Education Access | Socioeconomic Class and Child Development

This is the second in a series of posts on child development and social class, inspired by the intersecting events of my class reading and some recent interactions in my personal life. Also, this is what my final project for my American Families class is on, so I need to know this material inside and out! 

II.  Education access

Public schools are funded by property taxes. If you live in a wealthy neighborhood, your school has things like up-to-date textbooks and free computers or iPads and eReaders for the students.

Kindergartners at Westside School work on their math with iPads.

In a well-funded school district, there is money to hire highly-qualified teachers and set up smaller classrooms. Fewer students per classroom means teachers can focus more on teaching than discipline. In high schools, better funding means affordable extracurricular activities, AP courses, and college preparation assistance, but higher quality programs that are better funded and staffed.

Olympia High School students.

Olympia High School students.

If you live in a poorer area, the schools will not only lack access to the aforementioned benefits of well-funded education, but will probably also have issues with overcrowded classrooms. The teachers won’t necessarily be bad teachers, although it’s definitely true that it usually shakes out with the better-funded schools having a full staff of excellent teachers while poorly-funded schools will have a staff with a few excellent teachers and lots of apathetic or poor teachers.

Barely amusing as a movie, even worse when it's real life and your kid in the classroom.

Barely amusing as a movie, even worse when it’s real life and your kid in the classroom.

Another issue with schools in low-income areas is busing. In higher income areas, there will be more buses that are in better condition. Additionally, the strain on busing is reduced by parents who commute their kids to and from school, and by kids who get their licenses and carpool their friends.

Carpooling with friends, right?

Low income school districts, with their restricted funding, often have problems meeting the transportation needs of their students. Not only are there fewer buses, but the buses may be in disrepair. Parents who work odd shifts, or multiple jobs, are unavailable to ferry their kids to and from school on a regular basis. Neighborhoods and busy streets present danger for kids who are close enough to walk or bicycle to school. For older kids who might be able to drive to school, the prohibitive cost of driver’s education programs has made what was once considered an American right of passage into an an elite privilege.

The divisions in class and education are much more than the quality of the materials, staff, and transportation, though. For one, there’s a class difference in perception about education. Middle class and affluent (MC&A) families view college as an expected part in the progression of life. This assumption permeates every family-educational interaction:

  • Language: MC&A parents speak in a language of support and expectation regarding higher education — it’s not “if” their child goes to college, it’s “when.”
  • Behavior/ Support: MC&A parents will help their kids with homework (and monitor that the homework gets done and turned it). They’ll praise high test scores and arrange for tutoring or extra attention/ assistance when a child is having trouble in a subject. They engage with teachers, discuss their children’s progress, and agitate on their behalf to change classroom schedules or teachers that they feel are detrimental to their child’s learning. They encourage their kids to sign up for AP classes, get involved in extracurricular activities, and to retake college-entry tests if their score (even if passing) is not high enough to be competitive.
  • Teen Employment: Most parents view a teen job with approval, seeing it as an opportunity for a kid to learn responsibility and how to manage money. MC&A parents generally encourage their kids to hold jobs — in the summer, when they won’t interfere with schoolwork. MC&A parents might also encourage their kids to take internships (paid or unpaid), or other positions that look good on a college resume (if they don’t outright arrange it).
  • College Application Assistance: As mentioned in the previous entry, MC&A parents usually possess at least one higher education degree, which means they’ve been through the college application process and have an idea of the requirements. MC&A parents are able to use their own knowledge and experience with the system to guide their children through it and set them up with the best possible chance of success.

Lareau recounts these behaviors within middle class and affluent families in her text, and I have definitely seen these actions and attitudes reflected in my own family of origin.

Family celebrating graduation.

Family celebrating graduation.

The poor and working class (P&WC) individuals I know recount completely different experiences and attitudes from their parents. For example:

  • Language: College is expensive, and just getting more expensive and out of reach every day, but this is a fairly recent reality for middle class families who are beginning to question whether the debt to earnings potential ratio is even worth it. P&WC parents, however, have long viewed college as expensively out of reach. In Lareau’s observations of P&WC families, the parents rarely talked about the possibility of college, and when they did they couched the discussion in terms of “maybe” and “if everything works out“.
  • Behavior/ Support: P&WC parents are less likely to actively help their children with homework, and in some cases do not even monitor to make sure there is homework assigned, or that it is done. When low test scores occur, P&WC parents lack the time or resources to arrange for tutoring and intensive study programs. P&WC parents usually react to bad teachers, class selections, or schedules by advising their kids to suck it up and deal with it.
  • Teen Employment: High school drop out rates in low income schools are disproportionately high. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one factor is teen employment — a trend reflected in Lareau’s study. P&WC kids usually start working as soon as they can get a job. They use their income both to purchase the items their parents can’t afford to buy them, and to contribute to the household income, and they work during the school year. Often their work schedules conflict with study time or extracurricular opportunities. It’s not uncommon for P&WC kids to drop out of school in order to focus on their job.
  • College Application Assistance: P&WC usually do not have any college experience — in fact, P&WC individuals are more likely to be high school dropouts, or hold only a GED — so they lack an understanding and experience of the system that would prepare them to effectively guide their children through the process. Even when P&WC parents actively encourage their kids to attend college, they’re often unaware of the best actions to effectively facilitate that end.

Lareau gives examples in her text of each of these interactions, and the individuals I know who were raised in poor and working class households recount similar experiences and family dynamics. In some cases, additional deterrents were provided — for example, some have related stories of parents who discouraged their college aspirations by dismissing it as too expensive, warning their kids they would not help with the cost, and even mocking their kids’ attempts to discuss it.

In personal practice

John and I don’t really disagree about Kidling’s education or future at all, to be honest. We both support Kidling in whatever future he chooses. Our primary goal is to set Kidling up with the skills and resources so that whether he chooses to get certified in a skilled trade, go to college, or make his way in another manner, he is able to do so.

The biggest difference John and I have is in our valuations of higher education. John sees a college degree as essentially a really expensive piece of paper that is unfortunately necessary for entry into the white-collar workforce. Since neither the possession nor lack of a college education is an accurate indication of an individual’s intelligence level or work ethic, John thinks employers should not place so much value on a diploma unless it indicates the person has been trained in a specialized field (medicine, law, chemistry, etc.). To him, a college degree is little more than indication of someone’s financial ability to pursue a degree and/or take on massive debt.

This one costs $8.95, but it's still worthless.

This one costs $8.95, but it’s still worthless.

This used to be a source of conflict between us. My dad was a lawyer, and my mom was a political science major. Three of my four siblings acquired BA’s or higher. I place a high value on college education. My husband’s parents were both high school dropouts who discouraged him from his desire to attend college. When he echoed their opinions and devalued the worth of not only my college dreams, but (by association) the achievements of my parents and siblings, I felt silenced and angry and demeaned and unhappy.

Eventually, though, I learned to discard my knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness and actually listen to what John was saying, and I realized that while some of his devaluation of a college diploma did indeed come from his working-class upbringing, some of it was also valid. The modern higher education system is breaking down. I wish I could disagree with him, but the lifetime cost of college too often exceeds the earning potentials. Ironically, as I’ve shifted more toward the stance seeing a college diploma as an expensive but ultimately meaningless piece of paper, John has also shifted his views. Now he reluctantly acknowledges the value (to employers) of a college diploma, and he recognizes the educational and personal fulfillment gained by attending college.

Evergreen State College

Evergreen State College

Don’t get me wrong — I’m glad I went to college. It was a great opportunity, and I’ve learned a lot about American law and history. I feel like I’ve expanded my boundaries as an individual, and I’ve met some amazing people. I would love to keep going to college. I think it would be awesome to be a college professor, or a law librarian, and my professors have urged me to apply to law school or a graduate program. If it was remotely affordable, I might be willing to take on that stress. As it stands, though, I’m not willing to go through the 5-10 years of full-time work and study necessary to acquire my doctorate just so I can graduate in my 40s with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt.

And if I’m completely honest, I don’t feel any more or less prepared for my career goals than I did back in 2007, before I started on my journey through higher education. Honestly, almost everything I learned over the past few years I could have learned from a really intensive and well-put-together reading list. I took perhaps a total of four quarters that taught me new skills which may or may not be applicable in the workplace: My media studies class, my journalism classes, and the legal research courses. But now when I apply for jobs, I’ll have a Bachelor’s Degree on my resume instead of high school diploma, and that means something to employers.

You win!

You win!

College education has shifted in focus. It’s no longer primarily about educating oneself, expanding boundaries, and gaining a broader understanding of the world. Now it’s a high-debt version of a white collar trade certification. Lareau addresses issues of degree valuation, as well. She says,

“Working class parents and youth, for example, used the term ‘college’ to include both proprietary vocational training programs and research universities. Unlike middle-class parents and kids, these families had a vague understanding of the complexities of higher-education systems. Among educators, a GED is widely seen as inferior to a high school diploma … some consider it more of a certificate than a diploma. Similarly, a bachelor’s degree is accorded much higher status than a high school degree. The working-class and poor families did not have this kind of hierarchical notion of the value of a diploma. For them, all diplomas were equal.” (Lareau, 291)

She goes on to recount the disappointment of a working class father when his son dropped out of high school, and the pride and joy the father felt when the son later completed his GED. It’s a touching, although kind of sad moment. It’s touching because the dad is so proud of his son, but it’s kind of sad because it’s just a GED. I admit that I feel awful saying that, and this is an area where clearly my class privilege has colored my opinion of the value of a GED … but I do have a really hard time seeing it as something worth getting excited about, and I’m kind of ashamed I feel that way.

I think the degree valuation Lareau describes is a different perspective from what John and I have, though. John and I understand the hierarchical nature of degrees, that’s not the issue here — the issue is in terms of cost-benefit analysis. Although attending college is of value to potential employers, and it is personally and intellectually fulfilling, the expense is disproportionate to the value, especially in terms of liberal arts degrees.

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