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Achievement motivation and level of aspiration: adolescent Ethiopian immigrants in the Israeli education system.


Immigration from Ethiopia to Israel in the mid-1980s included about three thousand children. Many of them, particularly the younger ones, had not attended school in their country of origin, while others left school following the decision to emigrate to Israel.

They were all directed to the state religious system. The younger children were sent to the neighborhood elementary schools. The older ones were directed to "Youth Aliya" boarding schools in order to give them an intensive learning experience and prevent them from going into the labor market before finishing high school. The basic assumption behind the absorption policy of Ethiopian immigrants was that they should adjust to the system, rather than that the system should be adapted to meet their prior learning experiences. A special curriculum was not developed, apart from intensive Hebrew courses (Ulpan) both in elementary and secondary schools before they started the regular program.

The Israeli education system responded enthusiastically at first. To their teachers, these children appeared to be intelligent, attentive, and highly motivated. However, it soon became apparent that the pace of their progress tended to lag behind the system's expectations even though their intelligence was high (Golan, Sheftaya, & Horowitz, 1987). As a result, certain questions have been raised regarding the gap between their perceived ability and their level of achievement. Is the gap a consequence of inappropriate didactic methods? Or is it rooted in teachers' misperception regarding their motivation to learn? What is the nature of Ethiopian students' value system and how does it affect that motivation?

These questions raised by the decision-makers were the focus of the present study which addressed two partly overlapping paradigms: Achievement Motivation, and Modern Man. Various terms have been employed by different scholars in the context of the first paradigm - the need for achievement and achievement orientation. McClelland (1963) used the term "need for achievement," which he defined as "striving for success in competition with some standard of excellence." The need to achieve, which is expressed in a variety of activities and various roles, has both intrinsic and extrinsic aspects. The achievement-motivated person aims at reaching a standard determined by an inner need for superior performance and at the same time is motivated by the need for esteem, prestige, and status.

This paradigm was originally introduced by Max Weber in his attempt to explain why economic and social modernization occurred in 18th century Europe rather than in other countries. Weber (1930) attributed this development to the Protestant value system, identifying aspects of the Protestant ethic which, in his view, facilitated the rise of capitalism: individualism, activism, planning ahead, and task orientation. Inspired by Weber's theory, McClelland (1953) defined the individual correlate of the Protestant Ethic as the "high need for achievement." His central question was whether this type of need emerged only in the Protestant culture or is also found in other cultures. McClelland and his associates examined this question both in empirical research and in the historical perspective. His conclusion was that societies and social groups other than the 18th century Protestants also had high achievement motivation, such as the Chinese in the U.S. and the Jews. McClelland (1953) identified certain aspects of socialization which, he claimed, affect the need to achieve (e.g., type of authority pattern within the family, family stability, quality of communication with father, type of reinforcement, degree of independence, and parents' occupational aspirations).

The Achievement Motivation construct has been extensively criticized, with the arguments centering around the difficulty of isolating and identifying the specific environmental variables that generate achievement motivation. Problematic questions are raised such as: what environmental conditions account for the diverse personal achievement of different individuals? What are the cause-effect relationships between social change, on the one hand, and achievement and creativity, on the other? Does creativity and achievement motivation promote social change? Were social change in Europe and the emergence of the modern industrial society the product of achievement motivation of particular groups, or was it modern industrial society that shaped 'the profile of achievement-motivated individuals? Is achievement motivation a universal phenomenon or is it confined to specific cultural settings? Criticism also stems from the multidimensional nature of the construct and the difficulty of distinguishing it from other constructs, such as intelligence and self-esteem. However, in spite of the criticism, both on theoretical and empirical grounds, the achievement motivation construct continues to generate much research using a variety of methods: historical analysis, content analysis of literature and folklore, laboratory experimentation, projective tests such as TAT, open interview, and questionnaires.

Modern Man, the second paradigm, partly overlaps the first. The concept of the Modern Man Syndrome was developed by Inkeles and Smith (1974) in their research into the process involved in the change from the traditional roles to the acquisition of modern personality traits. The Modern Man Syndrome is characterized by various forms of conduct. They suggested no fewer than 24 components, among them, active public participation, restricted family size, identification with the nation rather than kinship obligations, exposure to the mass media, and work commitment. Inkeles and Smith considered these issues as manifestations of a more general unified dimension of modernity. These assumptions served as the point of departure for the Kahl (1968) study on evolving modernity in Mexico and Brazil, which employed parameters such as activism, individualism, and religiousness. The questions raised by the critics of the Modern Man and the Achievement Motivation paradigms are somewhat similar: Are modern orientations universal or are they confined to Western society? Is there a clear-cut dichotomy between modernity and traditionalism?

Issues related to the Achievement Motivation and Modern Man paradigms were the focus of the study on adolescent Ethiopian immigrants in Israeli High schools. The central questions of the research were: Are the elements of Achievement Motivation and Modern Man to be found in the indigenous value system of Ethiopian adolescents and, if so, what is their effect on progress at school?


The research was based on a questionnaire, the parameters of which were derived from both the Achievement Orientation and the Modern Man paradigms. The variables derived from the Achievement Orientation paradigm were: level of aspiration, perception of school as an instrument for goal achievement, school anxiety, activism, and locus of control. Hermans" (1970) interpretation of Achievement Motivation was adopted, using the same variables, but differently worded questions.

The parameters derived from the Modern Man paradigm were religiousness, kinship values, traditional perception of family roles, and division of labor (e.g., family planning, wife's work, birth control). For this purpose the Kahl (1968) Scales of Modernity were translated. In addition to students' attitudes, teachers provided evaluations of their academic performance on a three-point scale.

The questionnaires were administered to 173 10th grade students in four "Youth Aliya" boarding schools in which Ethiopian immigrants studied together with Israeli students; 85 veteran Israeli students and 88 Ethiopian students responded. Most of the Israelis were of Asian-African origin. The Israeli students had chosen boarding school either because there were no good schools in their locality, particularly in development towns, or because of family problems. They were either working or lower-middle class. The Ethiopian students were socioeconomically homogeneous, and most of their parents did not have any formal education.


The mean score of the Ethiopian Immigrant group on each of the scales was compared with the mean score of the Israeli group using a t-test. The Israeli students scored higher on individualism and perception of school as an instrument for achieving personal goals and kinship values. The Ethiopian Immigrants scored higher on level of aspiration, level of school anxiety, religiousness, traditional perception of family roles, and external locus of control (Table 1).


Multi-regression analysis, carried out list-wise, revealed that performance in school is explained in both groups by the Achievement Orientation and Modern Man scales. The contributions of the variables - School as an Instrument for Achieving Personal Goals, and Locus of Control - were significant in both groups. Level of Aspiration, in the case of the Ethipian immigrants, and Kinship Values, in the case of the Israelis, were also found to be significant contributing variables. For the Israelis, 27% of the variance was explained by these scales, and 21% for the Ethiopians (Table 2).
Table 2. Achievement Motivation as a Predictor of Success In
School - Regression Coefficients

 Ethiopians Israelis

High Level of Aspiration

B .399(*) -
[Beta] .270 -

School as advancing personal goals

B .195(*) .259(*)
[Beta] .246 .299

Internal locus of control

B .477(*) .433(*)
[Beta] .194 .170

Kinship values

B .183 .317(*)
[Beta] .151 .312

School anxiety

B .134 -.041
[Beta] .086 -.019

Traditional perception of family roles

B .014 -.123
[Beta] .020 -.155


B .020 .031
[Beta] .020 .031


B .040 .110
[Beta] .037 .105


 .034 -
 .044 -

F 3.73(**) 3.98(**)

[R.sup.2] .21 .27

** p [less than] .001

* p [less than] .005


The data indicate that the Ethiopian students are characterized by a combination of high aspiration and strongly entrenched traditional values. They also suggest that the more successful among the Ethiopians are less traditional in their outlook (i.e., more individualistic, activist, internally controlled, and less religion and family oriented. Our interpretation of the data aimed to combine the Etic concepts of Achievement Motivation and Modern Man with the Emic notions of Ethiopian culture. The analysis focused on patterns of socialization among the Ethiopian students. Our points of departure were the studies on Ethiopia of Korten (1972) and Levine (1965) who maintain that there are no differences in patterns of socialization among the various regions and tribes of Ethiopia. Rosen (1985) and Kaplan (1985) support this hypothesis in their studies on Beta Israel (the Ethiopian Jews).

Studies on socialization focus on two processes: role acquisition and internalization of norms and social values. In his book, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, Levine (1965) describes how the Ethiopian child learns adult roles from an early age. According to him, this involves a process of learning based on a series of consistent sequential activities. In this process, boys and girls are expected to acquire the skills needed for performing their economic and social roles as adult men and women. Up to the age of six, there is no difference between boys' and girls' roles. Thereafter, the boy learns simple roles, such as collecting firewood and protecting crops from birds and animals. At the age of about 13, he becomes active in the economic sphere and is expected to acquire farming skills, such as planting, seeding, and harvesting. The girl is also initiated into economic roles, first learning how to clean seeds from cotton and spin by hand, then how to fetch water and grind corn; at the age of 10, she is trained to fill the housewife's role.

The socialization process is comprehensive and includes not only the gradual acquisition of roles, but the internalization of norms and values. Three main concepts are involved in the socialization of Ethiopian children. The first, and most general concept is Gobez (probably the most frequently used word of praise and encouragement applicable to all ages and both sexes). It refers to the qualities of manliness, bravery, and strength, as well as implying intelligence or, more precisely, cleverness. Someone who does something well is told, "Ante Gobez neh" ("You are Gobez") (Rosen, personal communication, 1986). The second concept is Jegena, which Rosen (personal communication, 1986) defined as a warrior, a hero in battle, someone who is brave and strong. By extension, it can be used to refer to someone who fights for his/her beliefs. The third concept is Gulbatam. This word, according to Rosen (personal communication, 1986) stems from the Amharic term Gulbe, which means knee. The Gulbatam is a person with an abundance of energy, physical strength, and endurance, who can walk long distances and whose legs are a source of power. According to Rosen (1985), these three qualities are acquired through perseverance and sacrifice, implying postponement of gratification to reach one's goals.

Studies of Ethiopian culture also deal with the means for achieving societal goals. Obedience is central to the Ethiopian way of life; the child is expected to obey the elders of the family as well as the entire adult community. According to Levine (1965), "Obedience and respect comprise the principal fiber of the Amhara social fabric" (p. 104). According to Korten (1972), four basic characteristics make up the Ethiopian social fabric: (a) rigid standards of social etiquette, hospitality, and respect for privacy; (b) strong pressure to conform to social norms and suppression of individuality; (c) strict reciprocity in social relationships; and (d) a predisposition toward hierarchical social structuring and an unquestioning acceptance of authority.

A notion related to obedience is Chawa: "In its most general sense, to be Chawa means to be soft-spoken and graced with courtesy and refinement. In particular, it is evinced by reserved, quiet and respectful behavior in the presence of all figures of authority - fathers, elders, siblings, priests, village chiefs, local officials, governors, and in former times, of course the Emperor" (Rosen, 1985, p. 56). Another related notion is Amets-enya. According to Rosen (1985), "the Amets-enya is a person who refuses to accept the authority of others, both elders and government officials. He is a rebel, but more out of the fiery qualities of his character than out of any deliberate crimes. He has no desire to be conventional: he wants to break the rules and do what he wants. He is the extreme manifestation of the first of youth with its concerns for manliness and heroic behavior" (p. 56).

The Ethiopian child, therefore, experiences only one model of social relations - subjection to authority. Other models such as relations based on equality or the exercise of authority are alien to him. Unlike other African societies (Eisenstadt, 1956), there is apparently no peer group culture in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, there is hardly any transitional period between childhood and adulthood which would enable youth to experience relationships between equals that do not involve subjection to authority. As Levine (1965) puts it: "Another way in which societies tend to mediate the transition to adulthood is through the institution of adult peer groups which in various ways help the young person prepare for adult status. Such groups have taken a wide variety of forms, for example: age sets in African age-graded society; mystic orders of youth attached to Egyptian mosques; youth dormitories and community houses in certain tribes in India; the academic and athletic youth organizations of ancient Athens and Sparta; not to mention the numerous teen-age associations of modern Western society. The adolescent Amhara is not involved in any such social forms. The advent of puberty is associated with growing up and out of adult groups" (p. 97).

This pattern of socialization might explain the high level of external locus control of the Ethiopian children as compared with the Israelis. This finding is even more striking in view of the fact that the Israelis (children of Middle Eastern and North African origin) also had a traditional family background. Previous studies have found that the locus of control of these children tends to be more external than that of children whose parents were from Europe, but it is still not as external as that of Ethiopian children. These findings suggest that a child who, from early childhood, learns to obey authority without questioning will tend to develop an external locus of control.

The centrality of traditional values of the family in the life of the Ethiopian child has often puzzled Western observers. According to them a considerable number of Ethiopian families arriving in Israel should be labelled as broken families irrespective of whether the families split out of choice or unwillingly. Moreover, the family is not always a conventional family in the Western sense. Sometimes it consists of children and "sociological" fathers rather than biological fathers. The phenomenon of adults taking on responsibility for the education of the younger generation, without any biological connection, is well known in African tribal societies. However, once a family connection has been defined in this way, it is meaningful and strong. This applies both to relations between parents and children and among relatives belonging to the extended family. The family, though not necessarily based on a biological relationship, plays a central role in Ethiopian society. Indeed, according to Levine, relations among people in Ethiopia are not individually, but family-oriented. Young Ethiopians often continue to live with their aging parents and are obliged to take care of them even after establishing their own families. Sometimes, even when the young man moves with his family to another village, he is expected to help his father.

Marriage, too, is a contract between families rather than individuals. However, according to Levine (1965), divorce is not perceived as deviant: "Both partners enter marriage with the full understanding that if they do not get along they will be able to separate without any difficulty" (p. 105). Apparently, this is why some Western observers came to the conclusion that the family is a loose unit, and does not play a central role in the social life of the Ethiopians.

Like the family, religion is an important component of the social fabric. A study on the attitudes of Ethiopian students at the University of Addlis Ababa (Levine, 1965), i.e., young people who have reached relatively high standards of education and modernization, indicates that their attitudes toward religion do not change; it still plays a central role in their life and they retain their religious commitment.

Familialism (kinship values) and individualism are two contradictory orientations. Korten (1972) maintains that the family orientation of Ethiopian society does not encourage expressions of individuality. The few manifestations are confined to controlled legitimate contexts. Those who do not abide by the social norms and flee from the constraints of society are called Shifta. Such people are not completely rejected by society; indeed, their courage and manliness are often admired, provided they live outside the community. This approach reflects a degree of tacit appreciation of the rebellious individual. However, in children's education, manifestations of individualism are not permitted, and teaching is based on memorization with no attempt to encourage originality, even in art. Singing and dancing is repetitive, devoid of any expression of creativity. According to Levine, the role of individualism in Ethiopian life is highly complex. He claims that the dilemma of traditionalism versus individualism in the Ethiopian context is misleading. In his view, individualism should be approached from three perspectives, each of which is bipolar: egoism versus solidarity, dependence versus independence, and self-expression versus traditional modes of expression.

The first perspective, egoism versus solidarity, is interpreted by Levine as part of the collective symbols related to solidarity. The Ethiopians express their friendship through physical contact. For example, the link to the collective is expressed through eating from the same basket. Their hospitality is an expression of commitment and solidarity. On the other hand, there is very little cooperation in the economic sphere. Insofar as it does exist, it is institutionalized and anchored in social mores. In other words, there is no voluntary cooperation. A similar attitude is found in the legal sphere, where litigation among people of the same community is very common and often involves trivial conflicts that can be resolved easily. This solidarity diminishes when conflicting interests are involved. Levine (1965) concludes: "It is in the realm of interaction involving serious interests, touching layers of the personality deeper than those required for the formalities of etiquette, that Amharic egoism is the most conspicuous" (p. 248).

With regard to independence versus dependence, Ethiopian attitudes tend to favor dependence. Society makes many demands on the individual and he/she is dependent on the family as well as on the social and political institutions. According to this interpretation, social relationships are essentially between those who exercise power and those who are subjugated.

As to self-expression versus traditional modes of expression, obedience is the "name of the game." Ethiopian children are trained early on to obey the community of adults. Their own will is disregarded and they have little opportunity to play games. It goes without saying that children are not expected to express independent opinions. Levine's conclusion is that the effect of socialization is more constraining than stimulating. There is no emphasis on the development of individual personality.

Attitudes toward learning and education are among the factors that promote achievement in Western, including Israeli, societies. Therefore, it is not surprising that the role of education has been raised in studies on Beta Israel social fabric. Ostensibly, education never played an important role in the life of the Beta Israel; neither children nor adults engaged in intensive educational activities. Very few Beta Israel went to the big cities to study. Parents encouraged the most talented youth to remain in the villages and follow in their footsteps rather than acquire an education. This does not imply a negative attitude towards education. On the contrary, the instrumental advantages of education are recognized, but only as a source of power and not as an intrinsic value. The educated individual is thought to be less vulnerable to exploitation (Rosen, 1985; Korten, 1972).

Patterns of socialization of Ethiopian children are relevant to the understanding of what happens when they transfer their indigenous environment to Westernized societies, such as Israel. Migration involves two processes: desocialization, which implies the abandonment of certain values and norms of the country of origin; and resocialization, which requires the acquisition of the norms and values of the new society. Desocialization and resocialization are not easily achieved. Immigrant children carry with them traces of their socialization as internalized values and norms. In the case of the Beta Israel child, some internalized norms and values facilitate resocialization, while others hinder it. As noted, the Ethiopian child is trained to postpone gratification, to be intelligent but not necessarily educated, and to abide by authority and avoid innovative enterprise and creativity. Family-oriented values predominate over individual will.

It would seem, therefore, that the high level of aspiration, the capacity to postpone gratification, and obedience should facilitate the absorption of Ethiopian students into the schools. However, conformity and conventionalism, and the restraints on individual creativity may be expected to hinder such absorption. Thus, the high aspirations of the Ethiopian immigrant students in comparison with the Israeli veteran students constitute only one component of the achievement motivation, while the Ethiopian immigrant students score lower than their Israeli counterparts on the others. This gap between high aspiration and other components of achievement motivation may explain the slowing down of the Ethiopian immigrant student's progress after an apparently successful first stage. Nevertheless, there are indications that the Achievement Motivation paradigm is still applicable to them: The Ethiopian immigrant students who scored relatively high on various components also performed better at school.


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Golan, D., Steftaya, L. & Horowitz, T. (1987). Patterns of adjustment of Ethiopian children to the school system. Jerusalem: The Henrietta Szold Institute (Hebrew).

Hermans, H. Y; (1970). A questionnaire measure of achievement motivation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 54, 353-363.

Inkeles, A., & Smith, D. H. (1974). Becoming modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kahl, J. (1968). The measurement of modernism - A study of values in Brazil and Mexico. Texas: University of Texas.

Kaplan, S. (1985). The Beta Israel in the Ethiopian context. Israel Social Science Research, 31-2, 9-21.

Korten, C. D. (1972). Planned change in a traditional society. New York: Praeger.

Levine, D. (1965). Wax and gold: Tradition and innovation in Ethiopian culture. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

McClelland, D.C. (1963). The use of measures of human motivation in the study of human society. In J. W. Atkinson (Ed.), Motives in fantasy action and society. Princeton, NJ: Van Nostrand.

McClelland, D.C. (1953). The achievement society. New York: Appleton.

Rosen, C. (1985). Core symbols of Ethiopian identity and their role in understanding the Beta Israel today. Israel Social Science Research, 3(1-2), 55-63.

Weber, M. (1930). The Protestant ethic and spirit of capitalism. New York: Scribner.

Naftalie Moshe, former superintendent responsible for the absorption of Ethiopian students, is a school principal in Beer Sheva.
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Author:Horowitz, Tamar Ruth; Mosher, Naftalie
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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