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.

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9 Responses to Critical Literacy in Working-Class Schools

  1. Pingback: Autobiography or Memoir? | Blue Horizon

  2. Pingback: Critical Literacy in Working-Class Schools | Wo...

  3. hbrowning22 says:

    Reblogged this on What I Learned While Running and commented:
    “School success is tied to systematic inequalities that persist from generation to generation.”


  4. Aart Bijl says:

    Great stuff! Why do people take so long to overcome their misunderstandings of how education actually works, and preserves fragmentation in society? Perhaps the people who are in a position to change this have an interest in preserving fragmentation.


  5. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I have always found strict adherence to meritocracy cruel and sadistic. The new science of epigenetics validates decades of epidemiological research that shows the single best predictor of educational achievement and lifelong physical and mental health is the mother’s income level at the time of a child’s birth.

    Epigenetics has established that high levels of maternal stress hormones during critical stages of development (in the womb and during years 1-3) affect the the way genes express themselves as enzymes. Many conditions, including obesity, mood disorders and ADHD, are triggered by exposure to high levels of cortisol during this period.

    It’s ludicrous to claim that children start kindergarten “equal” when we have known for 20-30 years that they don’t, usually for reasons (such as poverty, stress and inadequate nutrition during pregnancy) that are totally beyond the parents’ control.

    I have a whole section on capitalism’s effect on health in my free ebook 21st century revolution. I also include sections on why working class activists are more likely to be attracted to the Tea Party and Patriot Movement, and related issues – such as the issue of dogmatic nonviolence and leftist opposition to gun control.

    The book is a free download from


  6. Joe Heyman says:

    The theme is of considerable importance, and the posting is thoughtful. There are, however, significant challenges in doing this. This article develops one set of issues, as expressed in the title: .
    The limits of critical pedagogy: teaching about structural obstacles to students who overcame them
    Luykx, Aurolyn; Heyman, Josiah
    International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Volume 26, Number 3, 1 March 2013 , pp. 346-368.
    It is behind a paywall; people who would like a copy for individual use can email me at jmheyman (at) .
    Joe Heyman


  7. Greg Queen says:

    Some of your members may be interested in this conference being held at Wayne State University.

    The Rouge Forum will be having its annual conference at Wayne State University in the College of Education with presentation being held on May 17th and 18th.

    Here is a link to the conference schedule with descriptions of keynote and featured speakers along with the names, titles and descriptions of breakout session.

    The Rouge Forum is education activist group which has its roots in Detroit and Wayne State University.

    The Rouge Forum brings together academic presentations and panel discussions, performances, community building, and cultural events. This conference will center on such questions as
    • Overall, what do we need to know and what do we need to do to win against corporate education reform in our classrooms?
    • In what ways are our classrooms, schools, universities, unions, etc occupied by capitalism, the military, racism, inequality? And what do these occupations demand from us pedagogically? What are the obstacles that must be overcome to achieve democratic education?
    • What can we learn from Wisconsin 2011, the Occupy Movement, and the Chicago Teacher’s Strike to make us smarter and stronger in our struggle against corporate education reform?
    • How do we educate to liberate ourselves from the impact of empire? How do we push back against the imperializing of our classrooms and communities? How do we occupy our classrooms, schools universities, and unions and communities in an effort to create education that is in the public interests?
    Please feel free to share widely.

    For more information, email Greg Queen at


  8. Roy Wilson says:


    In general, I agree with your analysis.

    I wonder whether and how an individual WC student chooses their educational future. In particular, what is the primary source of variability in the responses of WC students to schooling that does NOT promote critical literacy: social or individual?


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