Influences of Academic Success among Low-Income Minority Students: A Qualitative Interpretive Meta-synthesis of Student, Educator, and Parent Experiences.

Author:Rogers, Kelli R.

Education has long been recognized as important to individual well-being and the nation's economic growth (Zhao, 2016). Yet disparities in educational opportunities, attainment, and achievement exist among different student populations in the United States (Nielsen, 2013). It has been widely documented that children of color from low-income families lag behind their more affluent white peers in all indicators of academic success including standardized test scores, grade point averages, high school graduation rates, enrollment in advanced courses, and college admission data (Zhao, 2016). Low-income minority students, from the time they enter grade school through their postsecondary education, lose more educational ground and excel less frequently than their higher income peers (Ford, 2011). According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (U.S. Department of Education, 2015), by the end of the fourth grade, low-income minority students are two years behind their wealthier predominantly white peers in reading and math. By eighth grade, these students have slipped three years behind and by twelfth grade four years behind. Nationally, less qualified teachers are disproportionately found in schools with greater numbers of ethnic minority low-income students. Additionally, very few students of color are enrolled in advanced courses, but they are overrepresented in special education and remedial courses (Pitre, 2014).

Despite efforts and investments of educators, policy makers, and politicians to dismantle the systems in schools that consistently deny low-income minority students access to quality education, minimal progress has been made toward educational equity across racial and ethnic lines, and disparities continue to grow between low- and high-income students (Zhao, 2016). Scholars who conclude that the income gap explains the academic achievement gap between whites and children of color have not detailed the extent to which there are variations within racial and ethnic groups by income or poverty status (Paschall, Gershoff, & Kuhfield, 2018). As a result, very little is known about high-achieving minority students from low-income families as there is scant literature that focuses on closing the achievement gap between academically resilient or high-achieving low-income minority students and non-achievers with the same background.

Theoretical Perspectives

Although there are a variety of ways to address the academic achievement gap, most can be classified in one of two ways: focusing on failure or focusing on success. Examining academic failure among low-income minority students often involves emphasis on the problems and deficiencies within their communities. On the other hand, focusing on success involves the growing emphasis on the academic resilience of high-achieving low-income minority students. Morales (2010) defined academic resilience as "the process and results that are part of the life story of an individual who has been academically successful, despite obstacles that prevent the majority of others with the same background from succeeding" (p. 164).

The resilience framework emerged in response to a growing realization that some individuals who are considered vulnerable or at risk of adversity surprisingly achieve positive outcomes. The resilience framework assumes that some individuals maintain high levels of achievement, motivation, and performance despite the presence of stressful events and conditions that place them at risk of poor performance, whereas others struggle to adapt under similar circumstances (Abukari & Laser, 2013). Morales (2010) presented four factors that are often associated with resilience research: risk factors, protective factors, vulnerability areas, and compensatory strategies. Risk factors are existing conditions that have the potential to create roadblocks or impediments to academic success. Protective factors have the ability to offset or mitigate all or some aspects of these risk factors. Vulnerability areas are areas of exposure to risk, whereas compensatory strategies are specific responses to such vulnerabilities.

Comprehending the interplay between these factors in the specific context of resilient students' lives is a complex task. As a result, the most common approach to studying resilience is simply to isolate and identify major protective factors in the lives of resilient individuals. Protective factors can mitigate risk factors and rarely operate in isolation. With the understanding that it is the combination of protective factors that propels those at risk to resilience, the identification of specific arrangements of salient protective factors becomes paramount (Morales, 2010).

Social equity theory (SET) describes social processes that contribute to the racial-ethnic achievement gap. According to McKown (2013), there are two classes of social process that influence racial-ethnic achievement gaps: direct influences and signal influences. Direct influences support achievements and contribute to the racial-ethnic achievement gap when they are unequally distributed to children from different racial-ethnic groups. Signal influences are cues that communicate negative expectations about a child's racial-ethnic group.

Direct influences on racial-ethnic achievement gaps may unfold at home and in school. In the home, studies have shown that high parental expectations are associated with high academic achievement. In school, the quality of instruction and the quality of student-teacher relationships may act as direct influences on racial-ethnic achievement gaps. McKown (2013) reported that white students are often exposed to challenging material whereas economically disadvantaged students of color are exposed to work that is repetitive and focused on behavior management. Research findings suggest that teachers on average expect more of white students than minority students with similar records of achievement, and teachers also report higher quality relationships with white students than with students of color. Herman (2009) found that recent research on the racial-ethnic achievement gap showed that low-income minority students work harder in school when teachers demand more rather than less from them. Thus, there is evidence that the teachers' perceptions, curriculum, and teacher-student relationships have a critical influence on academic success among low-income minority students (McKown, 2013).

Few studies approach the topic of academic resilience from the perspective of high-achieving or resilient students. Even fewer studies have focused on resilient students' perceptions of what they need to succeed academically despite exposure to adversity. Therefore, our study is based on the premise that an effective and underutilized means of mitigating the achievement gap is through attaining a thorough understanding of the perceptions and experiences of academically resilient and high-achieving low-income minority students regarding successful strategies that advance educational outcomes. The specific research question driving our research is "what influences academic success among low-income minority students?" The motivation behind this study is not to blame low-performing or non-achieving students, but to look at structures and supports that help those who are achieving. The assumption is that uncovering and exploring the direct influences and protective factors that contribute to high achievement among economically disadvan-taged students of color will yield key resources and skillfully designed opportunities that can be provided to facilitate more resilient individuals.


Although a considerable amount of qualitative research is conducted in the field of social work, synthesis of qualitative research in social work is relatively new, with only a handful of published studies using this approach to date. Qualitative interpretive meta-synthesis (QIMS) is a method grounded in social work values for practice and research used to review qualitative literature for topical or thematic correlations and findings. The purpose of this method is to synthesize a group of studies on a related topic into a web of knowledge about the phenomenon under study that results in new insights and a more in-depth holistic understanding. The QIMS method allows us to examine the shared human experience of this phenomenon and what aspects may be divergent (Aguirre & Whitehill Bolton, 2013). Although there are several QIMS reviews involving children, no QIMS studies have reviewed qualitative literature to capture the experiences of academically resilient and high-achieving low-income minority students.

Qualitative interpretive meta-synthesis provides a structured methodology for a broader synergetic understanding of phenomena with richness in diversity of settings, participants, and qualitative traditions. Once a research question is developed, QIMS consists of sampling the literature, extracting themes, translating data, and establishing credibility (Aguirre & Whitehill Bolton, 2013). These analytically rigorous and systematic techniques will be described in further detail in the following discussion of the steps in this method.


In qualitative research, the authors are the instruments of the study (Patton, 1999). Seeking to achieve a complete understanding of factors that influence academic success among low-income minority students, our analysis uses a combined etic-emic approach. The emic perspective looks at things through the eyes of members of the culture being studied, whereas the etic perspective encompasses an external view of the culture (Olive, 2014). In this research, the first author, with an emic point of view, was the primary instrument, carefully analyzing the data from each of the published studies. The second and third authors, who had an etic view, served as co-analysts, fielding questions...

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