Over the Ivy Walls
For decades, educational research on non-White students has focused on their high rates of "failure" to achieve academically. Patricia Gandara, in her new book Over the Ivy Walls: The Educational Mobility of Low-Income Chicanos, states that "our increased understanding of the factors that lead to failure has not appreciably diminished the rate of failure experienced by Chicano students" (p. 1). Gandara examines the combination of conditions that support the high level of academic achievement of the few Chicanos who do excel in school. She suggests that successful academic results are likely "the product of design rather than of accident" (p. 1), and hopes that her research will be helpful to educators and policymakers interested in school reform and the promotion of successful educational outcomes for Chicanos, as well as other minorities.
Gandara's professional experience includes years of work as a school psychologist, teacher, and researcher. As part of her work in low-income, all-minority schools, she sees students who have been referred to her because they have been labeled "at risk" of dropping out. Gandara's experiences with these students contradicts the argument made by many authors in the literature on low school achievement that high-achieving students are simply born more intelligent. Rather, Gandara finds many students who are "just as bright, and perhaps brighter" than those who go to college, but who often "take a very different path" (p. xi). This knowledge prompts Gandara to ask the questions: What caused those students who excelled in spite of these bleak circumstances to beat the odds? What would motivate some of them to go on to college and beyond?
In her research for this book, Gandara seeks answers to questions like these through her survey-like interviews of fifty Chicanos (thirty men and twenty women) who fit what Gandara refers to as "the most stringent criterion for academic success: a Ph.D., M.D., or J.D. degree conferred from a highly regarded American university of national stature" (p. 11). In talking with her research participants, Gandara concludes that some of the salient points about their experiences that set them apart from the majority of Chicanos can be analyzed in terms of contexts and relationships, such as those delineated by the book's chapters: home influences; family stories as cultural capital; schools and neighborhoods; peers; and personal attributes and individual differences. She also dedicates an entire chapter to understanding the women in her study.
Gandara's framing of both her interviews and her conclusions assumes that the primary purpose of education is economic advancement, an assumption shared by other educational theorists such as John Ogbu. In focusing on the graduate degrees that she does, Gandara also assumes that these are the most difficult degrees to attain, and therefore represent the most challenging education students could pursue. Her emphasis remains on particular students who fail or excel in academics, and on what they, or their families, have done to better their chances of school success. Gandara finds that the Chicano students with the following attributes do best at school: they have light-colored skin and European (or "ambiguous") looks; live next to White neighborhoods; attend predominantly White schools (approximately 75% of her interviewees did); are persistent; have supportive parents; have predominantly White peers; and learned to appreciate schools' values, such as competitiveness, book literacy, tracking, and standardized testing.
Gandara only considers the factors her interviewees mention when thinking about school "failure"; she does not call for a redefinition, a restructuring, or even a questioning of schools and the adaptations schools require of students. Ultimately, it appears that the few Chicano students (and their families) who do not challenge the educational system because they are willing to acculturate or can pass schools' "objective standard" (p. 94) as they "aspire to the middle class" (p. 76) might succeed in being considered "college material" (p. 120). This book might be useful to those interested in how to manage acculturation for academic success, but not to those who might propose alternative ways of defining or achieving that success.