By Patrick J. Finn
Associate Professor Emeritus of Education, University at Buffalo, State University of New York
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. (more…)