The Public Humanist

Class in the Classroom: An Indicator for Teachers about Academic Needs?

In today's drive to measure and assess all facets of education, magazines rank schools (on the national and local level) by test scores, money spent per student, and other superficial factors. As the school year begins and teachers race to learn lists of students' names, figure out who needs to sit in the front, and who will need that extra bit of attention, how are these calculations made? Since categorizing by race and/or gender are both morally wrong and illegal, the question emerges, do teachers code students by class? Or, as was asked in the discussion from Daniel Oppenheimer's post on class, does class identification/status “tell us how to treat each other” in the classroom?

With moments to decide and not a great deal of information to work with, it is necessary for teachers to assess which students need more help, and alternately, who is going to need (and therefore receive) less attention. While many students now arrive in public schools with a variety of state and federally backed education plans, these tend to be vaguely worded, sadly generic lists of things for teachers to do, rather than helpful insight into how a student will better learn.

Decades of literacy research indicate that the more parents/guardians read to and expose young learners to words, the more vocabulary and brain development are positively impacted. The harsh reality of this, and there are, of course, tremendous anecdotal exceptions where sheer drive and determination trump environment, is that students whose parents have had the money, time, and ability to provide their children with language exposure, will on average do better in school. The purpose of this post is not to debate possible links between class and achievement, but rather to ask if it is linked for educators.

In terms of economic class, are there obvious physical indicators when it is fashionable in the teenage mind to wear "distressed" clothes? Even more importantly, do these coded messages of class impact how students are treated by teachers? In classrooms with several ESL students, does not speaking English reclassify students into new and different class status levels? Students who emigrate from a country where they enjoyed a high socio-economic status, to attend school in a suburban American high school where they have yet to master social cues, dress, or language, are perhaps best placed to answer these questions.

Having taught in an urban public school whose student body was made almost entirely of immigrants from poverty stricken regions and now teaching in a district where a small portion of students are arriving from India, I have seen a wide variety of teacher-expectations for students. It is easy to sit and read that statement while tut-tut-ing teachers and the need to raise expectations, but the question remains, what tools and indicators are immediately available to teachers?

I would never condemn the teachers in my urban school for adapting academic expectations; they do their very best with the learners who show up. Alternately, I don't want to indicate that suburban teachers judge students unfairly. To borrow an often-repeated phrase from my favorite statistics professor, "It looks like you have an overwhelming amount of information that needs to be dealt with." If nationally recognized magazines have admittedly flawed schemas for evaluating schools and universities, how can humans quickly evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, and various needs of others, and to what extent to does social class become a viable indicator?

--Rachel Zucker, History teacher at Burlington High School

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