should be a part of the teacher preparation program. The author describes how pre-service teachers take courses on philosophy, sociology, history and psychology but anthropology is typically absent from teacher programs. Ladson-Billings (2006) argues, “The problem of culture in teaching is not merely one of exclusion. It is also one of overdetermination.” (p.104) She describes overdetermination as “culture is randomly and regularly used to explain everything.” In her research the author describes how she collected data on pre-service and new to the profession teachers on their understanding of culture.

Data collection was not a strength of this article. Although, I was entirely engaged in the data the author collected through interviews, electronic portfolios and student journals the explanation of the data analysis was not detailed enough to duplicate. Ladson-Billings (2006) reflects on “critical incidents” captured through the data collected. She conducted the interviews at the end of the pre-service teachers’ field experience. She asked the pre-service teachers to tell her about a child that was difficult to handle in class. I was saddened to learn that most pre-service teachers described the difficult student as one that was not like them in race, gender or ethnicity. The majority of teachers chose African American boys as the student that was most difficult to handle in their interview responses. This reminded me of Losen’s (2011) work on Discipline Policies, Successful Schools and Racial Justice, where he refers to a speech by Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who suggests, “students with disabilities and Black students, especially males were suspended far more often than their white counterparts.” (p. 3)

One incident that the author reflects on is a conversation she had with one of the pre-service teachers. She describes how the pre-service teacher said, “The black kids just talk so loud and don’t listen.” Ladson-Billings asked the pre-service teacher why they thought that and the teacher responded, “I don’t know; I guess it’s cultural.” (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 106) As I read this, I flashed back to conversations I have overheard at schools when teachers are talking about the reasons why students are not successful, why parents are not involved or why students are not making good choices and the answer I often hear is culture. Ladson-Billings asserts that “culture has become the answer to every problem.” (2006, p. 106)

Through the data collection, the researcher invited pre-service teachers to consider their own culture. The majority of her pre-service teachers are white, middle-class, monolingual Mid-Westerners. I was astonished by their responses detailed  in the article. “They describe themselves as having ‘no culture’ or being ‘just regular’ or just normal.” (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p.107) I believe in order for teachers to understand and value their students’ culture, they have to know, understand and value their own culture.  I connected their responses to what Howard (2010)  refers to as the demographic divide where the majority of the teachers she interviewed are white and the majority of the student population are African American.  Howard (2010) explains how “cross-racial teaching and learning arrangements have the potential for varying degrees of misunderstandings between students and teachers, especially where teachers lack the training and competence necessary to effectively teach students from diverse groups.” (p .43)

Organization is a strength in the article It’s not the Culture of Poverty, It’s the Poverty of Culture: The Problem with Teacher Education. Ladson-Billings is masterful in weaving in and out of data analysis and conclusions. Although this article was not organized with typical headings found in empirical research, it was written in a way that was easy to navigate. The author was also succinct in the development of her argument. I was drawn in by the examples, stories and clarity of her writing.

Another strength of this article is the conclusions the author draws. Ladson-Billings draws three major conclusions throughout the article. One of the conclusions that Ladson-Billings draws is that pre-service teachers need to interact with students outside of the school setting. She reminds us of the importance of celebrating students’ success outside of academics. The author argues that this will support pre-service teachers in becoming “careful observers of cultures” for their students and themselves. (Ladson-Billings, 2006, p. 109) Another conclusion she draws is that the pre-service teachers need to experience schooling in other parts of the world. The last conclusion she draws is that pre-service teachers need to see identify their own culture and own it.

I believe researching pre-service teachers and new to the profession teachers’ understanding of culture is a meaningful contribution to the field of education. I think it is important for teachers to understand their own culture and the students that they interact with. I also believe the author raises an issue that I have seen and heard on many school campuses and that is blaming student failure on culture.  Culture should not be “the answer” or the dumping ground for failures that happen within the educational system.