I would like to share a reference to an article I distributed to several Nord Family Foundation trustees a few years ago when it first appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2005. The article is by Adrie Kusserow and Professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at St. Michael’s College in Vermont.
It is I suggest a must-read for anyone in philanthropy or private institution that is involved with improving schools. We must be mindful of the values we bring to the table when hoping to improve schools. We must be careful to recognize the sources when our efforts are met with suspicion and even derision.
Professor Kusserow’s research focuses on the role of class in schools. The study is conducted around one simple word, “Individualism.” Members of three very different economic neighborhoods throughout the greater New York City area were asked to define that word in relation to their own identifications with that concept, and how that concept is reflected in how their children should be reared and educated.
Through my fieldwork in Manhattan and Queens, I identified two styles of individuals: a “soft” upper-middle-class individualism, which focuses on the cultivation and expression of unique feelings, thoughts, ideas and preferences and a “hard” working-class individualism which focuses on the cultivation of self-reliance, perseverance, determination, protectiveness and toughness. These two styles of individualism aren’t rigid boxes; people of all social classes can and do fluidly use each style. However the working-class Queens residents in my research learned more toward a hard individualistic style, just as the upper-middle-class Manhattan residents tended more toward soft individualism.
“Class,” she describes,
…penetrate(s) the core of our being, down to the way we hold our forks, tell our stories, console or discipline our children, talk to our neighbors, remember our pasts, or view our futures. Social class is not simply shown and taken off in the manner of a Harvard degree or a gold wristwatch, but lived in the flesh, held in the cells of one’s own self-image and one’s visions of life’s possibilities.
But as Harvard assistant professor of sociology Prudence Carter points out:
School is predicated on the values and practices of the middle class and so lower and working-class kids are automatically at a disadvantage.
Included in the middle-class values and practices of school are those of soft individualism. In a few of the Head Start programs I observed, for example, the clash of working-class hard individualism with the more softly individualistic middle-class educational culture often manifested itself with the lower-working-class children simply being silent, as if mystified by the fairylike teacher who moved around the classroom with a constant glow and smile, showering praise upon them. When these children scuffled with each other, I saw how confused they were when their middle-class teachers took them aside and asked them to explain why they wanted to hit each other and how it made them feel. Coming from families where they were used to being spanked, shamed, or simply ignored for fighting, they seemed bewildered by this new, therapeutic way of dealing with conflicts. Working-class children may also be flummoxed by some of their more softly individualistic academic requirements. “I tell these kids to use their imagination, and they say: ‘What do you mean? I don’t have an imagination,’” says O’Neil. “It’s so strange. I can see some stony old man not having an imagination, but a 12-year-old?”
When I read this article two years ago, I was part of a community discussion on the topic of improving the quality of the public schools in the City of Oberlin, Ohio where I live. A brief word on the town would help. Although it is a City by charter, Oberlin is a small town of about 8,000 people almost of half of whom are students at the famous Oberlin College. The town divides into three broad-stroke classes – there is the professional class mainly professors and college administrators, health care professionals, lawyers and a small gathering of business people. There is a large rural/farming and trades community, and there is an interesting community of poorer families many of whom are housed in public housing projects built in the 1960’s primarily for the African-American population at the time. The African-American community in Oberlin is by no means heterogeneous, although in the schools, reference to African-American children is (mistakenly) understood to mean, “poor”.
The catalyst for the topic was a proposed tax levy to introduce laptop computers to the public schools which, for years has struggled with low outcomes on the State Achievement Tests. The blog post called “Community Diaries” allowed people to post with real names or anonymously. Most, from what I read, chose anonymity claiming that if you used your real name, “What” you post would be tainted or less important than “Who” posted.
As I watched the conversation emerge, it was clear to me that there were distinct groups of interest reflecting their concepts of what schools are for, and how children should be taught. Laptops were clearly not appealing to those from lower economic classes. These people felt there was too little discipline in the schools and children needed to be more obedient. These were primarily from people who I would assume struggle from one pay-check to the next. Their seemed to be support for the laptop initiative from the professional educated community who felt this initiative would push the community forward to much higher quality education. There was one person whose posts reflected an eagerness to find out as much as possible and she later revealed that she was running for the school board. This woman self-identified as a person from “the townships” which are located outside the city in the farmlands.
The entries validate the study that Dr. Kusserow conducted but curiously, study was conducted in three neighborhoods in New York City which is a real City! Oberlin represents the collision of several conceptual approaches to education that are shaped and determined by class and which can account for radical differences we see in schools across the country. When schools are run by school boards comprised of local community members, the more homogeneous the community, the more likely it will reflect the cultural values and biases of its members. I share it with you for your information. It leads me to believe that trying to conduct a legislative fix to create schools that will prepare students for 21st Century skills; we may be at a point where local control of schools might be a thing of the past. The role of the web and social software will add increased pressures to communities that when threatened with change, will make efforts to shut it down.
“Further, we say disrupting class with some intent. For some, class will mean social class…for too long and in far too many ways, our system of schooling has best served those who hail from homes where parents were themselves well-schooled and who support their children with adequate resources and experiences. Class is also the venue in which most of our attempts at education take place. In many ways, what goes on in these classes profoundly affects social class for good or for ill. Our nation has embarked on a commitment to education every child. No nation has ever sought to do that. The societal stakes in improving our schools are high” p. v-vi Acknowledgments.
I think there is evidence in pockets of educational innovation that appropriate use of technology to support curriculum will possibly address how class is currently influencing the way learning and understanding is conducted in classrooms in towns across the country where local control can mean more than just governance.