Smart vs. cool: Culture, race and ethnicity in Silicon Valley schools

Melissa Lozano, 13, of Kipp Academy in San Jose, talked about being cool and smart... (Maria Avila) Sandra Romero and Bibiana Vega do their best to shrug off taunts from fellow Latino classmates at Del Mar High School in San Jose. The 17-year-old seniors are called "whitewashed." Mataditas - dorks. Cerebritas - brainiacs. They're told they're "losing their culture" - just because Sandra has a 4.0 grade-point average and Bibiana has a 3.5. The put-downs are clear: Smart is not cool. And too many Latino students are choosing cool over school.

But a few miles away at Hyde Middle School, in the heavily Asian Cupertino Union School District, Tiffany Nguyen detects the opposite attitude. If you're not smart, "you're really looked down on," said the Vietnamese-American eighth-grader. After years of tiptoeing around racial issues for fear of invoking stereotypes, California educators are now looking squarely at how ethnicity and culture shape achievement and attitudes toward school.

The Mercury News interviewed dozens of students from varying backgrounds to examine the "racial achievement gap" and a delicate question that underlies it: Why do so many kids - especially Latinos - believe "school is uncool." The challenge isn't limited to California. Using surveys of 90,000 secondary-school students, Harvard University researchers found that white students were more popular when they had higher grade-point averages. But black students' popularity sharply declined when their GPAs reached a B-plus. For Latinos, the price of good grades was even costlier: Popularity peaked at a C-plus, then plunged. The 2005 study, titled "An Empirical Analysis of 'Acting White,' " was based on a survey that asked students to name their friends. 'Embarrassed to be Mexican'

When Latinos are accused of "acting white," the language can be cruel. "Some of my friends have told me I'm being something I'm not - that I'm embarrassed to be Mexican," said Bibiana, the youngest of three children in a family that immigrated from Mexico eight years ago. Her success is all the more impressive because her father did not attend school and her mother went only as far as third grade. Throughout the state, education leaders are huddling on how to raise the achievement of Latinos, who now make up about half of California's K-12 students and are growing in proportion.

Without finding ways to help more students succeed, the state risks churning out an undereducated generation, with dire social and economic consequences. So educators are trying to reshape the culture of learning - at home, in the classroom and among peer groups. Motivation is one obstacle. Numerous students and teachers told the Mercury News they know kids - from all backgrounds - who are smart but choose to slack off. "They'd rather be around friends who make them feel stronger and more powerful," said Viviano Perez, 12, a Latino seventh-grader at Morrill Middle School in San Jose. And, he said, they pay more attention to the clothes they wear and hanging out than homework.

Think nerds vs. jocks, and it's hard to imagine smart equals popular. Indeed, many education experts argue that mainstream America worships pop culture and athletic prowess more than intellectual accomplishment. "At my school, the ratio of athletic to academic trophies is easily 100-to-1," said Boston-based educational consultant Douglas Reeves. The Harvard study didn't break out the attitudes of Asian-American students, but interviews with local students indicate that many Asians think classmates must be smart - but not act smart - to be popular. If you get good grades, "people look up to you," said junior Kim Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American who attends Piedmont Hills High School, an East San Jose campus where nearly half the students are Asian.

The stark difference in attitude corresponds with a striking difference in standardized test scores in California: Black and Latino students generally score much lower than Asians and whites. And it's not just a matter of poverty. On state achievement tests, poor whites and Asians score higher than or about the same as black and Latino students who are not economically disadvantaged. Educators stress that race and culture are only two parts of a complex matrix that influence student performance. Poverty, English-language fluency, parental education and school inequality are also factors. But unlike ugly past controversies over race and academic achievement, this latest debate doesn't focus on whether there are racial differences in IQ.

The issue now is how cultural values influence learning, educators say.