Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: How to bridge the achievement gap

In Kevin’s community, he is rewarded for violent behavior. His parents encourage him to solve his battles in school through physical aggression. In his community, social status is often increased through violence, especially in gang membership.

In Brian’s community, however, he is taught to never be physical and always solve problems with his words. In the American education system and dominant culture in general, problem-solving skills are valued over aggression.

Instead of having mental health counselors in schools that are equipped to deal with this disparity, kids who behave violently are punished and labeled as “problem” children, further affecting their self image. Instead of pushing them to success, we are actually preening them for prison. For kids coming from a lower socioeconomic status, aggression is treated as a manifestation of personality and often unfairly attributed to race. Instead, aggression should be treated as a public health problem and treated accordingly.

The kids with the lowest socioeconomic standing in society suffer the most trauma, have the least access to resources and consequently the lowest shot at achieving upward mobility.

If a school’s mission is to educate students and set them up for success in society and higher education, those students who are most at risk need the most qualified teachers, supplemental care and resources to level out the playing field. Part of these resources should include mental health counselors who are not only qualified to treat mental illness, but also qualified to deal with and understand the plight of students suffering from the effects of neighborhood violence, poverty and racism.

Annette Lareau presents in her study “Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families” that students from different socioeconomic backgrounds experience different parenting styles growing up. Parents who have middle class or upper class standing exhibit the child-rearing approach of concerted cultivation, in which they deliberately stimulate their children and foster their cognitive and social skills through various extracurricular activities. The cultural capital that children obtain through concerted cultivation leads to a heightened self of entitlement, which is valued in the classroom. For example, with more cultural capital, students will be more comfortable with asking for help from a teacher and be more upfront about structuring their education in a way that suits their needs. As they develop relationships with adults outside of the classroom, they are prepared to interact with teachers.

For kids raised under the child-rearing style of accomplishment by natural growth, the parenting style of working-class parents, they participate in fewer orchestrated activities. They have longer stretches of leisure time, initiate their own play time and feel a sense of clear boundaries between adults and children. Children who are raised according to accomplishment by natural growth “tend to develop an emerging sense of constraint,” according to Lareau. This sense of constraint further manifests itself in institutions dealing with authority. For example, students are less likely to customize their interactions by asking for help or raising their hands. They also blindly accept the actions of authority figures, which is rewarded for behavioral purposes but not always helpful in the work world when one needs to stand up for oneself.

As students in middle-upper class families have “greater verbal agility, larger vocabularies, more comfort with authority figures, and more familiarity with abstract concepts,” according to Lareau, they are ready for success in the classroom. As lower-class students also come into school with a less-advanced vocabulary due to a host of socioeconomic forces that affect parenting, the inequality widens.

In order to close the achievement gap, education policy makers need to be aware of these differences and, furthermore, restructure schools to supplement children who are at the lower end of the spectrum. In order to combat this vocabulary gap, English language education reform should take place. Students who have a lower socioeconomic standing should be provided with extracurriculars that build cultural and social capital as well as enrich their academic performance.

Privilege should also be taught in schools. Students from poor neighborhoods should know what they are up against, not only so they can learn how to beat the system, but also to understand that their failures or hardships are not their own fault, but rather a result of racist public policy. Heightened social consciousness is also important for those who have privilege, so they can use their privilege to better society and create needed social change.

These changes could have great effects on children, but most likely will not occur on an institutional, macroeconomic scale. In a capitalist society, there will always be inequality and exploitation. If everyone was smart, there would be no 1 percent. What we can do is try, and if we can save one school of students, I consider that a win for the education system.

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