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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Class And Schools: From The Outside In

I enjoy reading and have been described as a voracious reader with a reverent appreciation for books. Books have long represented much more to me than what I discover within their covers. They have approximated a value beyond intellectual - approaching spiritual. By that I mean that what I have extracted from books has stimulated my self-confidence, enhanced my perceptions, expanded my social mobility, and elevated my financial standing. If the story of my life was reduced to one graphic, it would be an image of a little boy bounding up stairs made of stacks of books, leaving poverty behind as he heads towards a future of opportunities and possibilities.

One non-fiction book that I have read and re-read, highlighted, underlined, and repeatedly dog-eared is Class and Schools, by Richard Rothstein. I encountered the book on the reading list of the doctoral program I completed at Sage Graduate School in Albany, New York. It has been thought provoking and enriching. I highly recommend it to educators. If you are a frequent visitor to this Blog you will find references to Rothstein's work here and there. The book explains Rothstein's analysis of how social classes shape learning outcomes in our society.

This Blog entry will direct attention at the influences outside of school that impact achievement among learners inside of school. I believe the information contained in this posting can benefit educators and parents alike.

Rothstein references a number of studies which examined the impact of school on achievement. He points out that none of these research projects identified school as a major source of impact on the variation in achievement between and among learners and between and among schools. That is, the studies sought to determine the factors which contributed to different learning levels among children and to what degree the school they attended had influenced their different performance levels. Rothstein claimed: "Nonetheless, scholarly efforts over four decades have consistently confirmed Coleman's core findings: no analyst has been able to attribute less than two-thirds of the variation in achievement among schools to the family characteristics of their students." (p. 14) That reinforces the contention that two children with virtually the same innate levels of intelligence may produce widely different levels of achievement despite similar interventions in school.
Rothstein cites several different areas of influence. One study demonstrated the strong relationship between the number of books found in the home (and other sources that promote a text rich environment)  and the learning performance of children. The more sources of reading, the higher the rate of achievement. This particular predictor of success was consistent when studied in many different countries. (p. 20) Another study examined the amount of spoken words from an adult to a child and researchers found that "on average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working-class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50% greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children." (p. 28)

Yet another research study analyzed "how often parents verbally encouraged children's behavior, and how often parents reprimanded their children. Toddlers of professionals got an average of six encouragements per reprimand. Working-class children received two. For welfare children, the ratio was reversed, an average of one encouragement for two prohibitions." (p. 28) These findings have been identified as contributors to the general achievement gap that separates these three social classes.

Furthermore, one other significant leverage point involves what experiences children have available to them outside of school hours and during the summer vacation period. Rothstein asserts that "the advantage that middle-class children gain after school and in the summer likely comes mostly from the self-confidence they acquire and the awareness they develop of the world outside their homes and immediate communities, from organized athletics, dance, drama, museum visits, recreational reading, and other activities that develop their inquisitiveness, creativity, self-discipline, and organizational skills." (p. 11)

These are just some of the important elements explaining inputs relative to outputs - how social class experiences outside of school influence performance within school. There are several different health related issues that also reflect differences between social classes that contribute to varied levels of success in school. It's a book worth reading. Of particular note, the findings of the research studies contained in the book offer suggestions for educational policy makers supporting measures such as: summer school programs, structured after school programs that combine academics with recreation (involving social skills, teamwork, conflict resolution, and leadership training); more specific and in-depth screening of young children for health and visual concerns, early intervention programs for pre-schoolers...

Of all people, I clearly do not think that achievement and potential success are cast in stone by the socio-economic status of any particular child. I grew up in a large family of seven children. Both of my parents limited their futures, and inhibited our childhoods, by dropping out of school after tenth grade. We received monthly allotments of government commodity food at home and free lunch at school. Hand-me-down clothes were generously offered by sympathetic neighbors. But I did not allow those impediments to interfere with creating my future. I did not accept the obstacles I faced as anything but temporary challenges. I did not listen to those who held diminished expectations of me based on stereotypical perceptions related to income level. But it was very difficult and required an enduring commitment and willful resilience. As a result, I wanted to learn more about what could be done for the disadvantaged outside of school to help them inside of school. Rothstein's book was extremely helpful.

These studies provide insight into critical areas within a parent's sphere of influence - regardless of social class. The advice includes: developing a text rich environment at home and modeling the benefits of reading; engaging in purposeful conversations with your children; exercising an awareness of the ratio of encouraging statements to reprimands during your interactions with children; seeking opportunities outside of school that nurture important social and recreational skills; and cultivating stimulating activities for your pre-schooler.

I'll close with a personal and daily mantra - a quote from Henry David Thoreau: (it contains three of my favorite words - dreams, imagine, and success)

If one advances in the direction of their dreams,
and endeavors to live the life they imagined,
they will encounter success unexpected in common hours.

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