Explanations for Pasifika students’ level of academic achievement

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Theorising achievement and “underachievement”

The literature examined features a slight variety in the way academic achievement is conceptualised and explained. These different perspectives can be separated into two different categories: the cultural-deficit model, and the post-deficit or anti-deficit discourse (Harper 2012:5). The cultural-deficit model focuses upon “underachievement” and is concerned with explaining failure (Harper 2012:1). It frames “underachievement” as the fault of the student and their family (Irizarry 2009). Some scholars such as Robinson and Biran (2006:47) are of the view there are different schools of thought within the cultural-deficit framework. These include the cultural deficiency and the cultural difference perspectives (Robinson and Biran 2006:48). Nevertheless, many theorists of academic achievement are quick to denounce the cultural-deficit model. According to Yan (1999:5), “[Deficit perspectives] ignore the ways in which African American families promote successful school achievement and experiences.” This is but one of the many criticisms of the cultural-deficit model found in this study. The practice of attributing poor academic performance to students and their families also occurs in New Zealand and amongst Pasifika students. May (2009:15) remarks that the lack of academic achievement amongst Pasifika in New Zealand has been attributed to their culture, language, and approach to teaching and learning. In all, the cultural-deficit model is one of the more notable perspectives on academic achievement.
While the cultural-deficit model attempts to explain failure and is focused on “underachievement”, what Harper (2012) describes as “anti-deficit perspectives” focus on explaining academic success. These approaches are more accurate according to Harper (2012:4) than cultural-deficit approaches simply because we learn more from the success stories. Anti-deficit approaches include asking questions such as “how do the school and teachers prepare Pasifika students for university?” Whereas Nakhid (2003:305) suggests obtaining the views of Pasifika students and their parents—instead of relying upon the school’s deficit-based view of them. This is significant because these perspectives on Pasifika and their achievement determine the institutional policies and approaches related to them (Nakhid 2003:305). Therefore, the review reveals that there are two main perspectives on achievement. Yet the cultural-deficit model is more popular in addition to being the dominant discourse; Even though it is a biased perspective it is “counterbalanced” by anti-deficit approaches (Harper 2012:1). Overall, the literature covered by this study featured two distinct theories of academic achievement, the cultural-deficit model and the anti-deficit view.


The practice of streaming plays a rather important role in academic achievement. Streamings a common practice in New Zealand schools and effectively partitions students by their level of ability (Nakhid 2003:302). It is a practice with implications for Pasifika students who may be channelled into “low-status” or “non-academic” subjects and be subjected to career mapping (Nakhid 2003:302). This process is also linked to how the school and teachers perceive their students in addition to what the teachers expect of them (Nakhid 2003:302).
Furthermore, Silipa’s (2004) study sheds some more light on the implications of streaming and career mapping. Samoan high school students who were struggling with their schoolwork were referred to specialist programmes by their teachers (Silipa 2004:206). Not only did this make them feel inferior in terms of ability but that they were not valuable members of the school (Silipa 2004:206). This is confirmed by (Nakhid 2003:302) who affirms that schools create an identity for a student by subjecting them to streaming them into classes depending on their perceived ability. The school effectively denies the student the freedom to create his or her own identity (Nakhid 2003:303). Overall, streaming is but one part of the factors impacting on achievement.

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Curriculum also shapes achievement. Curriculum content selection and teaching are not innocent empty practices but ones that have significant impact upon academic achievement. Apple (2004a:6) suggests that the curriculum consists of “socially legitimate knowledge” that is based on one ideology pre-empting another. More so, curriculum can be better understood by questioning it; especially in regards to where the knowledge contained within it comes from, who the knowledge belongs to and what social groups it supports (Apple 2004a:13).

Chapter 1: Introduction
Theoretical approach
Research questions .
Chapter 2: Literature Review
Introduction .
Success: what does it mean to Pasifika people?
Theorising achievement and “underachievement”
Inclusion in the curriculum
Pacific languages in the curriculum
Counsellors, mentors, and other institutional support
Findings inside the home and community .
Parents and the transmission of cultural identity
Families and their attitudes towards education
Supportive home environment
Peers and community
Chapter 3: Background of research on Pasifika students’ academic achievement
Introduction .
Pacific languages and worldviews are excluded in the education of Pasifika
At school I’ve got a chance: a vignette of exclusion
Pasifika students’ cultural identities and academic achievement
The importance of Pasifika parents and families in academic achievemen
The role of teachers in Pasifika academic achievement .
The role of peers in Pasifika academic achievement
Chapter 4: Explanations for Pasifika students’ level of academic achievement
Theories that emphasise the role of students’ families and cultures
The cultural-deficit model
The individual is responsible
Cultural “matches” and “mismatches”
Theories that focus on the role of the education system, teachers, and schools
Anti-deficit approaches .
Education reproduces the status-quo
Complexity of NCEA
Chapter 5: Government initiatives to address Pasifika academic achievement 
Chapter 6: Non-government funded approaches to addressing Pasifika academic
Chapter 7 What does the research say about Pasifika academic achievement?

The Anti-deficit Approach: Reassessing the Notion of Pasifika Academic Achievement

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