School reform. Is it really about teacher training, curriculum materials, and achievement tests? Maybe not. Let’s look at an original and quite different approach to school reform.
In a previous report, I highlighted a great American myth. That myth is IQ. We want to think that everyone has the same mental ability, but it just isn’t true, and one hundred years of research back up this conclusion. I refer to this in my book, The Elephant in the Classroom. IQ, along with self-control, motivation, and the ability to focus, make up the four legs of “the elephant in the room” that are critical for legitimate college-level academic success.
But there is another factor that is even more secreted and veiled, and even more profound and objectionable, especially to those of us who peer through rose-colored glasses and wish everyone could achieve equally in school and in the workplace. Social scientists refer to this concept as socio-economic class. What’s scary about this phenomenon is that it appears to be highly resistant to change and even those with higher mental abilities may not be able to break through its ceiling to achieve higher levels.
Sociologists divide people into three general classes: the upper class is comprised of the richest people in society. They are often born into wealth and this wealth passes from generation to generation. The middle class is made up of people who fall socioeconomically between the lower and upper classes. Middle-class workers are sometimes called white-collar workers and in the United States most hold employment positions that require a college degree.
People falling in the lower socio-economic class are usually employed in low-paying jobs with little economic security. Some of these people are long-term unemployed and/or homeless, especially those receiving government welfare.
Despite frequent references to the United States as a classless society, about 62 percent of Americans (male and female) raised in the top fifth of incomes stay in the top two-fifths, according to research by the “Economic Mobility Project” of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Similarly, 65 percent born in the bottom fifth stay in the bottom two-fifths. “Harder for Americans to Rise from Lower Rungs,” Jason DeParle, New York Times, Jan. 4, 2012.
I believe we fear the concept of socio-economic class even more than IQ and perhaps this is why research in this area seems to have waned. When we Americans make up our minds to champion a project or goal such as fairness and equality, we tend not to accept or even acknowledge contradictory scientific findings.
In reviewing research over the past 40 years, it is evident that nothing is more resistant to change than socio-economic class. It rears its head in every kind of social and psychological research, and one additional thing that makes it resistant to change is that people of a designated social class may prefer to remain in their own social-class culture. There may be fear of an unknown environment or loyalty to one’s culture.
I’m reminded of a movie that clearly dates me: From Here to Eternity. In that movie, an upper-middle-class woman, the wife of a captain, was in love with a sergeant played by Burt Lancaster, and she wanted him to attend Officers Candidate School. This master sergeant was intellectually capable of the academics involved in such a move, but he expressed feelings of disloyalty to his social class and didn’t want to “let down the side.” Is this why many lower class blacks refuse to surrender their distinctive grammar and dialect? Do they want to defend at least part of their own culture? And some may perceive their own culture to be more desirable than the culture of the white middle-class.
As pointed out in a previous report, “School Reform: a Crisis of Expectations,” ignoring IQ results in pressure on all students to succeed in academics regardless of ability. This frustrates those who do not have high academic ability and negatively impacts those with high academic ability from having exceptional preparation for college.
Ignorance of social class is even more disturbing. In fact, our school system is inadvertently re-segregating students not by color, but by social class. When private schools, charters, and special public magnet schools “cream off” children from the middle and upper-middle class, they leave a nucleus of lower social class children in neighborhood schools, especially schools in poor neighborhoods.
And who are the teachers of these lower social class children? They are middle-class educators, some of whom are working their own way to a status in society. Do they understand the mores of the lower-class? Do they want to deal with kids who are different from themselves? In most cases, the answer is no. This is why experienced, top-flight teachers end up in elite public schools and magnets and charters. Inexperienced teachers are more likely to be assigned to a lower-class population of students.
This explains why teachers complain that in schools in poverty areas they see many students who are not clean, whose clothes are not washed, and who are not motivated to achieve academically. They also face a good number of parents who don’t have the time, or in some cases don’t understand their role in helping their children succeed in school.
A large percentage of these children are not prepared for college-prep academics and are not greatly motivated for higher academic work. I believe, if given a choice, most would prefer career education where they could show off their nonverbal intelligence and succeed in meaningful tasks and financially successful careers.
Instead, our political and educational leaders insist that everyone can be successful academically and that all can or should go to college. This is why heavy-duty testing and a number of other quick fixes have not worked. Socio- economic class is resistant to these innovative and well-meaning interventions.
There may be a silver lining in our school system’s inadvertent segregation by social class, however. It does help identify these students for special, extraordinary intervention, which may include assignment of superior teachers, first-class materials, and tutoring in the early grades. And guidance can be provided to get many of these kids into magnet and charter schools.
Recognition of social class variables can never relieve us of our obligation to give every student an opportunity to progress to higher levels of functioning, but neither can we shy away from any factor that has a profound effect on school reform.