Wednesday, August 29, 2007 • 12:18 PM Comments (4)

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

posted by Rachel Zucker

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

Comments (4)
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I'm sure teachers, like the rest of us, are making snap judgments in regards to their students' social class and their (related) expectations of their students' performance all the time, and these may align with teachers' prevailing attitudes about race and ethnicity. I think it's unlikely that this assessment would happen in a conscious manner to be used as a tool to supplement sparse education plans. I imagine that often teachers' assumptions are based on years of experience and that there are other subtle and not-so-subtle indicators at work (i.e. ability to sit still, emotional state, disengagement, etc.). My mother, for instance, was a special ed. teacher for years and her antennae for learning disabilities were very sensitive and, she believed, accurate. Teaching in a small rural community as she did for 25 years, she knew most of the families pretty well--certainly she was aware of everyone's socio-economic status. She considered that relevant information and observed the advantages of children from stable homes with college-educated parents who valued reading.
What I wonder about is the degree to which students are aware of class as social organizer in school. Certainly they have keen awareness of cliques and pecking orders. I was rather slow to realize that the dominant, popular clique in my high school was about their parents' income levels. (Wealthier kids enjoyed greater popularity: had better clothes, tended to be conventionally good looking, participated in sports, had nice homes for entertaining friends, had an emotional stability that was attractive to others, etc.)
Posted by Hayley on 8.30.07 at 8:29
I believe students have a tremendous awareness of social class in general and as a factor in the social organization of their schools. I have ordered a film made by a 13 year old girl for a Bat Mitzvah project in which she interviews her peers about their perception of class. It is apparently remarkable how preoccupied they are with issues pertaining to class. The film can be obtained through CLASSACTION, which has a website...
Posted by Tom Weiner on 8.31.07 at 15:22
I think kids are acutely aware of class divisions and nuances, because, as Hayley says, class is such a strong influence on the hierarchies of their world -- on who's popular and who's not, of who's going on to fancy colleges and who's not, of who gets to have parties at their parents' beach houses and who doesn't.
Posted by Dan on 9.1.07 at 8:29
I'm sure that kids are aware of the effects of class divisions, but I wonder if they call them "class." I'm really interested in that film that Tom W. refers to above.
Posted by Hayley on 9.5.07 at 9:30
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