Just Not Posh Enough? Social Mobility and the “Class Ceiling”

This autumn marks twenty-five years since I went to college at Durham University in the North-East of England. Durham is the third oldest university in England, and one of its colleges is housed in the Norman castle on top of a hill. It’s a beautiful place in which to learn, and, because of its history and atmosphere, it is a popular destination for elite schooled teenagers who have failed to get in to either Oxford or Cambridge. When I was there, the ratio of kids from fee-paying as opposed to state schools was something like two to one, though it felt even higher. Through the three years I studied there as an undergraduate I became increasingly aware of how class worked, not only through my studies but by observing class at work day in day out. From my first day, I saw privileged kids ferried by their parents along the narrow medieval streets in large new cars and then mix effortlessly at welcome events through a mixture of charm and pre-forged social networks between their former schools. This engrained privilege and sense of entitlement developed through their college days – the officer training events they attended, debating societies, and the exciting holidays they enjoyed during vacation times (I spent mine working ten hours a day in a tin big box store on the retail park outside my hometown selling washing machines). The finishing touch, however, came when blue-chip legal, accountancy and financial services companies arrived for the annual ‘milk round’ employment fair and hoovered up the elite students to go and work in the City of London.

I was reminded of my time in Durham the other day by a report published by the UK Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on the way social class prevents working-class, and increasingly even many lower middle-class kids from joining such blue-chip firms. The report sparked the usual round of quick and dirty stories in the UK media, such as one in the Guardian under the strapline ‘How to pass the posh test: ‘Do you know Marmaduke Von Snittlebert?’. Laughing at the upper classes has its place – I had many opportunities to do this at college – but the hundred or so pages of the report offer some important insights into class privilege and how it has been firming-up rather than being broken-down over the last quarter-century. The report uses the term the ‘class ceiling’, borrowed from two young sociologists at the London School of Economics, to describe how class elites are tightening their grip on the best jobs and how, in spite of the best efforts of some recruiters, class continues to trump modest attempts to curb discrimination, intended or otherwise.

The report suggests that despite efforts to increase social mobility over the last ten to fifteen years or so – mainly through the expansion of higher education, largely by funnelling working-class kids to second and third tier colleges – elite firms have become less representative of the general population, with increasing proportions of recruits drawn from privileged socio-economic backgrounds and from a narrower range of the top universities where the majority of students come from fee-paying schools rather than from state education. Cabinet Office research shows that recent cohorts of lawyers and accountants, for example, are more likely to come from families with significantly above-average incomes. The report makes clear that in spotting ‘talent’ such firms define what they are after in terms of ‘drive’, ‘resilience’, ‘strong communication skills’ and above all ‘confidence’ and ‘polish’. All of these attributes, the report says, map readily onto middle-class status and socialisation. Recruiters tend to pass over those with working-class accents and dispositions in favour of ‘people like us’. The result is that the top accountancy firms offer up to 70 percent of their jobs to graduates who attended selective state or fee-paying schools, schools that educate only four percent and seven percent of the population as a whole. Buttressing this situation is the fact that the best firms are drawing on a narrower group of universities – the so called Russel Group, which equates to the US Ivy League. Some really elite firms bypass even these institutions and recruit only at Oxford or Cambridge.

The report brilliantly exposes how this situation is being made worse on both demand and supply sides, as students from lower socio-economic backgrounds decide not to apply for places or even internships – even paid ones – with top firms, recognising that the barriers to gaining a place are just too high for people like them. Even earlier in their educational careers, students with good grades from these same less advantaged groups tend to apply to lower level universities than their qualifications would allow.

While the insights from the report are discouraging, it has drawn attention to the class bias in the recruitment practices of elite firms. At long last, this report demonstrates that discrimination on the basis of class is an issue alongside other forms of discrimination. In the midst of further rounds of austerity imposed by the newly elected Conservative administration, it’s heartening to see terms like the ‘class ceiling’ appearing in government language. This overt attention to class suggests a real change from what I learned at Durham. If ever one tried to highlight class privilege, the topic of conversation was quickly changed, excuses made, and appeals to meritocracy sounded. For as loud as the voices of the privileged were that surrounded me at Durham, class was the thing that dare not speak its name.

Tim Strangleman

What Works — and What Doesn’t — about Obama’s Free Community College Proposal

In this week’s State of the Union address, President Obama will once again argue that higher education is, as he put it in a preview video, “the key to success for our kids in the 21st century.” To increase access, he has proposed to make community college free for two years for students who are “willing to work for it” by maintaining a 2.5 GPA and attending school at least half time. Along with helping “our kids” go to college, he notes, the program would give adults “the opportunity to constantly train themselves for better jobs, better wages, better benefits.” The concept is modeled on the Tennessee Promise, which is in turn based on a tnAchieves, a private scholarship program that supported almost 12,000 students in its first six years and led to a dramatic increase in the number of degrees awarded at participating schools.

Obama’s proposal recognizes two realities: that money is a barrier to entry into higher education and that community colleges play an important role in helping poor and working-class people prepare for jobs that require specialized training. Reducing the cost of going to community college and encouraging students to enroll in programs that lead to better jobs can move some people from precarity to stability.

Not surprisingly, critics pounced on the plan. Some argued that community colleges have a poor track record on graduation rates and on successful transfer to four-year schools. Such claims assume that low graduation rates reflect institutional failure, not the challenges and complexities of students’ lives – including working enough hours to pay tuition. Community colleges could do a better job of helping students graduate, perhaps by decreasing faculty teaching loads so they could give more attention to individual students. That’s hard to do if you’re teaching five or six courses a semester. Mentoring programs also help. Part of why tnAchieves succeeded is that along with free tuition it provided one-on-one mentoring and required students to engage in community service.

But to argue that getting more people into community college is a bad idea because too few of them will complete a degree assumes that graduation is the only thing that matters. Is having a degree better than not having it? Almost certainly, but having some college education is also better than having none, especially if students can get the education without going into debt. If a free tuition program brought more students into community colleges without setting them back financially, that would be a gain for those students even if many of them never graduated. College is not only about gaining a credential, after all. It’s about learning, and students can and do learn even when they don’t finish a degree.

Arguments about graduation rates also rely on data about completion of Associate’s and Bachelor’s degrees, but community colleges also offer certificates in a wide range of technical areas, providing targeting training for real jobs. For many students, such targeted programs offer the best opportunity for improving their employment and earnings opportunities, and if students could access these programs for free, rather than being lured into over-priced and often under-performing for-profit schools, fewer would fall into the financial trap of student loan debt. Of course, the threat to the for-profit sector is one reason some conservatives reject the proposal: as Forbes magazine warned, the proposal would “move us toward a public monopoly.”

Some critics have suggested that making community college free will attract middle-class students who could afford to pay tuition. As a Washington Post editorial asked, “If additional money can be found for education, why not direct it to those who face the highest barriers?” That’s a legitimate concern, though education commentator Richard Kahlenberg argues that bringing more socioeconomic diversity into community colleges represents a socioeconomic version of Brown vs. Board of Education for higher education. It could reduce the “separate but unequal” class segregation of higher education, in which poorer students attend community colleges and better off students go directly to four-year schools. He also suggests that bringing more middle-class students into community colleges would give those schools more political capital, since “programs for poor people tend to be poorly funded. And as the community-college student population has grown poorer, so has the ability to garner adequate educational resources.”

The debate continues, both in support and opposition, but most commentaries ignore two key problems. First, as Jack Metzgar and I have written here several times, while higher education usually does improve the economic opportunities for working-class individuals, it’s an inherently individual fix that ignores the larger problems that drive economic inequality: low wages for the majority of jobs, which require little or no education, and declining wages for almost everyone, including college grads. A College Board report touting the economic benefits of higher education includes a chart showing that for most workers, regardless of their education, wages have declined in real dollars since 1971. In a few categories – women with Bachelor’s degrees and men with advanced degrees – wages in 2011 are about what they were in 1971. Everyone else has seen a drop, including about a $10,000 fall for men with four-year degrees. So while Obama, the College Board, and others are right that people improve their earning potential by getting a degree, such aspirational rhetoric too often distracts us from the larger and more challenging discussion of how to ensure that all workers earn a decent wage.


The other problem is simpler and more significant: the proposal will probably never become policy. It will cost an estimated $60 billion over ten years, and one-fourth of funds must come from the states. Neither the current Congress nor state legislatures will allocate that kind of money to higher education. According to the American Council on Education, state funding of higher education declining, and if the trend they traced starting in 1980 continues, “average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059.” So much for making college free, or even affordable.

Despite all of this, I’m heartened by the debate over Obama’s proposal, because it’s doing exactly one thing that Kahlenberg suggests is needed: bringing fresh attention to the sector of higher education that serves the most working-class students. Some of that attention is critical, but the discussion raises important questions about the purposes of education, the interests and needs of poor and working-class students, and the challenges and potential of our working-class colleges.

Sherry Linkon

A Tale of Two Universities: Class Differences in Higher Ed

Two years ago, after 22 years of teaching mostly working-class students at Youngstown State University, I moved to Georgetown University, where most of my students come from very privileged backgrounds. Many people have asked about the differences between the two groups of students. Most seem to assume that students at Georgetown are significantly better – and more satisfying to teach – than those at YSU. As with anything, though, it’s complicated.

In some ways, teaching at Georgetown is easier than it was at Youngstown. But that’s not because the students are smarter or more capable. It’s all about privilege. Although about 12% of Georgetown students come from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds, more than 40% come from families that can afford around $50,000 a year in tuition and board. At YSU, tuition is less than $8000 a year and 96% of students receive financial aid. Most also work to help pay their tuition, often more than 20 hours a week, and usually in food service or retail jobs. To save money, they live at home, even if that means a 50-mile drive to campus every day. To take advantage of a flat tuition rate over a certain number of credit hours per term, they take as many classes each term as they can. Add together the hours of work and commuting plus five or six courses, and it’s no wonder they didn’t have time to complete the reading, do more than a rushed first draft of a paper, or participate in campus activities.

At Georgetown, many fewer students wrestle with the same challenges. Nearly all of them live on campus, and while they miss their families, most are too far from home to even consider helping their families with things like babysitting or going home for weddings or funerals of neighbors or second cousins, as working-class students do when they go to college close to home. But that doesn’t mean that Georgetown students aren’t busy. Indeed, many Georgetown students embrace a culture of busy-ness (as seen in a student-made video that circulated last year, with the telling title “Sleep When You’re Dead”), but theirs is a chosen busy-ness, not a matter of survival, as it is for so many YSU students. Instead of working and commuting, they are more likely to take extra courses to complete a second major or to devote hours to volunteering, often on social justice projects. For them, economic struggle is something to work on, not the everyday reality of their lives.

Money, time, and choice all matter, of course, but so does cultural capital. Many Georgetown students come to college already steeped in elite culture. In high school, they read and wrote papers about postmodern literature and existential philosophy. They studied multiple languages and took AP courses in half a dozen subjects. Some have worked, volunteered, or attended school in several countries. Others spoke or wrote about the pleasures of visiting museums or attending the theater with their families. All of that has prepared them well for academic success, but, as our provost noted in a blog last year, many are deeply risk-averse and, at times, a bit too good at following instructions.

YSU students bring a different kind of cultural capital into the classroom. They have first-hand experience with jobs that offer too little dignity or income, and they value higher education because they hope it will give them better choices. Others have overcome addiction, watched their parents deal with lay-offs, lived with poverty, or been to war. This makes them tough, determined, and very practical. In many cases, it also makes them suspicious of the University as an institution and doubtful about their own capabilities. Just getting to college feels like an accomplishment for some; doing well sometimes seems out of reach.

Institutional cultures reinforce students’ expectations. For most of my time there, YSU accepted anyone who graduated from high school in Ohio. While that brought in many students for whom college was a real stretch, the University also had plenty of highly qualified students who could have attended more prestigious schools. Like many working-class students, they “undermatched,” a choice that, as William G. Bowen, Matthew M. Chingos, and Michael S. McPherson suggest in Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, might actually make them less likely to graduate.  Some would have done better at a place like Georgetown, which accepts only about 17% of applicants every year, more than half of whom graduated first or second in their high school classes. Georgetown students see themselves not merely as successful but as among the best. That fosters a competitive campus culture that values excellence and high standards, which is both productive and problematic. That atmosphere creates significant stress even as it encourages students to view any grade less than an A as a failure.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, the smaller, more elite institution also devotes significant attention to advising and monitoring students. Registration is carefully managed, so students rarely take classes they don’t need, and faculty teaching first-year courses have to file midterm advisory grades. A student earning a C on a first paper will be called in for a chat with an advisor. In contrast, while YSU’s Center for Student Progress provides extensive peer mentoring and tutoring to students who are struggling, many students choose not to get help. For some, though, squeezing a mentoring session into an overloaded schedule seems impossible, while others seem to see the offer of help as evidence that they don’t really belong in college. Despite the effort, only 34% of YSU students graduate within six years. At Georgetown, almost everyone completes their degree in four years.

For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance, and that distinction matters when I think about the value of my work as a teacher. At Georgetown, students say “thank you, Professor” at the end of every class, but I think I made a bigger difference at YSU, where students who didn’t expect it got excited about ideas and gained confidence in themselves as thinkers and writers. They brought working-class experience and perspectives into the classroom, and they reminded me to always connect their learning with their lives.

In that way, they taught me. As I wrote 15 years ago in the introduction to Teaching Working Class, I got involved in working-class studies because I wanted to understand my students better. My privileged background makes me more like my Georgetown students, but my working-class students, together with colleagues in working-class studies, have taught me not only about how class works for those from the working class but also how it shapes the perspectives of the more privileged students I teach now. They also taught me how important it is to teach about class to students who think it doesn’t affect them – regardless of what class they come from.

Sherry Linkon

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.