Tag Archives: Education

Adjuncts, Class, and Fear

The biggest obstacle to organizing adjunct (part-time and full-time non-tenure-track) professors, who now comprise 75% of the faculty in higher education, with part-timers working for $2700 per course on average  — is fear.  Most people assume that adjuncts fear retribution for boat-rocking of any kind.  That worry is not unfounded, since examples of such retaliation abound.

However, many adjuncts feel paralyzed by a deeper, unspoken fear, one that is primarily internal and fraught with complexities that Working-Class Studies can help illuminate and overcome.  This fear stems from the tension, well-documented and long-discussed, between adjuncts’ nominal professional status and the actual workplace conditions that place us in the category of the working class.

The intense debate surrounding Duquesne adjunct French professor Margaret Mary Vojtko’s life and death has placed this tension in an unusually prominent light. For many adjuncts, as for members of other professions, talk of organizing instills fear not so much of retaliation but of being associated with the “kind of person” who joins a union.  With titles and work that give the public perception of professional status but without the corresponding income, hanging on to that status becomes critical to maintaining one’s identity.

Professor Vojtko does not appear to have been afflicted with this kind of fear.  Contrary to what the Duquesne administration would have the public believe, she sought out and strongly supported the new union.  Her colleagues and her family, who knew her best, believe that she would have approved of the attention finally being directed at the injustices she and so many other contingent faculty have experienced for decades. Yet a disturbingly high number of the responses to Vojtko’s story reveal that many adjuncts have experienced — or are expected by others to experience — deep shame.   As a result, many adjuncts personalize and privatize the structural and systemic nature of the inequities in higher education.  Naive belief in an illusory meritocracy often obstructs the ability to understand that the academic employment system is not immutable. “I had the privilege of an education and the pleasure of work I enjoy,” goes this script,  “so I should have ‘known better,’ and now deserve the conditions in which I live.”   Variations on this theme include internal and external rebukes for not accepting the economic status quo as supposedly natural rather than constructed.

How can we combat the paralyzing effects of the internally- and externally-imposed fears in order to mobilize adjuncts into organizing and action?

One answer, evidenced by the successful forays of non-academic unions of Votjko’s  Steelworkers  and SEIU into adjunct organizing, has been to “flip the classroom,” to appropriate the language of some of the corporate reform most in vogue. In this approach, faculty indignation that adjuncts are treated as “nothing more” than, for example, fast-food workers (statements that reinforce the class divide) is transformed from denunciation into inspiration — and aspiration.  We begin to see other workers’ material and psychological gains as achievable goals.  We begin to see them as colleagues who are confronting the structural reality we have fooled ourselves into denying.  We allow ourselves to be educated by, as well as to educate, the janitors and fast-food workers of America, who are often our students and sometimes our relatives. This can only be done, like most other organizing, with one-on-one discussions that build trust and relationships as they educate.

For me, the lessons have been quite personal.  Being the granddaughter of an immigrant steelworker from Braddock, PA, was not something to which I gave much thought until I became an adjunct.  Up until then, my experiences as an Asian American woman figured more prominently in my life.   My father had moved successfully from the working class to a solid middle class professional life, never forgetting or turning his back on his roots.  My grandfather, who never finished high school, and my father, who was the first in his immediate family to get a college degree and who worked his way through college without incurring any student loan debt, saw my desire to become a college professor as a logical outgrowth of the family journey.  It validated their faith that higher education was the key element in such a journey.

My grandfather did not live to see me go on to a PhD program.  Nor did he see me get derailed from finishing it and end up in contingent academic employment needing financial assistance from my family because my full-time “part-time” teaching could hardly support a 5-person family with a new baby, a child on the autism spectrum, and a spouse who had lost his own teaching job in the worst economy in the US in decades. I’m glad that my grandfather didn’t have to witness what has shocked my father: that higher education failed to live up to their experience and expectations.

But I am also sad that my grandfather did not live to see me become an activist and organizer for contingent faculty and for the integrity of higher education.  I wish I could ask him about his union organizing in the 1930s, or why he became disillusioned with his union in the 1960s and 70s, and I wonder what he would think about the state of the American labor movement today.  I am glad that I can talk to my father about his professional association and his uncomplicated recognition and appreciation of its function as a labor organization.  And I am very glad, now that I teach mostly working-class and immigrant students at a community college, that I can speak to my dad about what it was like being a working class, “ethnic” student at a college where he was decidedly in the minority. I’m glad that being an adjunct has made me better able to understand the social, political, and economic stresses of my students.

As I work to organize adjunct faculty in Ohio and nationally, my own biggest fear is that any successes we have will erase our collective memory of our adjunct experience and desensitize us to the reality of the least advantaged of our students.  If our efforts re-gild  instead of reclaim the ivory tower, then we will have failed our students and ourselves.

Our success should instead be measured by the degree to which our movement breaks down the academic caste system and promotes respect for those of our students and colleagues who come from working-class backgrounds. It will be successful when organizing efforts, like adjuncts themselves, are no longer on the margins of political activity — or civic education.

Maria Maisto

Maria Maisto is President of New Faculty Majority.

Back-to-School Blues: Moving Kids from Playgrounds to Workstations

The end of summer:  back to school, back to work.  No more play — at least that’s what the usual end of vacation and the resumption of routine mean. Aside from the return of football, play seems pretty low on our to-do lists in September.

But one of my favorite quotes from John Dewey turns that on its head:  “Work which remains permeated with the attitude of play is art — in quality if not conventional designation.”  We play because it’s fun.  We work because we have to.  If we are able to fuse the two, Dewey says, we become artists of a sort, creating and making not out of necessity but out of enjoyment.

Schools today are little concerned with play, fun, or enjoyment.  Whether it’s getting rid of recess or cutting back on art and music, the dominance of test-based accountability in U.S. schools is increasingly driving “non-tested” subjects — music, arts, P.E., drama — out of the curriculum.

And the effects are significant:  often these subjects keep kids engaged in school in ways that math and reading cannot.  Participation in extra-curriculars (like chorus, sports, the school play) is a strong predictor of kids staying in schools.

And these stripped down schools are increasingly the schools that poor and working-class children attend.  It’s not simply because of budget cuts, although those are bad this year.  Instead, a pernicious logic has emerged for the education of children in poverty and the working class. Because schools with higher percentages of students in poverty perform worse on standardized math and reading tests, they need ever more attention to basic skills and test-taking to close the gap.  Given the time squeeze, non-tested subjects are the first to go.

I teach a lot of undergraduates who go on to teach in poor or working-class communities across the nation, and the story they tell is remarkably similar:  Beginning in about January, all attention turns to “drill and kill” routines of test preparation for the tests in May.   In many schools with high numbers of poor and working-class students, test-based accountability has produced stultifying classrooms, even those with talented teachers.

The overweening focus on math and reading test scores to the exclusion of other subjects produces a pale imitation of an education, one in which context, understanding, even love of reading are jettisoned in favor of getting a few more kids over a mostly arbitrary bar.

My objections here aren’t simply a romantic yearning for simpler, stress-free childhoods.  This is about getting schools to fuse hard play and smart work into the art of education.  It happens all the time in top-quality public schools and in private schools.  It comes about through energetic and engaging instruction that captures the imagination and in which teachers have sufficient training, knowledge and professional autonomy to make individualized assessments of what students need. It is, in fact, something that affluent families expect in their children’s education — even take for granted.

International comparisons are enlightening here.  The results from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which tested students’ ability to problem-solve and apply knowledge, indicate that the U.S. performs, roughly, in the middle of the pack of advanced industrial economies.   In math, we score below slightly below average.  When you examine those results by poverty-level, however, a sharp and clear line of inequality emerges:  students attending U.S. schools in which less than 10 percent of students were in poverty scored higher on reading, as a group, than any other country in the world.  In contrast, students at U.S. schools with poverty rates of 75 percent or more scored nearly dead last among all nations.

In other words, U.S. schools with low levels of poverty are among the world’s best.  On the other hand, schools with high concentrations of poverty are among the worst schools in industrializing nations.  In a nation with nearly 22 percent of all its children in poverty in 2011, it doesn’t take much economic segregation to produce a school with 75 percent poverty rates.

A lot of this confirms what research on poverty and test-taking has shown for a long time:  both individual-level of poverty and high concentrations of poverty in schools produce lower test scores.  But test-based accountability as it has been practiced in the U.S. of late focuses on the wrong end of the equation.  Rather than either addressing the poverty of children or their economic segregation in schools, we force poor students in poor schools to undergo mindless test preparation in an effort to overcome their poverty and economic isolation.

The notion of accountability becomes farcical here.  Without attention to inputs — to budgets, curricula, school infrastructure, the class composition of schools — we will have a much harder time improving the quality of education for poor and working-class children.  The fallacy of test-based accountability as a model of school reform rests in its perversion of what an education is.  In its worst forms, it punishes students for their poverty by robbing them of any opportunity for real education.

The next major development on the horizon — the Common Core of State Standards — purports to raise standards for all children, in an effort to make the U.S. more competitive in an international arena. But at the top end of the income distribution, we already more than hold our own.

At the bottom end, expecting test scores to jump solely by raising the rigor of the standards becomes something of a cruel joke played upon children in poverty whose schools face growing class sizes, reduced staff support, and stripped out curricula.  School budgets have been wracked by the Great Recession.  In Philadelphia this year, all guidance counselors have been eliminated at schools with fewer than 600 children, meaning roughly 60 percent of Philadelphia schools don’t have counselors.

For kids with few resources available to them, a counselor can mean having a coat to get through a Philly winter or getting enrolled in an after-school program.  These concerns and distractions take their toll on students and families, but test-based accountability ignores those real-life consequences as it imposes sanctions on schools — and, increasingly, teachers — unable to overcome those challenges.  Of course, those challenges do not confront more affluent children.

Until we can pay closer attention to those inputs and those contexts of learning, the capacity of test-based accountability to improve education for poor children is about as likely as trying to launch Fourth of July fireworks in a thunderstorm.  You could do it, but it wouldn’t be very much fun.

Douglas S. Reed

Douglas S. Reed is an Associate Professor Government at Georgetown University and a 2013-2014 Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.  He is the author of the forthcoming book Building the Federal Schoolhouse:  Localism and the Education State.




The Changing Working Class

In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house.  His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better  job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status.  Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there.  (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)

But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades.  I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors.  Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up.  So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority.   That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds  that 63% of Americans are working class, up from 62% in the original 2000 book.  It’s also true in terms of how people identify themselves.  While the General Social Survey for decades has  shown that over 40% of Americans identify themselves as working class, the 2010 version of the survey, which the GSS reruns every few years, show that 46.8% now identify as working class, the highest percentage since the early 80s.

The working class is also changing.  The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college.  These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs.  Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class.  Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans.  Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.

There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics.  The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.

The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income.  While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees.  Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks.  Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.

Diversity isn’t only about race, of course.  A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things.  They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.

So what does all of this add up to?  On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists.  We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice.  The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.

The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing.  This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class.  Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition.  Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.

On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes.  That matters for academics but also for civic life.  Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.

Sherry Linkon

Vandals in a Steel City School District

If you weren’t sure, let me remind you, Pittsburgh is a 21st century city that still has a rusty, bricked out, working-class soul. I know this because I live here, but also because I finally saw the agit-prop-weepy that is Won’t Back Down, a film about a charter school take-over of a failing school in Pittsburgh’s impoverished Hill District using a special kind of law that we don’t have here in Pennsylvania (yet—and hopefully we never will) called the “parent trigger” law.

In Won’t Back Down, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jamie Fitzpatrick, a working-class single mom of a 3rd grade girl with dyslexia. Jamie works two jobs—at a car dealership by day and at a bar by night. Jamie is earnest, irrepressible, and hot. You see a lot of Jamie’s flat midriff and perky cleavage, even when she is delivering lines that could have been written by Sarah Palin: “You know those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They are nothing compared to me.”

The truck that is crushing Jamie’s daughter Malia is a bad teacher at a school that has been failing for 19 years, Adams Elementary. The bad teacher is a stout middle-aged white lady who shops for shoes online and fiddles with her iPhone while Malia is getting roughed up and ridiculed in the classroom. The bad teacher is, of course, a union stalwart and has been “tenurized.”

When Jamie realizes how bad it is at Adams she tries (and fails) to secure one of three slots at the awesome new Rosa Parks charter school. Then she tries (and fails) to negotiate installment payments with a local Catholic school. Then she tries (and fails) to get Malia into a different classroom at Adams, one taught by Viola Davis’s character, Nona Alberts, the self-described “first black Stepford wife” who is going through a wrenching divorce. Nona is almost as checked out as the bad white teacher, but Jamie sees a spark in Nona’s dead eyes and begs her to help her take over the school using the parent trigger law (referred to as a “fail safe” law in the film).

In real life no group of parents has (yet) successfully used this law, but that doesn’t stop Jamie and Nona.  The next thing we know, they are knocking on doors and getting parents to sign petitions.  They get teachers to sign as well, which is tricky, because if the parent trigger law goes into effect, the teachers will forfeit their union membership at the resulting charter school. Jamie’s new boyfriend, who teaches music at her daughter’s school, argues in favor of his union, explaining that teachers need to be protected against low wages and preferential treatment. In another scene, one of the union officials (played by Ned Eisenberg) points out that teachers’ unions are under attack, and that parent trigger laws are aimed straight at organizations like the AFT. He is right, but unfortunately, Won’t Back Down is part of that attack.

The movie shows that pulling the parent trigger is pretty hard. Jamie and Nona have to get 51% of the parents Adams elementary (400+) to sign waiver forms. This takes hours of door knocking in the graffiti slathered tenements of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It also takes a widely publicized and well-attended rally, which, as one blogger has pointed out, probably cost more than $3,000 to mount. They have to persuade a reluctant school board to hear the case, and, then, they have to get the school board to vote for their scheme.

After the school board vote (SPOILER ALERT) the film has an impossibly happy ending, in which Malia can miraculously read, and the new charter school (though no one ever utters that word) is filled with rainbows, streamers, butterflies, and song.

Won’t Back Down is not your garden variety Hollywood feel-good edu-flick. It was produced by 20th Century Fox in conjunction with Walden Media, which also produced the controversial union-bashing Waiting for Superman and is bankrolled by gajilloinaire Phillip Anschutz. In addition to funding challenges to climate change and evolution science, over the last 10 years Anschutz has donated at least $210,000 to the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, dedicated to the eradication of unions. The fact that Won’t Back Down had the least profitable opening ever for a film that opened in 2,500 theaters is, at least, some comfort.

Won’t Back Down is relevant to us those of us in Working-Class Studies because its producers are part of a movement to privatize, corporatize, and monetize public education. I have been watching this movement storm into Pennsylvania over the last few years under the cover of governor Tom Corbett, whose campaign was bankrolled by an entourage of for-profit charter school financiers, and PA’s Republican/ALEC controlled state legislature.

Won’t Back Down doesn’t ask the question that many of us have been raising:  do charter schools improve education? Here in Pennsylvania, Corbett’s administration has been giving charter schools a pass, making it easier for them to meet federal standards, even though a recent Stanford CREDO survey found that “[c]harter schools…in Pennsylvania on average perform worse than traditional public schools…”

So why do charters appeal to poor and working-class parents—especially in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? As one Philadelphia blogger argues, charters use false advertising to trumpet the benefits of charters schools for inner city children; they “discriminate by playing by their own rules,” such as “counseling out” children with learning difficulties or behavioral problems; and charter school drain money, great students, and highly involved parents from the public schools.

In recent years public schools, public school teachers, and teacher unions have been under constant assault. The rhetoric of failure is rampant, though some argue that it is No Child Left Behind that has failed, and not the schools or the teachers themselves. In a recent poll, for example, three quarters of Americans report being satisfied with their own child’s school, but rate public education in general below 50%.

Are schools failing our children? Or are we failing our schools? In the last two years Corbett has cut more than a billion dollars from the Pennsylvania education budget, forcing hundreds of high performing schools to cut or end art, music, band, and, in the case of my own children’s school, science. Thousands of us in PA have been fighting back. One especially active parent, Susan Spicka, is running for the state legislature, while others have been rallying, pressuring our reps, calling out the governor, and fundraising like crazy in our own schools.

Through these actions, I have been reminded that we already have a kind of parent trigger law. It’s called democracy. Organizing on behalf of public education is as hard as trying to get 400+ parents to sign a parent trigger waiver—and most days, even harder. If you want to see what it looks like in Pittsburgh, check out Yinzercation, an education blog that puts the Pittsburgh fight in the context of the larger state and national issues. Our fight is about protecting public schools and strengthening communities. As Garrison Keiler has argued, “when you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.”

Won’t Back Down is a rallying cry for the foes of public education—the vandals—and they had better be warned that our public schools are not for sale. I am going to keep fighting for public schools because it is the right thing to do: for my children—and for all of the children for whom public education is still a vital civil right.

Kathy M. Newman

Education, Jobs, and Wages

Most people are surprised when I tell them that only about 30% of Americans over the age of 25 have bachelor’s degrees.  This is especially true of professional middle-class folks who went to high schools where almost everybody went to college immediately after graduation and whose friends now are almost all college graduates.  But it’s also true of people from working-class and poor backgrounds, who seem to think they are “abnormal” or “below average” because they haven’t graduated from college.  They’re not.  They are, in fact, the ones who are “typical.”

It’s even more surprising, however, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2010 only 20% of jobs required a bachelor’s degree, whereas 26% of jobs did not even require a high school diploma, and another 43% required only a high school diploma or equivalent.  And according to the BLS, this isn’t going to change much by 2020, since the overwhelming majority of jobs by then will still require only a high school diploma or less.  What’s more, nearly 3/4ths of “job openings due to growth and replacement needs” over the next 10 years will pay a median wage of less than $35,000 a year, with nearly 30% paying a median of about $20,000 a year (in 2010 dollars).

Put these two sets of numbers together, and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Americans are over educated for the jobs that we have and are going to have.  It’s hard to imagine why anybody would call us “a knowledge economy.”   It’s also hard to see how “in the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a first-class education,” as President Obama famously said in his 2010 State of the Union Address.

I don’t want to say that these statistics on education and jobs expose widely held “myths,” because that word suggests things that are utterly and completely false.  It’s much more complicated than that.  Rather, I’d say that broadly speaking, about one-third of Americans live in one world, while another two-thirds live in a rather different one, but that public discourse – in the mainstream media, for sure, but even more so in elite media and the academy – is conducted by the one-third who are college-educated and have jobs with a fair amount of autonomy and/or a decent income.  This one-third mistakenly takes our world to be typical – or said another way, the educated middle class tends to mistake our part of America for the whole.  And the larger working-class and poor part does not have enough power or voice to consistently make their presence known to us.  That means we are subject to certain uncorrected illusions – mistaking half-truths and quarter-truths for the whole truth — even though we’re the ones who collect and analyze the data.

There is, for example, a large and growing “knowledge economy” in the U.S., requiring more than 6 million people with master’s or doctoral degrees now, with another 1.3 million needed by 2020.  But even with this faster-than-average growth rate, it will be less than 5% of the overall economy.   Even if we expand the definition to include jobs requiring any education beyond high school, the “knowledge economy” – now and a decade from now –will still represent less than one-third of all available jobs.  This is a lot of jobs, about 44 million now, and if you work and live in this one-third, especially in its upper reaches, more education can seem like the answer to everything.  Indeed, according to the BLS, having a bachelor’s degree should yield a person nearly $30,000 a year more in wages than a high school graduate.

But most of the American economy is not like this.  The BLS’s three largest occupational categories by themselves accounted for more than one-third of the workforce in 2010 (49 million jobs), and they will make an outsized contribution to the new jobs projected for 2020.  They are:

  • Office and administrative support occupations (median wage of $30,710)
  • Sales and related occupations ($24,370)
  • Food preparation and serving occupations ($18,770)

Other occupations projected to provide the largest number of new jobs in the next decade include child care workers ($19,300), personal care aides ($19,640), home health aides ($20,560), janitors and cleaners ($22,210), teacher assistants ($23,220), non-construction laborers ($23,460), security guards ($23,920), and construction laborers ($29,280).

There are still construction, mining, production, and transportation and material-moving jobs that provide annual incomes north of $40,000 (especially if they are union).  But even though all these occupations are projected to grow, some by above-average rates, in 2020 there will be fewer of them than there were in 2006 before the Great Recession, 2.3 million fewer according to the BLS.

The BLS produces its job-projection report every two years, and as I pointed out two years ago, it is consistently misreported in the mainstream media or (as this year) ignored all together.  This is partly because the just-the-facts BLS reporting style does not highlight the continuing growth of the low-wage economy.   But read it carefully – or just look at all the tables with an open mind – and I don’t think you can avoid two general conclusions:

  • As an individual, get a bachelor’s degree or you are doomed to work hard for a wage that will not provide a decent standard of living for a family.  You may not get such a wage even with a bachelor’s degree, but without it your chances are slim and getting slimmer.
  • But as a society, “the best anti-poverty program around” cannot possibly be “a first-class education” when more than 2/3rds of our jobs require nothing like that.  The best anti-poverty program around is higher wages for the jobs we actually have and will have.

If we were serious about eliminating poverty or restoring the credibility of the American Dream or simply respecting lifetimes of hard work, we would be debating how to raise wages directly – how to make it easier for workers to organize themselves into unions, how to get the federal minimum wage higher and on a steady inflation-adjusted escalator, whether to require some kind of workers council for all employers, and then legally require that the benefits of productivity growth be shared with workers.  We’d also be discussing how to use a more steeply progressive system of taxation to build a social wage that makes the basics of life – food, housing, mass transit, child care, education, and health care – cheaper for everyone, but most crucially for lower wage workers.

Those of us who have benefitted, financially and otherwise, from getting good educations should tell our stories and try to inspire others with the value of education in all its forms.  But we need to stop fostering illusions that good educations can ever substitute for the organized collective action – in politics, in the workplace, and in the streets – that will be required to reverse the increasingly miserable wages and conditions most people are facing now and in the future.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Teaching Unequal Childhoods

As an adjunct I teach two Working-Class Studies courses – one for adult union leaders and staff pursuing a master’s degree and another for (mostly) traditional-aged undergraduate students.   In both classes I use Annette Lareau’s wonderful study of how child-rearing practices vary by class, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life.  It’s a great text for parents, but also for anybody who’s ever had child-rearing done to them!

It’s one of those sociological studies where the researcher hangs around a family at home and on the road, taking careful notes about what everybody says and does.  Most of the book consists of case studies of the various middle-class, working-class, and poor families Lareau (and her research assistants) hung out with in an unnamed northeastern city, probably Philadelphia.

It’s not a book students necessarily love and, in fact, some really hate it, but everybody reads it, gets engaged, and comes to class ready to talk about it – including often intimate details about how they were reared and, for those who are parents, how they are rearing or did rear their children.  It’s a high-stakes topic, as everybody realizes that who they are and how they are is strongly influenced by how they were raised – and, of course, even the most exemplary parents easily slip into guilt-trips or defensive bragging about their kids, often in the same sentence.

I’m not going to summarize Lareau’s various findings, except to say that she finds a categorical difference between middle-class and working class child-rearing approaches, and relatively small (though not unimportant) differences between blacks and whites of the same class or between working-class and poor families.  Her first two case studies, of 4th-graders Garrett Tallinger and Tyrec Taylor, present strongly positive examples of each of the categories.

Garrett has two very dedicated parents with professional jobs who are highly engaged with their children, with lots of challenging dialogue and with a demanding schedule of activities their three children enjoy but which are also educational in one way or another.  This concerted cultivation, Lareau says, is characteristic of a middle-class child-centered approach.  Tyrec has loving, though separated, working-class parents who see their parental duties as providing food, shelter, and moral guidance but otherwise leaving their children free to find their own way in life through natural growth.   Whereas Garrett spends little time outside of adult-structured activities with children exactly his own age, Tyrec is much more free “to make his own fun” with children of different ages, both within a large extended family and in his neighborhood, and mostly outside direct supervision by adults.

After students read the first 103 pages, including these two case studies, the very first questions I ask are:

  • Which child-rearing approach makes for a happier childhood?
  • And which child-rearing approach better prepares children to succeed as adults?

I’ve done this with four classes now (two each with adults and late adolescents), and with very few exceptions, students answer as if it were obvious: The working-class way makes for a happier childhood, but the middle-class way better prepares children to be successful adults.

Eventually, the personally high-stakes part of our conversations turns everybody toward Aristotle’s golden mean, resolving to mix a little bit of happiness with a little more adult-prep.  But there is also a recognition of what a tragic situation this is: What kind of society requires us to sacrifice the creative spontaneous joys of childhood so that we can “succeed” as adults?

From there everybody has a different take on nearly everything – including whether it’s such a good idea to “succeed” as adults.  Many do not fit neatly into Lareau’s categories, but an amazing number do.  Adult students who are parents and even some of the traditional-aged students engage in richly dialectical reflections on their parents’ approach and their own.  Many more students in both teaching venues come from working-class backgrounds than middle-class ones, but precisely because the topic is so high stakes, students (who can often be quite harsh in disagreeing with each other) are especially tactful, polite, even delicate with one another.  In general, though Lareau is rigorously and refreshingly neutral on which class culture is better, both kinds of students tend to favor the working-class way.

Lareau’s broader thesis is that schools are excessively and unconsciously middle-class institutions that assume that working-class kids (and parents) arrive not with a different culture, which has its strengths as well as weaknesses, but with cultural deficits that must be filled in and bad habits that must be broken.  This not only puts working-class kids at a disadvantage, but often leads to a conflicted and adversarial relation of both parents and kids toward teachers and, even more so, toward the institution of “the school.”  Among other things, she counsels greater class-cultural awareness by teachers, including learning and teaching how to “code-switch.”

The basically opposite child-rearing approaches are readily recognizable in people’s real-life experience. More contestable is whether they neatly coincide with class positions and whether race and poverty play as small a role as Lareau claims.  These, of course, are issues that make Unequal Childhoods a great text for teaching Working-Class Studies.  More important, however, is how her richly reported case studies personalize class issues and dynamics, allowing both adult and traditional-aged students to see how class plays a role not just in society at large, but also in our own immediate experience, including our hearts and minds.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

Anger Management, Anyone?

Compared to the US, Britain is generally regarded as having more rigid, tightly enforced, and widely understood social class barriers. With its well-known scene of blindfolded children moving on a conveyor belt toward becoming ingredients in a social sausage, the movie The Wall (and music: Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)) asserts the salience of class for British education. It does so via the refrain (presumably addressed to all teachers, not just the sarcastic one depicted in the video): “All in all, you’re just another brick in the Wall.” The film highlights how people  experience class during ordinary interactions in school and  thus offers a sharp reminder of the relationship between class and anger in education.

I once invited a group of aspiring American teachers to (re-)view and comment on the significance of the “The Wall” in relation to their own potential careers. While these largely middle-class undergraduates understood the anger expressed in the video and found it amusing, they didn’t see its relevance to their experience as students and the experiences they anticipated they might have as teachers. Why did my largely middle-class students respond to the video differently than I had anticipated?

In their 1986 study of anger (and anger management) in American history, social historian Peter Stearns and psychiatrist Carol Stearns assert that changes over time in the aims and methods of emotional control “help explain class relations in American society, particularly in the twentieth century.” After World War II, they say, the job of guidance counselors emerged in schools. The task was to reduce the number of “adjustment problems,” including angry students. By the 1950s, survey responses suggested that teenagers were intolerant of expressions of anger by peers, preferring instead a “cool” stance. Beginning in the 1960s, another aspect of anger in school was partially managed in a different way: as grade averages trended upward, angry student-teacher confrontations became less likely.

Despite the muted expression of anger, the classroom remains what social psychologist Bernard Weiner calls a microcosm of the social universe, a courtroom where we render and receive moral judgment.  When people feel negatively judged, anger is a likely response and students/faculty of working-class origin are likely targets of negative moral judgment. As British sociologist Andrew Sayer puts it in The Moral Significance of Class, “the working classes are both imagined or expected to be able to compete on equal terms with others and [at the same time] expected to fail.”

How can these two expectations go together? It is widely believed that the US is a meritocratic society: where we end up, most people think, is based (mostly) on individual merit. In other words, we get what we deserve. If so, how do we account for “failure”? The availability of a free public education means that educational (and occupational) achievement must be attributed to personal characteristics. In other words, we deserve what we get.

There is, however, abundant evidence that education in the US is less meritocratic than widely believed. After all, the teaching staff and management of educational institutions are largely informed by the perspectives of the (not always egalitarian) middle class.  Given that, what might a working-class person experience upon entering (or competing for entry to) a cathedral of learning? Class contempt.

Class contempt, according to Sayer, consists of negative judgments often based on taste and style that “[spill over] into judgments of moral worth.” Social class is “given off” by cues of accent, language, demeanor, possessions, and lifestyle and differences indicated via these cues can trigger the expression of class contempt (in either direction). Perhaps it was for this reason that Pierre Bourdieu described the belief that we can escape our social origins (by merit or other means) as a “dream of social flying, a desperate effort to defy the gravity of the social field.”

Even at its mildest, Sayer suggests, class contempt can significantly constrain the life chances of those who experience it. Expressions of class contempt (sometimes even by those who study the working class) need not be deliberate, and those who are the targets of it need not even be aware that contempt is being expressed.

The link between class contempt and anger is not necessarily direct: anger, as an effect of class contempt, can be mediated by shame. Shame, according to Sayer, “is commonly a response to the real or imagined contempt, derision or avoidance of real or imagined others, particularly those whose values are respected.” Consider the following example.

A working-class student in the last year of middle-school had very high achievement scores and difficulty behaving “appropriately” in classes. The student had independently read about the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and asked a favorite teacher (who knows the student extremely well and teaches History) for the recommendation required to enroll in an advanced course in Ancient History the following year. The teacher replies he cannot write a recommendation because the student may misbehave, thus reflecting poorly on the teacher. The teacher later confides to a colleague that he did not want the student to experience disappointment. During the remainder of the middle-school year, the student experienced shame; the following year, the student experienced anger, declaring “they care more about my behavior than whether I can think.” Angry in part over the denial of that dream of scholastic upward mobility, the student left school at age sixteen. Does this story depict class contempt or simply the negative evaluation of a student who happened to be of working-class origin? This complex question is difficult to answer. We can see class contempt more easily in an evaluation task completed in the late 90s by another group of aspiring teachers. I gave the students a list of ten hypothetical candidates for selection into a hypothetical high school advanced placement (AP) course that only had two openings. I asked them to rank order the candidates. The candidates varied by last name, gender, grade point average, test scores, number of days absent or truant, and parent occupation. The results were more or less as I expected:  the candidate with the highest test scores, a number of truancies, and a parent employed as a non-professional was ranked the lowest, while the candidates with Anglo-Saxon sounding names and professionally employed parents were ranked the highest.

When I pointed out that the most able candidate (based on test scores) was being denied access, several students argued rather vociferously that the candidate had misbehaved and thus did not deserve the opportunity. When I pointed out that many students in my class may have benefitted from a similar ranking process in high school (many having been enrolled in programs for “the gifted”), several replied that they had deserved to be highly ranked, either because of individual merit or (when evidence of this might have been equivocal) by virtue of having “come from a good family.” These results, and – especially – the student justifications, suggest the operation of class contempt. The possibility that some of my former students are probably ranking actual candidates even now suggests the relevance of the ranking exercise and its outcomes to the contemporary educational scene.

Anger sparked by expressions of class contempt can lead to interpersonal struggle or social transformation. “The Wall” makes the expression of sarcasm by a teacher visible as an expression of class contempt. Only by seeing ordinary interactions in social as well psychological terms can we move from shame to an anger that may help ensure that the American Dream is achieved more on the basis of merit and less on basis of class, race, sex, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or politics.

Roy Wilson

Roy Wilson has published in the areas of sociology, computing, and education and has worked in industry and academia in the roles of employee, consultant, teacher, and researcher.