Tag Archives: working-class students

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.




Working-Class Renegades and Loyalists

I never had much time or sympathy for working-class renegades until I read Allison Hurst’s College and the Working Class this summer.

Hurst, a sociologist at Furman University, classifies first-generation college students as renegades if they “have learned to value what the greater society values, academic success, social prestige, and high class position.  They believe that moving away from families and assimilating into the mainstream are necessary for achievement.”   Loyalists, in contrast, are college students from working-class families whose “first priority is to their home communities and [they] are sometimes willing to forgo success if this is predicated on assimilation [to middle-class values and norms].”

As a lifelong (if sometimes unfaithful) loyalist, married to another loyalist, I’ve usually seen renegades’ headlong pursuit of middle-class life and culture as too often leading them to adopt extreme versions of what I see as the worst aspects of middle-class culture – a single-minded focus on personal achievement and publicly recognized accomplishments, which often leads to unreliable serial friendships (if any friendships at all) and a never-far-from-the-surface status anxiety.

Though in the early stages, renegades’ determined rejection of and flight from working-class ways can seem heroically self-actualizing, all too often it turns into phony resume-building, bitterness at being “left behind” no matter where they end up, and a guilt-ridden substitution of show for substance.  In late middle age this pattern can get particularly distasteful, regardless of class background, when the exercise of arbitrary power over others begins to compensate for real accomplishment, thereby spreading the misery.

Hurst’s exploration of today’s “first-generation college students,” however, reveals a historical situation so very different from the one I experienced that I have changed my mind.  Expressing a broad range of empathy for the variety of complex situations working-class college students face today, Hurst captures both the loyalists’ and the renegades’ worlds during a time when “finding yourself” can severely undermine the development of your “competitive advantages.”

Though also insightful about the problems of applying and paying for higher education today, Hurst’s analysis focuses on the clash of cultures working-class students experience in a variety of forms, a clash Barbara Jensen has so poignantly revealed at all levels of education (and life) in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America.  Hurst draws on recent university research on “retaining first-generation college students” as well as on the more nuanced efforts of her colleagues in the Association of Working-Class Academics to argue for a wide array of practices that universities could adopt to help working-class students negotiate the nexus between everyday practical problems and more deeply rooted cultural issues.

What I found most insightful, however, was her creation of five composite characters – three loyalists and two renegades of diverse races/ethnicities – whose progress through the same state university is followed throughout the book.  These characters illustrate both common problems and complexly different ways of handling them.  Collectively, Hurst says of them, “This generation of working-class college students . . . shares some things in common with past generations of ‘scholarship boys and girls,’ but they are also unique in that they are pushed, not just pulled, into college.”

As someone who went to college in the 1960s at four different undergraduate institutions off and on for seven years and who was anything but a “scholarship boy,” I realize how much easier it was then.  College was an option, not a necessity for one thing – no push, all pull.  It also cost a lot less, and many community colleges, university extensions, and universities themselves had a vital sense of mission about expanding democratic values as well as economic opportunities.  And as the sixties progressed, more and more middle-class (and especially upper middle class) students were challenging the middle-class manners, mores, and values of the time.  Working-class life then exerted its own considerable pull, making the culture clash possibly more difficult in some ways than it is today, but there was also so much more space to mix and match, consciously adopting some middle-class ways while rejecting others – more ways to be a “straddler” and not go “all in.”   On both sides of college, working-class life is much less attractive today – more punishing at work, more insecure at home, and weaker as a proud and independent culture that can unselfconsciously scoff at middle-class ways.

My natural sympathies were with Hurst’s three loyalists, but fearing the economic consequences of their loyalties, I found myself hoping they would go “more all in” than they did – before realizing that there really is no more or less to “all in.”  As loyalists, however, they face culturally richer but more economically insecure futures in a job market that has only two jobs for every three college graduates.  One of Hurst’s two renegades, on the other hand, is fleeing a family that abandoned her in her mid-teens, and the other is motivated to be all in culturally because she sees it as a necessity for single-handedly lifting her mother and siblings from economic poverty.

As more and more working-class kids are pushed and pulled into higher education, Hurst is optimistic that universities will become more welcoming – as an administrative “retention strategy,” if nothing else.  But because she values working-class culture as much as middle-class cultural capital, she sets a pretty high standard: “Whether college responds by losing its middle-class character so as to better welcome these students or whether working-class college students will continue to be forced to assimilate to middle-class norms in order to succeed, is a question only future events can answer.”

If colleges and universities want to become more welcoming to working-class students, Hurst has checklist upon checklist for both easy and difficult things they can do.  But “losing its middle-class character” is not something we can expect until there is a stronger, more collectively active working class in the workforce and in the streets — as well as more working-class college students who organize on campus to undermine the narrow-minded self-confidence of a hyper-middle-class culture that, unchallenged, cannot imagine that theirs is not the only “right” way.

There’s much to admire in our middle-class’s aspirational individualism and achievement-orientation, but unchecked by a more rooted communitarian culture, it can turn toxic within individuals and seems to foster deadening institutions run by career-calculating conformists who like to make speeches about “innovation,” “transformation,” and “empowerment” while working to ensure that it’s hard for any of those things to actually occur.  Higher education in America needs a stronger, more vital working-class presence to save it from its own cocky cultural hegemony and its growing attraction to pleasing an increasingly crass Big Money ruling class.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

The Challenge of MOOCs: Technology, Costs, and Class

College professors these days are in a position very much like journalists were twenty years ago.  Because we believe in the social value of our work, and because we’re intellectually curious and creative, we’re intrigued by the possibilities of technology and alternative pedagogies.  We use online discussions, multimedia assignments, and other digital tools to improve our students’ learning.  Some of us teach online courses, in part because we understand that this can make higher education more convenient for working students, even as we worry that online courses don’t always work well.  Yet many of us are also concerned about how technology will affect our profession.

But as with journalism 20 years ago, the business model of higher education today may not be sustainable.  As journalism moved online, traditional jobs declined and reporters shifted to alternative types of work, often with less pay and job security.  That’s already happening in higher education, where 70% of college instructors are full- or part-time adjuncts. Technology will probably lead to more job cuts, though elite faculty and those best prepared to adapt to new tools may thrive.  New approaches have consequences for students, too.  Some will gain richer, deeper learning opportunities, but others will encounter the academic equivalent of the Headline News channel, full of flashy presentations that don’t provide much substance.

Many educators are worried about new technologies, in part because some policy-makers see new tools as cost savers but don’t seem to care about quality. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), especially, have some administrators envisioning a more efficient version of higher education, which would, of course, involve fewer faculty. While some professors are excited by the MOOC format, others are organizing against them.  The faculty senate at San Diego City College passed a resolution against MOOCs, while philosophy professors at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor who teaches a popular MOOC on Justice, explaining why they were resisting pressure to use Sandel’s MOOC as the basis for a hybrid course in their program.

MOOCs promise free high-quality education to anyone, anywhere.  You can’t afford Harvard?  That’s ok.  You can watch Harvard professors lecturing about neuroscience, health, or American poetry for free. For faculty, MOOCs offer opportunities to share knowledge and gain a reputation world wide, and while many MOOCs rely on the  traditional lecture, others are exploring new strategies for fostering student interaction to promote learning.  In the best models, MOOCs also engage faculty with new ways of thinking about how students learn. For institutions, MOOCs are, for now, largely a public relations project, promoting star faculty and the value of academic knowledge.  But Coursera, Udacity, and other companies that offer MOOCs are actively looking for ways to monetize them, either by charging students for the opportunity to earn credit, sellings ads or sponsorships, or by charging employers for access to data about MOOC students, presumably to identify possible job candidates.

Will MOOCs be good for working-class students? Maybe. MOOCs do provide free access to a version of college education.  Students who want to learn computer programming or statistics may find MOOCs useful.  But these massive courses have massive drop-out rates, in part because many people sign up – as I’ve done myself – primarily in order to browse.  Others who sign up with more serious intentions struggle due to lack of structure, and of course, almost no one in a MOOC receives individual attention from an expert.  Meanwhile, while the working class will be expected to learn by watching video lectures, wealthy students will continue to benefit from face-to-face, discussion-based learning. MOOCs may improve access while also exacerbating the gap between elite and working-class education.

The interest in MOOCs is only partially about what technology can do.  Much of it is about using technology to make college more affordable. In two recent lectures, William Bowen, former president of both the Mellon Foundation and Princeton University, examined the “cost disease” of higher education.  He begins by pointing out that this isn’t a new issue; college costs have risen faster than the cost of living for more than a century.  As Bowen notes, there are many reasons for this, including state funding cuts that shift costs from taxpayers to students.  He suggests that technology can make teaching more efficient and effective.  He acknowledges that new approaches threaten faculty jobs, but he also writes that “faculty involvement in essential.” He even suggests that new technologies could improve the quality of faculty work, making grading less onerous and providing more opportunities to engage meaningfully with colleagues and students.

Improving the effectiveness and efficiency of education through strategic uses of technology won’t be easy, and Bowen acknowledges that it might not work.  But, he argues, we have to try. Higher education has lost not just financial but also political support, in part because our stakeholders — legislators, voters, parents, and students — think that educators don’t care about costs.  That may be one reason that states have been able to cut education budgets with so little political fallout.

But the “cost disease” isn’t just a political matter.  Rising college costs could precipitate another economic crisis.  Student loans now make up the largest category of debt in the U.S.  According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, student loan debt is over one trillion dollars and growing.  That has long-term consequences for graduates, who are juggling bills every month, putting off marriage, and wondering if they will ever have the money or the credit rating to purchase a home.  Those problems, in turn, harm the U.S. economy.

College loans create problems for all but the most elite students, but they may be especially significant for working-class students, who receive less merit-based aid than their wealthier peers, resulting in high “net costs” and more loan debt.  A report by the New America Foundation finds that “colleges expect the neediest students to pay an amount that is equal to or even more than their families’ yearly earnings.”  But because college is seen as so important, students “take on heavy debt loads or engage in activities that lessen their likelihood of earning their degrees, such as working full-time while enrolled or dropping out until they can afford to return.”

If we want to serve working-class students well, we need to take seriously the challenge of making college more flexible and effective as well as more accessible and affordable.

MOOCs may not be the answer, but hybrid courses that combine online and face-to-face learning might help, as will high-quality online programs and a wide range of strategies that enhance learning in traditional classrooms through innovative uses of technology.   It’s hard to know whether the changes will destroy academia, generate new and better alternatives, or some of both. But if we leave the design to the elite, or to business, we’re in trouble, and so are our students.

The challenge is designing the democratic education that MOOCs promise but don’t (yet) deliver. If we are to use technology to create meaningful opportunities for learning, and if we are to make those opportunities work well not only for the elite but also for the working class, we have to participate, critically, in the process.  Of course, technology isn’t the only tool, and some calls for innovation reflect the interests of business “masquerading in the trappings of science,” as Harry Braverman wrote. Our response should reflect our interests and those of our students.  Simply rejecting change won’t cut it.

Sherry Linkon

Critical Literacy in Working-Class Schools

In her recent post Kathy Newman discusses the lengths to which schools go to improve students’ high-stakes test scores and reminds us that parents’ income is the best predictor of students’ performance on standardized tests.  Nevertheless, when working-class public school students perform poorly on high-stakes tests we say to the teachers, “It’s your fault.  Teach better!”  What we get is teachers who teach worse:  lessons become scripted and rote.  And we say to students, “It’s your fault.  Try harder!”  What we get are students who become even more alienated and less motivated.

Of course, lurking behind the whole issue of high-stakes testing is our faith in the concept of the concept of meritocracy.  Only when meritocracy is rigorously defined and the assumptions underlying it are stated explicitly, does it become problematic.

Meritocracy starts with the assumption that, by and large, all American children start kindergarten or first grade on a nearly equal footing and as they progress through the grades those who are smart and work hard earn good grades are placed in high-status school programs, enter high-status, high-paying professions, and end up with a lot of money, status, and political power regardless of the social status of their parents.  On the other hand, students who are not smart and/or do not work hard earn poor grades are placed in low status school programs, enter low-status, low-paying occupations, and end up with little money, status, and political power regardless of the social status of their parents.

But since most children of affluent parents become affluent adults and most children of working-class parents become working-class adults, meritocracy leaves us with the conclusion that most children of affluent parents are intelligent and hard-working (the logic of merit), while most children of working-class parents are lazy and lack intelligence (the logic of deficit).

There is, however, a better explanation: school success is tied to systematic inequalities that persist from generation to generation.  Working-class children are not as well prepared for primary school as more affluent children, and they often attend different schools or are assigned different classes.  And those who have high SAT scores do not have the same access to higher education as more affluent students with similar or lower test scores.

These are fairly apparent instances of structural inequality, but there are less obvious structural phenomena at work.  Many working-class students see high-status knowledge and cultural capital as useless and even antithetical to their working-class identity.  They develop oppositional identity, defining themselves different from schoolteachers or people like them.  At the same time, the schools generally ignore any sense of importance or entitlement students may have as working-class people. So the students resist teachers’ attempts to teach, and unlike most other students, they often find affirmation for their resistance in their homes and communities.

A modified teaching paradigm ensues.  Teachers give easy assignments and provide step-by-step directions.  Classroom control becomes a paramount concern;  teachers refuse to negotiate with students in fear of losing authority.   Many teachers of working-class students see their mission as producing border crossers—students who believe in meritocracy, are academically inclined, and willingly adopt middle-class values, tastes, and interests. But many working-class students who have these qualities are defeated by structural barriers, while those who succeed are held up as proof that meritocracy works.

Since the 1930s, progressive educators like George Counts have insisted that we cannot have a real democracy so long as we have domesticating education for half the nation’s school children—children of the working class.  Counts referred to empowering education for children of the working class as “progressive education,” but today many teachers who consider themselves progressive educators buy into meritocracy as a valid concept and strive to produce border crossers, rather than empowered working-class men and women.

In 1970 Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed popularized the term “critical literacy” (so called because of Freire’s adherence to Marxist critical theory).  Freire’s literacy programs for adults in Brazil’s slums started with raising students’ consciousness of the structural inequalities that oppressed them and preparing them, largely through literacy,  to strive for justice.  Critical reading (recognizing the author’s bias and so on) has been standard reading instruction for at least fifty years.  It is sometimes referred to as critical literacy, but it falls a little shy of education based on critical theory.  Following Allan Luke, critical literacy as an explicitly political classroom agenda for the education of working-class students, devoted to changing class relations in ways that are advantageous to the working class.  It brings Mother Jones into the classroom, not as a benign topic of study but as an inspiration and model of good citizenship.

The most enduring experiment in critical literacy for school aged children in the U.S. took place not in public schools but in Sunday schools operated by the American Socialist Party.  Socialist Sunday schools served children between age 5 and 14 in many cities, between 1900 and 1920.  Students were exposed to an abundance of working-class poetry, music, theater, and dance.  Visits from labor, community, and political leaders provided them with social capital and encouraged students to have confidence and pride in working-class values, knowledge, and beliefs.  Like Freire’s literacy campaigns, the schools aimed to raise students’ consciousness regarding the structural inequalities that oppressed them and to prepare them to strive for justice. Students were encouraged to cooperate and work hard in public school to acquire high-status knowledge, cultural capital, and high levels of literacy, not simply for their intrinsic value but as sources of power in the social-political-economic arena.  This was later dubbed Machiavellian Motivation.

Students learned that capitalism without an organized, powerful working class produces things like poverty, unemployment, unsafe work, and child labor and that these phenomena cannot be solved through individual effort. They are societal (structural) problems that demand collective solutions.  So instead of quitting a job that doesn’t pay a living wage, students learned that they should pursue collective actions like starting or joining unions.

Critical literacy has found a home in some working-class public schools today, where teachers have designed lessons that reflect the values taught in the Socialist Sunday schools of a century ago.  Consider these examples:

  • A fifth grade teacher organizes a field trip where students interview striking workers on a picket line and then write about what they learned.
  • Tenth grade students studying the forced removal of American Indians from the southeast to west of the Mississippi known as The Trail of Tears share individual accounts of times when they were oppressed because they were youths, females, minorities, and/or working-class.  In a “writing circle” they turn these accounts into a collective narrative of oppression and identify the steps they could take to prevent further oppression, like joining forces with others in the same spot and looking for powerful allies.
  • In a high school where most working-class Hispanic students take “basic” classes while affluent, white students take honors classes, some affluent white students agree to have a Hispanic student “shadow” them and to talk about their plans for after high school.  The Hispanic shadow students then compare the stark differences between their own classes and life expectations and those of their affluent classmates. This gives the Hispanic students a glimpse into structural injustice. It also illustrates Machiavellian motivation: some of the Hispanic students  later push to gain admission to honors courses.

Critical literacy educators, like Socialist Sunday school teachers, endeavor to produce three kinds of  “graduates”:

1) Working-class men and women who have the understanding and motivation to participate in collective action to improve the lot of the working class (in unions, for example)

2) organic intellectuals who are able to get a deep understanding of socialist theory and still talk to workers in a language they can understand

3 ) a particular kind of border crosser—one who will never cross a picket line or become a follower of Ayn Rand.

Critical literacy educators provide working-class students with a new kind of motivation to acquire the language and communication skills and the knowledge that will make them powerful members of a powerful working class.  That is what critical literacy is all about.  I believe students in Socialist Sunday schools would have done quite well on standardized academic achievement tests if they had them back then.

Patrick J. Finn

Patrick J. Finn is Associate Professor Emeritus of Education at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York and the author of Literary with an Attitude:Educating Working-Class Children in Their Own Self-Interest.

How the Working Class Gets Schooled

I just returned from a rousing three-day street corner teach-in called “Occupy the Department of Education,” held in Washington DC. I wanted to occupy the DOE because, for me, what started as a fairly straightforward involvement in a movement against massive education cuts in Pennsylavnia has evolved into a sense of urgency that we must reverse the damage that No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and corporate education reforms are doing to public education.

This week my nine-year old son will be “opting out” of the high stakes test given in the Pittsburgh Public Schools (the PSSA).  The test is used to grade my son’s school on its annual progress (Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by NCLB). I wrote an editorial about my decision to have my son opt out of the test, which has been seen and/or shared by at least 50,000 people in the last week. A companion piece at a lively blog called The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post is also generating considerable traffic. Apparently, I’m not the only parent who’s concerned about high stakes testing.

Many of those parents are, like me, middle class.  But the emerging movement against school reform might be even more important for the working class.

My son’s school, Pittsburgh Linden, is a magnet school in Pittsburgh’s East End, one of the wealthier parts of the city—near the universities and the hospitals. Because it’s a magnet Linden students come from at least six different zip codes and from a variety of racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. 70% of the students are African American, Asian, Hispanic, or two or more races, while the remaining third are white. About 35% qualify for the federally funded lunch program, suggesting that despite the tony neighborhood, many of the students come from poor and working-class homes.

When NCLB was enacted the rhetoric was about fixing schools that served the poorest and most disadvantaged students. But a decade into NCLB, it is clear that high stakes testing is not improving our schools. These standardized tests are being used to assess the student, the teacher and the school, and depending on the outcome, they may be punished or rewarded.

But even before any formal punishments, these tests are forcing a narrowing of the curriculum. At Linden and at thousands of public schools across the country, much of the school day is devoted to pre-tests, practice tests, test prep, and test taking strategies. State budgets cuts have made the situation even worse, and the combination has left my son and many others without band this year (he was going to start the clarinet), and with many fewer hours of library and music each week. Middle-class kids (including my own son, who is learning piano) might get music lessons outside of school, but for working-class students, the narrowed curriculum cuts off their opportunities.

About a week before the testing starts, the hallways and classrooms are often stripped bare. The PSSA guidelines require that everything that could reveal an answer to the test be taken down or covered up, and sometimes schools, wary of cheating accusations, go overboard. One teacher was asked to cover the clock in her classroom because it was a “number line.”

Before the test many schools emphasize the importance of rest and good nutrition. I received a robo-call from the school district last week admonishing me to make sure my kids went to bed early on Sunday night. Some schools hold pep rallies for the PSSA and show videos using the soundtrack of Rocky to get the kids excited about doing well on the test. Why? Because the fate of the school depends on how the students score on this single test.

Once the test starts the atmosphere of cheerleading is over. Bathroom breaks are only permitted at certain times, and I have read reports of kids who were too scared to ask for permission to use the bathroom and who sat in their chairs and wet their pants during the test. One teacher wrote me to tell me about a child who opened her test and threw up on it because she was so nervous. She still had to take the test because it had been “opened.”

Increasingly, corporate education reformers (folks like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee) want teacher evaluations, firings, promotions, and pay to be tied to these exams. This means that teachers, who most people would assume are middle class, are increasing forced into a more working-class position (as Michael Zweig has argued) in which they have less control over what they teach or how they are credentialed and evaluated.

So what are the consequences of high stakes tests on poor and working-class children? Numerous studies (such as this one) have shown that parents’ income is the largest predictor of how a student will perform on a standardized test. According to these studies, teachers rarely have more than a 10-15% influence over how an individual student will perform. In other words, lower-income children are handicapped out of the gate. And so are their schools. It also means that poor and working-class children are more likely to have their schools closed.

School closings often have a devastating impact on the communities that are centered around them, and they don’t improve academic opportunities for the students at the closed school. This study, for example, argues that students who are assigned to schools farther away from home participate less in after school programs, and their parents are less involved.

Ironically, perhaps, schools themselves can provide a sense of home to the poorest students. One study found that 10% of students in a Chicago school that was closed were homeless. What was it like for them to lose their homes, and then their schools? And what will happen to them in the fall if Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel succeeds with his plan to close another 50 schools?

Schools that serve the least privileged students in the US are also the ones most  likely to have young, less-well trained, and inexperienced teachers. Programs like Teach for America lead to what experts call the “churn and burn” phenomenon, in which idealistic young teachers are sent to low-income, often low-performing schools and just as quickly leave the profession—forever.

In other words, the gnarly combination of high stakes tests, recessionary state budget cuts, schools closings and the de-professionalization/de-unionization of the teaching profession are hurting poor, minority and working class children the most.

But a growing number of students, parents and educators are fighting back. On April 9th, Newark high school students are walking out of their classrooms to confront the politicians who are cutting the education budget. High school students in Rhode Island are boycotting their high stakes tests. Teachers in Seattle are refusing to administer a standardized test called the MAP. Established groups like Parents across America and a wonderful new organization, The Network for Public Education, are working at the local and the national level to dismantle NCLB. Respected national education leaders like Diane Ravitch and Mark Naison are helping to turn the tide against a decade of harmful testing and meaningless reform.

One of the most inspiring people to speak at Friday’s protest was Chicago Teachers Union leader Karen Lewis, who linked her union’s 2012 successful strike to the upcoming Chicago school closings and to high stakes testing.  Towards the end of her remarks, Lewis asked why we keep submitting to the game of high stakes tests when they serve us so poorly. “What is the story that the winners tell the losers to keep them playing the game?”

I’m done playing the game, and I’m ready to change the story. Will you join me?

Kathy M. Newman

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

“By My Lights” and “Studies Have Shown”

Recently while writing an article, I found myself using an old-time expression I don’t think I have ever used in writing before: “by my lights,” which means something like “in my view.”  It’s an expression I heard a lot growing up in a working-class family decades ago and still hear among the old-timers of my generation.  Though I sometimes use it in conversation, I thought it might be obscure and/or too colloquial for readers, but the meticulous editor of the piece let it pass without comment.

Then as I read Barbara Jensen’s new book Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, I thought about notions I’ve had for some time about a distinct working-class epistemology that is often more complex and sophisticated than the standard educated middle-class one.   Reading Classes lays out in detail what Jensen sees as competing class cultures, with special emphasis on how middle-class cultural imperialism in schools (from kindergarten to graduate school) makes life and learning more difficult for working-class students.

Though the book is rich in showing oppositions between categorically distinct working-class and middle-class cultures, Jensen’s effort is to put the cultures into dialogue with each other so that they can benefit from each other’s strengths and compensate for their contrary weaknesses.  Firmly based in a memoir of her own experience as a working-class girl who became (somewhat accidentally) middle class, Jensen draws on a wide range of social science studies to supplement her own direct observation as a counseling psychologist, especially of mixed-class couples and high school students.  In doing that, she brings together what I take to be contrary but potentially complementary epistemologies, captured perhaps by the expressions “by my lights” and “studies have shown.”

In my undergraduate classes, I have long warred against the usage “studies have shown” because of its passive-voice exaggeration of the certainty of conclusions drawn from social science studies.  I read a fair number of such studies, and I have yet to come upon one whose data would not support more than one interpretation, no matter how rigorous the research methodology.   I encourage students to use somewhat more awkward phrasing that acknowledges that fallible human beings are actively drawing conclusions from their study – e.g., “researchers [or even “experts”] who have made systematic studies of X have concluded that . . .” Studies do not “find” things or “show” things.  People do.

Systematic studies by people who are knowledgeable about what has been thought and said in their discipline or field of study should be given greater weight than my or my students’ off-hand impressions based on our direct observation and experience.  But, like our off-hand impressions, studies are products of creative human thought.  And one of my off-hand impressions is that one out of three times when the expression “studies have shown” is used it actually means “shut the fuck up.”  That is, it is an educated middle-class bullying tactic to close off discussion by an appeal to authority.

At least as it is reported in both mainstream and, especially, progressive media, this often seems to be the case with disputes about teaching climate change and evolution in public schools.  Without discounting the ideological power politics of local school boards, I don’t see why popular skepticism about scientific findings (even in the natural sciences) does not present opportunities for educating students about the values and procedures of scientific methods, let alone for the exercise and development of critical thinking.   In any case, dismissing and thereby disrespecting popular skepticism strengthens that skepticism – or, rather, has a tendency to turn skepticism into ideologically rigid resistance.   Thus, my war on “studies have shown” in undergraduate general education courses is part of gaining students’ respect for such studies by requiring them to think about the conclusions experts have derived from them – and not simply learn to repeat “what studies have shown.”

On the other hand, in my experience working-class adults have a strong tendency to give too much weight to their own direct observation and experience.  There is a clear strength to this, as they are often very complex interpreters of what they have seen and lived.  But it can often cause them to discount the value of “book-learning” and “abstractions,” and it can be difficult for them to articulate their interpretations of their direct observation and experience in a mixed-class, mixed-race, mixed-everything public setting.  On the plus side, though, “by my lights” is one of several expressions whereby people acknowledge that not only is their own observation and experience necessarily limited – that is, they know they’re only seeing or feeling one small part of a massive elephant – but that they also are bringing their own unique framework, their way of seeing and thinking, to their report/interpretation of that experience.  And, in most cases, the expression invites others to share how they see things by their lights while firmly asserting the value of one’s own lights.  That is, I fancy that there is a grassroots working-class relativism that thinks and lives within an experientially based subjectivity that claims a large space (often too large, in my view) for belief and faith, but that also sees a path to truth in inter-subjective dialogue – usually looking for confirmation, but existentially open to correction and refinement by how others read their different experiences.

The educated middle-class, on the other hand, while officially recognizing a thorough-going epistemological relativism (“observation interferes” even in physics), has a strong tendency to overestimate the number and certainty of “known facts,” to confuse “evidence” with “proof,” and to try to “escape” from belief through the use of rigorous methodologies that can overcome or get beyond “subjective biases.”  The whole project of the sciences (social as well as natural) is to design and implement methods that get researchers free not only of their own subjectivity, but of all subjectivity so that they can “find” objective truth.  These efforts can sometimes be quixotic and are often highly disingenuous, but over the past several centuries they have compiled an impressive array of “known facts” that could not have been derived from undisciplined sharing of beliefs and experiences.  Though the arts and humanities operate very differently, placing much more emphasis on the interpretation of direct experience, interior as well as exterior, we generally respect and pay deference to “scientific truth” without thinking that it is all there is.   But we too tend to overestimate how large what is known is and the degree of certainty with which it is known.

If I had my way, there would be more experimentation with putting these two contrary, but potentially complementary epistemologies together.  Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes is not the first to do that within Working-Class Studies, but it is the most thorough and comprehensive (and admirably risky) attempt so far.   There are more such efforts in progress.  Christine Walley, for example, who spoke at last year’s How Class Works conference, will soon publish Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago.  Walley calls it an “autoethnography.” The book begins with her childhood recollections of the day her father lost his job when Wisconsin Steel shut down forever, and Walley uses anthropological methods to understand the long arm of consequences deindustrialization continues to visit not only on her family and its neighborhood but on a whole world of meanings and relationships that extend well beyond.

By my lights, these and other working-class studies have shown that there is a lot more to life and learning than is dreamt of in an exclusively middle-class philosophy.  But that’s true of a working-class one as well.  Cross-class coalitions, besides being crucial to our politics going forward, have a vast, nearly untapped potential for cultural sharing — not just of information and ideas, but of different ways of knowing.   With Reading Classes and Exit Zero we are better able to tap some of that potential.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Why College Costs Are Rising, and What Not To Do About It

When Rick Santorum called President Obama a “snob” for urging every American to get at least some college education, the comment drew lots of media attention.  But Santorum’s quip is a sideshow.  The center stage of the political debate over higher education has to do with costs and accountability, and the challenges to colleges and universities are coming from all sides.  Conservatives lament the leftist ideological influence of college professors – an old, old claim that’s easy to either ignore or refute.  Obama’s proposal for cutting federal funding to universities that don’t control costs has more troubling and complicated implications, especially for working-class schools and students.

Those who work with working- and poverty-class students see the effects of rising college costs every day.  I heard it just last week from students in one of my classes, complaining about the difficulty of balancing 30-plus hours a week of physically- and psychologically-exhausting food service work with the reading load of an English major.  When I made my usual speech about slowing down, how they don’t have to hurry toward graduation and would get more out of their education if they took fewer courses each term, they gave me a quick lesson in financial aid: loans and grants often require full-time enrollment, and the college prices tuition in a way that saves them money if they load up on courses.  That explains the phantom students on my class lists, people who register and never attend class, just because they have to fill their schedules.  Given the choice between loans and a better GPA, they take the money and the Fs.

Rather than taking funding away, perhaps the Department of Education course revise the policies for financial aid to encourage students to attend part-time, removing the incentive to take more classes than they can handle at one time?  Maybe universities could price tuition in a way that reflected the realities of working students’ lives? The system seems to be set up to ensure that students will fail, instead of creating the conditions for success.

However, cutting funds to schools if they fail to keep costs down seems counterproductive.  If costs are rising, doesn’t it seem like we should focus on finding ways to make it more affordable to more people? For example, we could significantly expand policies and programs (like Pell Grants) that help make higher education possible for working-class students.  That seems like a no-brainer, and it would be if only we were having a serious conversation about why college costs are going up.  Yes, as the Daily Kos noted after Santorum’s “what a snob” speech, one problem is the decline in state funding, which is real and significant.  But colleges have seen the operating costs increase for a variety of reasons, some of which may help students, while others deserve real scrutiny.

One contributing factor is the campus building boom of the last decade.  Even when, as with new athletic and wellness facilities here at Youngstown State, the construction of new buildings is paid for by state capital investments or special fundraising efforts, new facilities require on-going staffing, equipment, maintenance, and utility costs.  University leaders claim that successful recruiting requires fancy new dorms and fitness centers, but I have to wonder whether temporary enrollment growth balances out with the permanent costs of keeping those buildings heated, cleaned, and so on.

Some believe that the culprit in rising costs is faculty salaries.  Just yesterday, in a Washington Post opinion piece, David Levy repeated the canard that faculty are incredibly overpaid because our middle-class salaries buy only a few hours of teaching time per week. When I testified before an Ohio Senate committee about the state’s anti-union bill in 2011, one of the senators explained that he supported the bill, which would have banned collective bargaining for faculty, because he was concerned about the cost of college.  Isn’t it true, he insisted, that the cost of college is going up because of the incredibly lucrative salaries of faculty?

It’s easy to scoff at such claims, and while both Levy and the State Senator are clearly wrong, it is true that faculty salaries have increased over time. The numbers can look dramatic, so we make an easy target.  When I started at YSU 22 years ago, Assistant Professors came in at $28,000 a year.  My new colleagues now begin with salaries a little more than $50,000 a year.  On the surface, it seems like faculty are making out like proverbial bandits, but of course, $28,000 in 1990 calculates as about $48,000 in 2012 dollars. So we’re still among the lowest-paid public university faculty in the state. And like many of our colleagues at public universities, we’re actually losing ground, not only because of inflation but also because, under pressure from conservative politicians and proposals like Ohio Senate Bill 5, we now pay significantly more towards health care and pensions.  During negotiations here last summer, we calculated that changes in how we pay for health care would cost the typical faculty member around $5000 a year.

If anyone were really concerned about personnel costs, they’d look at administrators and staff. While the pattern has leveled off in recent years, the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that for the first decade of this century, college administrators saw their salaries increase at a rate of about 4% annually.  And not only do administrators cost more – look at the incredible growth in university presidents’ salaries – there are now more of them.  As Benjamin Ginsburg explains in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the Administrative University (Oxford UP, 2011), the ranks of administrators and staff have grown much faster than the faculty – 85% for administrators and 240% for staff, compared with 51% growth in the number of faculty between 1975 and 2005. In fact, many universities are cutting back on faculty, relying increasingly on part-time and limited-term faculty, who cost less. Some, like YSU, are also cutting lower-paid staff.  YSU has cut clerical and maintenance positions, slowing down a wide range of support services that have a direct effect on students’ experiences. If state and federal leaders want to see college costs cut, perhaps they should ask schools to justify the size of their administrative staff.  How many Vice Presidents does a University need?  How many Associate Provosts?  Faculty and students are doing more with less these days, while over in the administration building, they seem to be doing less with more.

It’s worth noting that some of the cost increases are worthwhile, because they contribute to students’ learning. Many campuses have expanded programs aimed at helping the increased numbers of working-class students coming to college, many of whom are succeeding because of peer support, tutoring, and other programs.  Addressing the needs of working-class students also requires other costs.  For example, while wealthier students bring their own computers to campus, working-class institutions have to provide access to technology, another piece of the learning puzzle that generates on-going costs, especially as faculty develop smarter ways of using digital pedagogies.   As government bodies push for cost cutting, they need to recognize that difference between expenses that help students and those that don’t.

Obama’s policy has good intentions, and it seems designed to appeal to families that are struggling to pay for college. Unfortunately, it’s too broad-brushed to consider the complexity of college costs, and it may well contribute to widespread misunderstandings about colleges as non-productive institutions that focus more on increasing their profits – as if public universities were ever money-making operations! — than on educating students.

Worse, the policy may not work in ways that really help working-class students.  Many schools will respond as YSU has: by cutting support staff, replacing full-time faculty with temporary and part-time instructors, blaming faculty for increased costs rather than acknowledging the costs associated with new facilities or extra administrators, and generally undermining the quality of education for the all students, especially those who are working all those extra hours now and taking on long-term debt for their futures in order to be here.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Against Pursuing Excellence

I am not against excellence.  I just think it’s over-rated as an aspiration.  In fact, I think aspiration itself may be over-rated.

When I see excellence — when I’m competent to recognize it (and in many fields, like science and opera, I am not) — it is thrilling and heartening, as a friend once said, to realize what the species is capable of at its best.  Excellence is by definition rare, and the kind of excellence that thrills, rarer still.  It is not just a little better than “good.”  It’s way better in a way that stuns ordinary expectations, and expands them.  So the more excellence there is in the world, the better.

But that doesn’t mean we should pursue it.  First, doing so has a strong tendency to lead to a wicked combination of hypocrisy and lower standards.  As a professor at a fourth tier university that has recently scrambled up to the third tier, I’ve sat through a lot of commencements where speakers have tried to inspire graduates to “always pursue excellence, and never settle for second best.”  I love that university in an immoderate way, and have from my first day of teaching there.  I love the students too.  But they are not pursuing excellence, and they’ll have to work very hard, with great discipline and persistence to get something close to “second best.”  I’m confident that most of them will, that their education has improved their chances, and that most of them will appreciate getting into the neighborhood of the second best, but I fear for those who genuinely pursue excellence and even more for those who think they have achieved it.

Second, there is no evidence that pursuing excellence actually leads to it.   Based on the testimony of many great artists, for example, excellence more often happens if not by accident, then through a combination of circumstances where the conscious pursuit of excellence is not one of the circumstances.  An extraordinary talent or “gift” is often one of those circumstances, as is determination and focus in pursuit of a specific goal – curing cancer or perfectly expressing a complex feeling or thought in the hopes that others might recognize it.  “Things just all seem to come together” in a way – luck, strategic help from friends and colleagues, a muse or collection of muses — that is beyond the will of the artist or scientist or carpenter or statesperson.

My main gripe with pursuing excellence, however, is the way it necessarily encourages competition among individuals.  Excelling means measuring ourselves against others, and this tends to undermine our focus on doing a good job. That is, trying to excel can distract us from what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, as we pause to rank ourselves against others doing something similar.

Most of us figure out fairly early in life that excellence is not in our range of capability, but the drumbeat of a culture that insists on excelling and not being second best leads us to try anyway.  Sometimes this trying makes us better than we might otherwise be, but more often, I’m convinced, it leads to an unhealthy concern to out achieve others, to feel diminished by their accomplishments, and to be constantly reevaluating our self-worth in relation to our perception of others.  This leads to a certain broken sadness, if not clinical depression, alternating with an exaggerated and exaggerating tooting of our own horn – ostensibly to impress others, but mostly to approve ourselves.  This high-stakes competitiveness with others takes our eye off the ball, undermining whatever chance we may have of achieving excellence, which in most human endeavor requires a little help from our friends.

Though probably overdrawn in this brief space, such a phenomenon is characteristic, in my view, of professional middle-class culture in early 21st century America.  The original ethic of professionalism was to establish certain minimum standards for an emerging profession and then gradually improve them.  It was a collective endeavor to elevate the level of the profession, which elevation would help not only those in the profession, but everybody — indeed, it would advance the species. (These were standard claims of middle-class professionals in the Progressive Era.  See From Higher Aims to Hired Hands for how even the professionalization of business management was originally rooted in such claims.)  Status was always an (overly) important concern, but it wasn’t atomistically individualized the way it is now.  Today’s resume-builders often actively disrespect their profession in order to individually stand out in their superior pursuit of excellence.

Fortunately, working-class culture is still a healthy, if beleaguered, antidote to the dominant middle-class one, and I have been fortunate to spend my life teaching working adults who “just want to be average” in a program that is reliably good at helping them achieve that goal.  Working hard and doing a good job, “pulling my weight” and “doing my part” – not pursuing excellence – are the core motivating values that working-class people feel bad about when they don’t live up to them.  Being outstanding is not only eschewed, it is actively feared, and the culture has subtle and not so subtle sanctions against it.

The problem is not only that the dominant middle-class culture is more dominant than ever or that its characteristic individualism is turning into an other-directed caricature of itself.  Rather, the extreme levels of income inequality we have now reached make the working-class way dramatically more economically punishing.  My students often have to at least mimic a phony pursuit of excellence if they are to provide for themselves and their families.  The worse things get, the more they are told not to sell themselves short, to set their sights high, to aspire to become whatever you want to be (unless, of course, you just want to be yourself).  Our crazy levels of economic inequality also foster a winner-takes-all culture. Winners should get not just all the honor and the glory, but most of the money and the power.  Losers should aspire to do better.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger document the devastating effects income inequality has on everything from reduced social mobility and health (both physical and mental) to higher levels of crime, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and drug and alcohol addiction.  One of the most surprising results they found is that the more unequal a country is, the higher the aspirations children report and the larger the gap between aspirations and actual opportunities.  Conversely, the more equal a country’s incomes are, the more children report low aspirations – while doing better in education and all other indicators of social well-being.  The correlations Wilkinson and Pickett found among the richest countries in the world allow the conclusion that high aspirations lead to lower educational achievement – that is, that pursuing excellence actually makes a society less likely to achieve it.  This accords with my own observation and experience.  A culture that encourages people to “work hard and do a good job” leads to greater personal integrity, better mental health, and higher actual performance levels than the false counsel to “pursue excellence and never settle for second best.”

Jack Metzgar

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.