Issues of Class in U.S. Education
Inequitable educational opportunities exist between the social classes in the United States. Movements to advance other minority groups into reputable academic and career-oriented pursuits have proven to be quite beneficial; however, poor communities remain destitute. This article asserts that issues of class should become a distinct multicultural category. Family factors that influence educational differences between the social classes include reading endeavors as well as nutritional and financial matters. The hidden rules of social class, school conditions, and student perceptions of class discrimination are examined as well.
Keywords Achievement Gap; Hidden Rules; Low Socioeconomic Status; Middle-Upper Socioeconomic Status; Multiculturalism; Socioeconomic Status (SES)
The Achievement Gap
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, scholars have sought to understand dynamics concerning the "achievement gap" (Flores, 2007; West, 2007), a phenomenon that surrounds discrepant educational attainment levels between people with opposing demographic traits, including minorities versus nonminorities (Howell, 2006; Rabiner, Murray, et al., 2004) and poor versus rich (Hu, 2006; Neuman, 2006; Wingert & Kantrowitz, 2001). In particular, social scientists and human service workers alike seek to uncover why people with longstanding histories of oppression respond less favorably to didactic educational methods compared with their mainstream counterparts. Several disparaging social trends entwine the lives of these individuals, many of whom are minorities or come from impoverished backgrounds. These trends include:
• Higher crime rates (Oberwittler, 2007; Reisig, Bales, et al., 2007),
• Developmental delays (Stevens, 2006),
• Substandard school performance (Wiggan, 2007), and
• Subsequent lower levels of professional employment (Grosswald, 2002; Wilson, 2003).
There are two schools of thought that theorize the root cause of such low achievement rates. On the one hand, some researchers pinpoint minority status (e.g., ethnicity, gender) as the culprit, indicating that our societal structure is ingrained with messages that enforce the dominant culture to constantly subjugate those that are deemed inferior (Mattison & Aber, 2007). These messages are directly and indirectly imparted within the community, the workplace, and school systems by authority figures. Frustrated, these exploited minorities develop higher levels of indifference or even retaliation, which preclude them from successful pursuits that they may have otherwise assumed. The end result is lower educational advancement, less career development, and higher levels of poverty. Indeed, data from the U.S. Census Bureau substantiates this stance through statistical synopses of poverty-stricken families categorized by race and gender. The percentages of Americans living below the poverty line for the period between 2007 and 2011 were as follows: 25.8 percent of blacks, 23.3 percent of Hispanics, 27 percent of American Indians, 11.6 percent of whites, and 11.7 percent of Asians (Macartney, Bishaw & Fontenot, 2013). In 2012, an estimated 16.3 percent of all females were living in poverty in the United States as compared to 13.6 percent of all males (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012).
The second perspective that examines "achievement gap" origins targets poverty as the prevailing source of educational, professional, and financial privation (Levin, 2007). This position alleges that although people may experience poverty for different reasons (e.g., cultural oppression, family-of-origin factors, etc.), the end result is a similar set of life struggles, including low academic achievement and correlating factors such as long-term financial repercussions and a higher accrual of legal infractions (Whitaker & Buell, 2007). Evidence that poverty is the underlying cause for such detrimental and enduring life patterns is demonstrated through similar struggles that are endured by people who hold divergent ethnicities (e.g., Caucasian, Hispanic, African American) but who share equivalent socioeconomic statuses. Or, more specifically, poverty as the primary source of distress can be substantiated when low SES communities fare worse than ethnic minorities. For example, the National Center for Education Statistics (2012b) indicated that students coming from low-income families had a 13 percent status dropout rate in 2011, whereas 7.3 percent of African American students dropped out that year. Likewise, upper-income minorities mirror the successful achievement statuses of upper-income Caucasians. Nearly three-fourths of students (including Caucasian, Hispanic, and African American) enrolled in highly reputable U.S. universities come from middle- or upper-class families, whereas only about 5 percent represent students who come from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds (Kahlenberg, 2013).
Low Socioeconomic Status as a Multicultural Dimension
As such, this article will focus on contrasting the educational experiences among individuals with varied socioeconomic statuses (SES) and will consider low SES as its own multicultural dimension. Multiculturalism is often defined as a society composed of ethnic and/or religious diversity (Brimicombe, 2007; Kurien, 2006). These varied ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs contain distinct traits, values, life experiences, and obstacles that differentiate one from another. Moreover, within the U.S., there are ethnic and religious ideals that are considered to reflect mainstream norms, as well as ethnic and religious ideals that reflect minority norms. Members of the latter are often subjected to judgmental attitudes and discriminatory behaviors. Similarly, a person's SES can yield similar outcomes, in that those with middle and upper SES are considered to be the privileged norm, while those with low SES face subordination, hardship, lower success rates, and prejudicial conduct. Frequently, studies that point out SES inequities also interlace other ethnic and/or religious themes into the equation (Jones, 1997; Schmitz, Stakeman, & Sisneros, 2001), which obscure the importance that SES in itself carries.
Certainly, the complexities surrounding ethnic and religious multiculturalism should not be undermined, and both the research community and various social service initiatives such as affirmative action (Anderson, 2005, Rubio, 2001) have proactively sought to represent minorities and help them thrive in a world that can be competitive and disapproving. Many such efforts have been successful. For instance, the National Center for Education Statistics (2012) reports that the percentage of ethnic minorities who receive doctoral degrees within the United States has been increasing: In 2009–10, blacks earned 7.4 percent of all doctorates; Hispanics, 5.8 percent; and Asian/Pacific Islanders, 11.8 percent, whereas a decade earlier, in 1999–2000, blacks received 6.6 percent, Hispanics, 4.7, and Asians/Pacific Islanders, 10 percent. Women have superseded men with conferment of their doctorates, constituting 53.3 percent of doctoral recipients in 2009–10, up from 47 percent in 1999–2000 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2012a, p. 112).
Low SES Culture
Admittedly, nutritional and financial provisions such as WIC (Lee, Mackey-Bilaver, 2007; Swanson, Roman-Shriver, Shriver, et al., 2007) and welfare (Johnson, 2007; Koball, 2007) that have allowed low SES communities to survive have been an asset to society and should not be minimized. At the same time, the low SES culture should also be privy to educational programs that promote their scholastic advancement, particularly since they often fare worse educationally, professionally, and financially than other underrepresented groups and could utilize such endorsement. Their low SES alone does not qualify them for many educational scholarships and grants unless their financial standing is coupled with another multicultural component, such as gender, ethnicity, or religion (Lipson, 2007).
There have been many studies that have greatly contributed toward our collective knowledge regarding multiculturalism and relevant educational approaches (Ippolito, 2007; Jennings, 2007), most of which begin by defining the intricate components that warrant a "multicultural" label. One such study, conducted by Jones (2004), cited Cushner, McClelland, and Safford (1992) in operationalizing diversity in broad terms by including "differences based on gender, ethnicity, race, class, age, and handicapping conditions" (p. 14). The article then transitions into instructional techniques that teachers should incorporate in order to uphold a multicultural-friendly classroom. The author encourages teachers to help students convey the unique multicultural stories that set them apart from their peers and to display their cultural backgrounds with a sense of pride. While this suggested strategy is quite useful for multicultural students with varying ethnic and/or religious backgrounds, who may or may not simultaneously struggle with economic deprivation, it is not applicable for students whose multiculturalism is represented solely by a low SES. Whereas instilling a sense of honor with one's ethnic background is irrefutably valuable, a low SES is something that most people find shameful and seek to overcome.
Rothstein (2004) discusses differences in family philosophies and parenting styles among social classes, which contribute toward dissimilar educational functioning among low and middle SES groups. Outside of the educational strides that students achieve within the classroom, parents play a pivotal role in imparting knowledge that accentuates their formal schooling experience. Parents who read to their children prior to the onset of kindergarten provide their children with a significant advantage by enhancing their vocabularies (and subsequent word recognition), which also transcends into more advanced conversational patterns that allow them to grapple with sophisticated content. Other important lessons are shared when parents read to their children, such as the tactile experience of properly holding and interacting with books (a skill that is often overlooked).
Not surprisingly, parents with advanced educational degrees also tend to be of middle and upper SES. This group of parents tends to surround themselves with more reading material and therefore serve as literary role models who demonstrate that reading is an enjoyable and leisurely activity and who regularly read work-related documents that are brought home from their professional business ventures. Moreover, the manner in which middle and upper SES parents approach the process of reading is significantly different, in that they pose more reflective and theoretical questions intermittent throughout story time. They might ask their children why the characters made certain decisions or ask their children to brainstorm what potentially might have taken place long after the story ends. Low SES parents tend to propose factual questions that simply require their children to reiterate the material.
Parents are inclined to immerse themselves with others who come from the same social class. This includes the self-selected friends that hold mutual values and ideals, as well as the neighbors whose ability to reside nearby reflects a similar income and the coworkers with whom they likely share similar educational paths. Parental social networks simultaneously serve as role models to children, who acquaint themselves with the education and career paths that these adults have acquired and the possibility of replicating such options become more feasible. The limitless job titles that these middle- and upper-class adults occupy include doctors, lawyers, teachers, and social workers, whose professional positions are also accompanied by advanced graduate degrees. The prototypical parent of low SES children is seen as a poorly educated adult who is employed in subservient roles and who begrudgingly associates work with oppression and stress....
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