Thursday, April 17, 2008

Class Conflict

A comment over at the "Eduwonkette" blog reminded me about a topic I've been mulling over ever since I finished reading the book Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage by Dr. Ellen Brantlinger, a professor of education at Indiana University-Bloomington.

The commenter goes by the moniker "Horacette Womann", a cute play on the 19th century education reformer. In a discussion about the recent study finding that the Teach for America (TFA) program participants outperform teachers at the same schools with traditional certification she writes:

"Could the presence of TFA'ers cause poorer performance in their non-TFA comparison group? I've worked in enough schools to see the subtle effects of 20-somethings, with freshly minted upper class degrees, unbridled idealism and enthusiasm, and voluminous vocabularies, who don't quite fit in with the general staff, many of whom graduated from Average Local College with a default degree in psych, $30k in debt, and may not have been immediately employable in any other field. TFA'ers are constant reminders that education is just a job in a dreary urban school, little more than a 30 year countdown to receiving pension benefits, with no hope to move to something more exotic as TFA'ers inevitably do."

This question of class conflict between different groups of teachers is discussed at length in Dividing Classes. Dr. Brantlinger's book is a case study the impact of class on the government-run schools in a socioeconomically diverse Midwestern city she calls "Hillsdale", presumably a pseudonym for Bloomington, IN.

Dr. Brantlinger contrasts the prevailing set of beliefs held by teachers at schools in Hillsdale's more affluent neighborhoods with those held by teachers at schools in Hillsdale's poorer neighborhoods. She calls the former "Already There" and the latter "In-the-Middle". Here's how she describes the "Already There" teachers:

"[They] largely came from out of state, were offspring of college-educated parents, had attended suburban and/or private elementary and secondary schools, and had gone to Ivy League universities or prestigious liberal arts colleges....The women were married to men employed in profession fields or business....[When asked about their own schooling,] they mentioned academic honors (salutatorian, valedictorian, honor roll, dean's list, earning a 4.0 GPA) and advanced track placements. They won spelling bees, placed first in science fairs, and were leaders in extracurricular activities."

Sounds reminiscent of the members of the TFA corps, no?

Here's Dr. Brantlinger's description of the "In-the-Middle" teachers:

"[They] had grown up in rural areas or small towns within the state, were first generation college, and had attended public universities or small religious colleges that drew mostly on a local population....Several directly used the term 'poor' to describe their parents' monetary status....Their spouses were not college educated and did not have professional careers. Some women were single parents with one salary to support their families...[When asked about their own schooling, they] generally describe less-distinguished personal academic and school leadership accomplishments. As they mentioned social rather than academic strengths, they conveyed that school was a place to be with others."

In Hillsdale, the two groups of teachers do not work side-by-side but rather are segregated into the schools predominated by students sharing their class. The TFA program, however, brings a small number of "Already There" teachers into low-income schools, creating the tension with their "In-the-Middle" colleagues described by Horacette Womann.

While Horacette Womann attributes the better comparative results of the TFA teachers to their presence demoralizing the non-TFA teachers, I suspect that different attitudes towards the purpose of education play a more significant role.

In Dividing Classes, Dr. Brantlinger compared the beliefs of the "Already There" teachers with the "In-the-Middle" ones. When asked about the purpose of school, the "Already There" teachers focused on academic achievement. Their ideal student had such traits as "intellectual curiosity", "drive", "high standards", and "high aspirations". By contrast, the "In-the-Middle" teachers stressed the social and nonacademic personal objectives of schooling and mentioned goals such as getting students to "enjoy life", "become enthusiastic and caring people", "get along with friends", and so on. Dr. Brantlinger notes that "In-the-Middle" teachers' ideal students "conformed to institutional routines and got along with peers and teachers." Specific traits mentioned included "good attitude", "respectful", "doesn't complain", "good sport", and "happy".

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with wanting children to be happy, cheerful, polite, considerate, friendly, etc. But academic achievement is important as well. As Dr. Brantlinger writes:

"I would tend to agree with the social and civic purposes of schooling named by the in-the-middle teachers. However, when this perspective is unique to teachers with low-income student populations, it must be seen as problematic. Such expressed purposes and goals are likely to correlate with less academic push of pupils than would follow from achievement-oriented perspectives....I am bothered that [low income schools'] curriculum is not as academically or intellectually oriented as those in affluent neighborhoods. In the long run, such distinctive orientations can account for the eventual class-related achievement disparities."

So the $64,000 question is this- how can traditional teacher preparation programs foster the type of achievement-orientation in their "In-the-Middle" graduates that the TFA'ers and other "Already There" teachers have?

No comments: