« addressing homelessness | Main | could a college education prevent Wall Street greed? »

January 14, 2010

class, culture, and education

I am writing about the tendency of social problems to interlock, so that each problem can be seen as a symptom of the next one. I think I will take the Washington, DC schools as my starting point--mainly because I know them pretty well.

Educational outcomes in DC are very poor: less than half of public school students graduate on time. Spending per student is quite high (approaching $13,000), but the actual services delivered at the school level are worth much less than that. Many of the city's schools are chaotic and sporadically violent. There are excellent teachers--much more skillful and dedicated than I would be--but the system as a whole seems dysfunctional.

Two experiments are underway. First, one third of the city's students are now in charter schools, which are independent of the central bureaucracy. Second, the controversial chancellor, Michelle Rhee (who sweeps her symbolic broom in photographs for national news magazines) aims to clean up the bureaucracy itself. One strategy uses decentralization and choice; the other, efficient central management.

I hope one or the other solution works, but I am concerned about how embedded the schools are in broader problems. Thirteen of every 1,000 babies born in the District die in infancy, twice the rate for the United States as a whole. More than one third of the city's children are obese. The death rate for teenagers is more than twice that of the United States as a whole, and the violent crime rate is more than three times as high. Each of these problems can be seen as a symptom of the other ones.

There is also a question of motivations, which can lead to different diagnoses. The opening point is to ask why as student (under very difficult and often demeaning circumstances) should align his or her efforts with what the schools expect.

There was an answer half a century ago. In 1950, just as today, more than half of 19-year-olds in the District had not graduated from high school. But the city then housed 35,000 industrial workers, including more than one thousand each of machinists, typesetters, and automobile mechanics. Washington was not an industrial city (compared, for example, to nearby Baltimore, where 30,000 men used to work in the Sparrow Point steel mill alone). Because of the federal government, jobs like "stenographer" and "office boy" provided more positions in DC than factories did. Young people could obtain these jobs without college diplomas--sometimes without graduating from high school.

Because most adults held working-class jobs, there was a general atmosphere of order and respect for authority in the community. It was easy for young people to envision concretely the benefits they would obtain from completing school. There was crime and academic failure, but it was marginal, not prominent. Most adults would end up collaborating in teams of other people of similar background, with distant, middle-class authority figures keeping an eye on them. Work life was thus a continuation of classroom life, with foremen and office managers replacing teachers and principals. Youth culture reinforced a sense of solidarity, compliance, and limited trust for authority. Skills were concrete and could be learned on the job.

Today, only about three percent of the city's jobs are classified as "construction, extraction, maintenance, and repair," whereas more than half are "management or professional." If you obtain skills for the business and professional world and credentials to demonstrate those skills, you have wide opportunities in DC and elsewhere. Sex, skin color, and age are less profound obstacles than they once were. But it is a long way from a DC school to the professional world; the curriculum is much to easy to prepare students for college, and there are few role models in the community. Thus it is pretty much unrealistic that most teenagers will be self-disciplined enough to delay gratification and get themselves through school. Even if they do, the benefits will be hard to see. If most other students basically doubt the social contract and do not want to participate, it is difficult for any individual student to do comply.

Culture and class strongly determine educational progress. In her brilliant book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau argues that middle-class parents, without regard to race, use a strategy of "concerted cultivation" to raise their children. They devote almost every waking minute of the day to giving their kids educational experiences. The children are very heavily scheduled with organized after-school activities, to the point that they lead hectic lives with much rushed traveling and many overlapping or conflicting appointments. Even ordinary conversations are opportunities to develop kids' cognitive and language skills. Parents use persuasion and negotiation to influence their children's behavior--a laborious and slow way to get them to comply, but one that constantly challenges them mentally. Kids talk as equals with adults, including teachers and physicians. In Washington neighborhoods like Georgetown and Cleveland Park, "concerted cultivation" can be observed on every street.

Working-class and poor parents, on the other hand, attempt "the accomplishment of natural growth." They are just as loving and concerned as middle-class parents, but they are much less likely to arrange activities, to teach verbal skills, and to negotiate. They protect their kids' health and safety and then leave them to be kids. They defer to schools and medical professionals to diagnose and address any problems that arise.

Lareau evidently likes all the kids in her study; she depicts them all sensitively and sympathetically. Nevertheless, her findings support strong and perhaps unexpected comparative value-judgments. The poor and working-class kids are in many ways more attractive than the middle-class ones. They obey their parents' (relatively infrequent) instructions without whining--which is the bad side of negotiation. They are creative and skillful in organizing their own activities, including complex games. They are almost never bored. They fight with their siblings much less than middle-class children do--in fact, they rely on their relatives for support and entertainment, and enjoy one another's company. They play happily in groups of mixed ages. Their parents like them to have free time because they don't want them exposed (yet) to the daily grind of adult life. An attentive observer can find just such behavior in the working class neighborhoods of Washington.

In contrast, the middle-class kids are immediately bored when not provided with organized activities. They compete for attention with their siblings. (After all, when Mom is at brother's soccer practice, she's not doing anything for sister.) They constantly bargain with adults, including authority figures. They have a pervasive sense of entitlement to expensive goods and individualized services. They lack experience working with others of different ages or solving problems without adult intervention. Again, each subject is a likable human being, but many aspects of middle-class family childhood are unappealing.

Although the middle-class kids are less attractive than the poor and working-class children, their parents' investment will probably pay off for them. The children of Georgetown and Cleveland Park have precocious skills of verbal expression and negotiation, time-management, and public performance that will serve them well in the white-collar world. They consider themselves entitled to excellent services and demand it from adults and institutions. Their expectations and behavior are perfectly in synch with those of middle-class professionals (teachers, coaches, and physicians), who respond to their needs. As kids, they are tired and quarrelsome. As grownups, they will prosper.

In Washington, DC, middle-class families that use a strategy of concerted cultivation almost exclusively send their own children to private schools or move to the suburbs once their kids each the middle grades. The students who are left in the public school are being raised according to "the accomplishment of natural growth," in a setting where the "natural" outcome is poverty.

This is just an example of the complex entanglements of culture, class (and also race) with public problems and institutions. It all makes me believe that only social movements--not the reform and restructuring of institutions--can really make a difference.

January 14, 2010 2:24 PM | category: education policy | Comments



Post a comment

Thanks for signing in, . Now you can comment. (sign out)

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Remember me?

Site Meter