Social prejudice in schools

Children from middle-class families generally are more successful in public schools than children from low-income families. Is the school system responsible for this problem, or is lower performance among low-income children a result of their home environment? The home environment has a big role in a child’s education and if it is not supportive of the school environment, the student will not be as successful in school as the child whose home environment is supportive of the school’s learning environment will.

The typical public school teacher is a middle-class white female. The typical curricula, tests, and learning tools used in public schools were created by middle-class educators and are geared toward the needs of middle-class children. The middle-class teacher may not be able to communicate as well with the lower-class student as she could with a middle class student. A poor minority student may have trouble understanding English if English is not his/her first language or if English is not spoken in his/her home, and the teacher may have trouble understanding his/her broken English. Different social classes also use different slang and voice inflections, and have ways of speaking that contain “hidden meanings”. So the “language” a lower-class student uses at home may cause him to have trouble communicating with his middle-class teacher and classmates. In his book, Ain’t No Makin’ It, Jay MacLeod tells how a group of poor students in a particular school were able to relate to a teacher (Jimmy Sullivan) who spoke their “language.” “ ‘It was cool, cuz like you walk in there…you talk to Jimmy, and you know Jimmy’s real cool,’ ” said one of his students.

Related to this “language barrier” that exists between low and middle social classes are behavior differences which affect teachers’ perceptions and expectations of students. Poor and minority students are more likely to be placed in low tracks (Oakes, 64) than middle-class children, probably because teachers misinterpret certain students’ abilities. J. Oakes suggests that one of the reasons this happens is because of the existence of a “hidden curriculum”, one in which teachers’ expectations and judgments are based on subtle behavior traits that are a part of each student’s home life and are brought to the classroom. Many students in lower tracks are placed there because of, according to Oakes, “misbehavior and nonconformity” which teachers associate with slowness (91). So do teachers assume that poor and minority students are misbehaved and non-conforming? In Ain’t No Makin’ It, MacLeod told us that the “Hallway Hangers” (low-income “problem” students who would not behave or conform in school) responded better to the teacher (Jimmy Sullivan) that they identified as being a part of their same social class. The Hallway Hangers respected their teacher because he was raised in the projects where the students now live, he talked the way they did; he was tough and stubborn just like they were. The other (middle-class) teachers were found by the Hallway Hangers to be “condescending” and “pussies” that “ ‘don’t know how to deal with us kids’ ” (MacLeod, 108-109). Clearly, a teacher who understood their “language” and behavior and identified with their social background was able to communicate with them and help them at least to stay in school. Teachers who couldn’t relate to lower-class students weren’t respected by those students. In their book, Social Foundations of Educational Decisions, Fischer and Thomas state that distinctive things about a subculture (including language and behavior) have a definite influence on a child’s learning style (26-27) and that “informal education”—which occurs outside of a formal school setting (mostly in the home) and is different in every family and subculture—causes differences in the way children learn (34).
In their essay “Social Class and Education,” Brookover and Gottlieb refer to studies done by sociologists and educators that indicate that “eventual expression of talent” (Chilcott, 264) is affected by the ways parents rear their children, and that the expectations and attitudes of parents affect their children’s achievements in school. Researchers found that more middle-class parents have higher expectations and goals for their kids than parents of lower-class children, and that children from higher class families typically have higher IQs, GPAs, and test scores than kids from lower-class families (Chilcott, 264-65). Higher-class kids also are more often found in high academic tracks than lower-class kids are (Oakes, 64-65; Spring, 83). MacLeod pointed out that the reason many parents of lower-class kids don’t set high educational goals for their children is because they don’t want their kids to be disappointed if they don’t achieve those goals (it is assumed by the parents that the kids probably can’t reach high goals).

In other low-class families, success in school is a priority and parents encourage their kids to work hard, but lack the knowledge, experience, finances, and “connections” necessary to actually help their children move up in the world. For instance, a middle-class father who is an environmental engineer with a college degree in environmental science can help his daughter with her science classes and science projects. He probably can afford to buy her books, magazines, and other resources (in addition to the ones her school supplies) that will help her learn more about that area of study. If she decides she would like to pursue a college education in this field, her father can help her get there because he’s done it already and can guide her through applying to colleges and other steps toward the attainment of her goal. He also has professional connections and can help her get a job once she graduates. A low-income, working class father who is a janitor probably cannot help his son succeed in science to the same extent that the middle-class girl succeeded. This father does not have or have access to the same resources that the middle-class father has. No matter how much he encourages his son to do well, he cannot offer the same advantages that the middle-class family can. Poor families typically lack educational tools and intellectual stimuli in the home (computers, books/magazines, etc.) (Spring, 82). In Ain’t No Makin’ It, MacLeod gave us an example of the parents who couldn’t offer their kids much more than encouragement: the “Brothers” had high goals and worked hard, but in almost every case failed to reach their goals. The parents’ expectations were in place, but they weren’t enough.
Low-income parents are a product of the same “sorting machine” (the public school system) (Oakes, 75, quoting MacLeod) that their children are now experiencing, so they don’t have the skills necessary to teach their children differently than they were taught. Some educators think that teaching parents how to help their children learn would be a big step toward overcoming social-class barriers in education (Spring, 102). Because different types of skills are often taught in different levels of tracking, the people in lower tracks (a majority of which are low-income students) were taught to behave, cooperate with others, follow instructions, and were prepared for working class jobs. Now these students are parents who have high goals for their kids, but their own educational experience has not provided them with the skills necessary to help their kids succeed in the next generation. They probably won’t know how to advise their children of practical steps to take toward reaching a high goal: they’ve never been there themselves. Middle-class parents, having been taught the skills necessary to succeed in the professional workplace, can help their children attain the same level of success. These parents know definite steps of action their kids can take that will lead to the same success the parents have experienced. Parents in both classes have been socialized to stay in the social class they were born into, and they pass this same culture on to their children. One way to change this pattern of social reproduction would be to reform tracking programs. The same types of skills should be taught in low tracks that are currently being taught in higher-level tracks: independence, critical thinking skills, creativity, etc. instead of cooperation, conformity, and obeying instructions.

There are other factors related to the home environment that affect performance in school; these include alcoholism and drug use, teenage pregnancy among non-married women, and single working mothers’ absence from the home. These problems are more often found in lower-class homes than in higher-class homes. Schools are not equipped to deal with these types of problems.
So is it fair to criticize schools for the difference in educational attainment between middle- and low-class children? The home environment should carry most of the blame for the lack of success among low-class students of this generation, but schools can help the next generation of lower-class students to overcome class barriers by understanding and attempting to find solutions to some of the problems that currently exist. Schools can change the tracking system to teach the same types of skills in all levels of tracking, and they can teach educators about cultural differences and how to respond to them. Some schools have found ways to deal with cultural differences, such as the way Lincoln High School dealt with the Hallway Hangers in MacLeod’s book. A teacher was found that could relate to the Hallway Hangers’ subculture, and he was able to at least keep them in school. The school was not successful, however, in giving the Hallway Hangers the same high level of education being taught in other tracks. And that was the fault of the students and the family environment/peer group in which they lived. What schools cannot change is the fact the every family has a unique set of values, beliefs, traditions, and ways of rearing children. Ultimately, the home environment has a greater impact on children than any other social institution, and if the culture being taught in schools is different than the culture that is being taught in the home, children’s education will suffer.
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Fischer, Louis and Donald R. Thomas. Social Foundations of Educational Decisions. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1965.

Goldman, Shelley V. and Ray McDermott. “The Culture of Competition in American Schools.” Education and Cultural Progress. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1987.

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MacLeod, Jay. Ain’t No Makin’ It. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Oakes, J. “The Distribution of Knowledge.” Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. Yale University Press, 1985.

Orenstein, Peggy. Schoolgirls. NY: Doubleday, 1994.

Spring, Joel. American Education. NY: McGraw-Hill Co., 1994.