Disparities of Children of Lower Socioeconomic Status in America’s Educational System | Leigh Johnson


When humans are born each person is equipped with 100 billion brain cells (1999). If every infant is born with the same capacity to learn, should not every child be given the same opportunity to learn? Children born into poor home environments, lower socioeconomic communities or families of color are immediately placed at a disadvantage in America’s educational system. According to a report by the New York Times, “racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school, to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience” (Rich: 2014). Differences in racial levels of achievement can lead to “ethnic boundaries” (2014). Social boundaries such as these separate one group of individuals from another based on differences in habits, speech, mannerisms, or, in most cases, skin color. Therefore, the real issue lies not in the lack of capability of one group of children over another (i.e. whites versus blacks), but in the lack of impartiality amongst students of all races, genders and socioeconomic statuses – an impartiality that has caused major disparities amongst children of color and their performance in the classroom.

Means of Intervention for Disadvantaged Youth in America’s Educational System

Since 2003, there have been government initiatives to provide grants that will fund the creation, staffing and maintenance of after-school programs throughout the U.S. (as suggested by Dr. Ogbu) (Yohalem: 2014). Programs, like the Washington Street Community Center, are being developed as a resource for children in under-privileged communities like Covington, Georgia. These programs offer children, primarily children of color and lower socioeconomic status (e.g. selected based off of the same qualifications as the “free and reduced lunch program”), assistance on their homework, test prep, workshops on cultural diversity, meals, and whatever needs they are able to meet. These government sponsored programs allow for children to bridge the achievement gap in hopes of making it possible for children of lower class to excel and compete on the academic scale with more resourceful children their age. Parental interaction, child advocacy, reformation of policy on standards of education, and intervention of children with poor educational ranking could prove to be instrumental in laying the foundation for a fair educational system.  In 1986, after years of suffering from excruciatingly poor educational output, India recognized their “1986 National Policy on Education”. This policy built its educational system upon a foundational scheme of widespread and systematic curriculum. “As a result of many such local programmes [sic], literacy rates improved significantly between 1981 and 1991: male literacy increased from 56.5 percent to 64.2 percent while female literacy increased from 29.9 percent to 39.2 percent (Lall: 2005).” According to the results of this study, having every student on the same level across the ‘educational board’ could guarantee a degree of national achievement, but to accomplish this every child must be given the same opportunity. Through my own Theory Practice Service Learning participant observation, I have learned that children in rural, low-income environments like Covington, Georgia struggle with simple tasks like vocabulary and mathematics, despite the standards of learning that the American educational system has put in place. There are some that excel in these fields, but others fear that they will not be able to fulfill their standardized requirements thus setting them back a year. These children have also expressed their angst of the increased complexity that awaits upcoming years of study. They are constantly at odds with their teachers and administrators because of their assumptions that they will not succeed. In 2010, Oscar-award winning documentary director David Guggenheim created “Waiting for Superman”, a film that gave an in-depth look into the disturbing truth of America’s educational system. His work gave many examples of the ubiquitousness and detriment of racial prowess acting in favor of majority rather than the colored minority. “Far too many students aren’t given the tools or the knowledge they need to one day compete in the global economy [therefore] we must set higher standards and help all kids meet them (Guggenheim: 2010).”

Anthropological Application of Educational Differences

At the Washington Street Community Center, I conducted a small anthropological study of my own. During one of my visits, I instructed a dining etiquette class where the third, fourth and fifth grade students learned all the dynamics of proper dining. Many were uncertain of the rules and codes of conduct and many joked in saying that “they were going to learn how to eat like white people”. Their reaction to learning even an extracurricular skill is what gave me the insight necessary to understand why these children suffer in the classroom as they do in their everyday activities – cultural appropriation. In anthropology, there are two influential women who studied key dynamics that I found most prevalent in my participant-observation studies at Washington Street Community Center, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Margaret Mead studied the sociology of children and how the lessons that are instilled in them impact their choices in life. She also studied the dichotomy which results when the sameness of physiological matriculation all humans experience (through the biological process of transitioning from childhood to adulthood) is contrasted against the differences each human experiences according to their mental development (which comes from differing cultural child-rearing processes) (McGee, Warms: 2012, 211).  This is found in Washington Street and throughout the American educational system when students of color are asked to perform tasks in a proper fashion and refuse because they believe that these practices are of ‘white’ culture (i.e. speak with correct grammar and syntax or dine with etiquette but they refuse due to fear of ‘sounding or looking too white’). Anthropologist Ruth Benedict “focused on the relationship between individual and society” (Moore: 2012, 71). Her studies emphasized the patterns in culture and marked cultural traits (i.e. black diction) as they occur amongst different cultural groups demonstrating the causal primacy of culture in understanding differences between modern humans (Moore: 2012, 73). This difference is what causes the children to feel as though they are conforming to trends within culture (a concept known as “performing culture”). Children feel this way in particular, because they are told throughout their lives that they are to act and learn according to their socioeconomic status, so when outside sources inform them of other forms of learning (i.e. etiquette) they are discomforted. The differences among cultures that Benedict points out in her work is also what anthropologist Michel Foucault mentions in his work on the “[repression] of bourgeois societies” (McGee: 2012, 508). In his work, Foucault researches how the repressed (i.e. individuals minority cultures or groups) undergo structural and institutional ‘violence’ and ultimately suffer. From this standpoint, ethnography has given many reasons as to why individuals of minority (or non-white) groups suffer in the manner in which they do, whether it be socio-economically or educationally. The standards that these individuals are held against are what cause them to suffer. If they fail to meet the criteria set by those of the majority, they suffer not being able to reap the benefits of their shared culture. Another anthropological connection that can be made is between the standards set for poor children from the expectations of the rich. Max Weber, an anthropologists of the mid-1800s to early 1900s, believed ““classes”, “status groups” and “parties” to be the phenomena of the distribution of power within a community” (McGee, Warms: 2012, 98).  The cultural trends or educational standards within the American educational system that are being referred to here are created by American policy makers who are of the higher socioeconomic status. Because this society is one governed by those of wealthier standards, children of lower classes do not reap the benefits of an educational system as those who are of higher classes. As a result of this discontinuity, children are set up for failure before they even set foot in a classroom. As the achievement gap widens and educational inequality creates disparities for children of color, the power of those of lower socioeconomic statuses is lessened by the ‘rulings’ of those in higher positions of power (i.e. government officials who pass legislature that only benefit children of higher ranking schools leaving children in lower ranking schools helpless to poor academic ratings). In 2003, “the late John Ogbu, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, conducted an ethnographic study of students at all grade levels in schools in Shaker Heights, Ohio. The ethnographers conducting the study observed 110 classrooms from the start to the finish of the lesson, in classes of (1) different racial makeup, (2) the same subject taught at different levels, (3) different subjects, (4) the same teachers teaching the same courses at different levels, (5) the same teachers teaching different courses, and (6) teachers of different races and genders. In the elementary school, the researchers also acted as participant-observers by assisting the teachers with small tasks when they asked for help. The purpose of this study was to determine how the identity of African-American students as an oppressed group outside the opportunity structure affects their academic achievement specifically and their school experience more generally (Flaxman: 2003)”. At the conclusion of his study, Dr. Ogbu divided his findings into four specific sectors: “Opportunity Structure and Education”, “Race Relations and Schooling”, “Identity and Culture”, and “Educational Strategies” (Flaxman: 2003). Each sector gave a holistic view of the underlying ways in which the educational system can affect a child. With these effects in mind, “Ogbu makes several recommendations for communities and schools like those in Shaker Heights, Ohio, for closing the achievement gap. To increase African-American students’ academic orientation and performance, communities need to provide supplementary education programs using the resources of for-profit and non-profit community-based organizations to create a parallel educational system (i.e. for the community to provide academically successful role models, publicly recognize achievement, and encourage schools to infuse multicultural perspectives into the academic curriculum to counter students’ idea that to achieve is to act white and to help students develop a sound self-concept and identity; for the schools to develop strategies to help parents take a greater role in the academic life of their children, and to help them learn to be academically self-motivated and persistent), students need help to learn how to distinguish between short-term and long-term educational goals in course-taking, and between courses in academic subjects and courses that develop a cultural identity (i.e. they should also help students to develop study habits and study skills and to resist anti-academic peer pressure), teachers need to recognize that their expectations have an effect on their students’ concept of themselves as learners and achievers and the internalization of negative or positive beliefs about their intelligence, and lastly schools need to provide parents information (i.e. in regards to tracking practices, about differences between honors and Advanced Placement classes, regular classroom placement, and remedial classes, and in how to work with teachers to monitor and effectively enhance their children’s academic progress) (Flaxman: 2003)”. Through my conversation with the third through fifth grade students of the Washington Street Community Center in Covington, many of these children have expressed no hope for the future. When I asked them what they aspire to be many either shrug their shoulders or go on to tell of their aspirations of making it in professional sports. These children have, just as Ogbu describes, either “internalized negative beliefs about their intelligence” (many by stating “I can’t do this”) or have not been given proper guidance or vision as to how they can succeed in life. Children fear education and therefore opt to become members of the entertainment industry, but due to their small probabilities of success in those fields, many may find themselves working in low-paying service industry jobs after secondary school. Luckily, programs such as the Washington Street Community Center have been implemented in order to assist these children in not only achieving good grades in their schoolwork but in creating dreams and helping them form a “cultural identity” of their own.

How America’s Children Became Disadvantaged

Ever since the English Renaissance Period, education has been a pinnacle point in societal success.  As time has progressed, so have the standards of education. Unfortunately, as of 2010, America ranks in the lowest percentile in education out of the thirty top industrialized countries (Guggenheim: 2010).  Many experts believe this is due to the lack of regulation in the school systems, while others look at the success ratings of each individual student (Guggenheim: 2010).  As a means to better academic results, the American legislature developed the “No Child Left Behind” Act in 2001 to ensure all students – from kindergarten through twelfth grade – a world class education (Guggenheim: 2010; Staff: 2015).  With these new policies in place, the American education system standardized its curriculum for each grade level and tested each student at the end of the academic year to determine their success at understanding class material and whether they have fulfilled the minimum requirement in order to move onto the next grade. The act, by design, was created to increase literacy rates, classroom performance and ensure that the educational system would be impartial in its attempt to filter those who needed more instruction from those who do not, but what it does not accommodate for is students who suffer poor academic achievement due to the lack of resources from the community financial infrastructure that supports these school systems (Education Week: 2011). “Right now, what a student learns in one state might be totally different than a student will learn in another state. This puts countless students at a real competitive disadvantage (Guggenheim).” Schools in the US are not of the same caliber across the board, because school systems within poorer areas do not have extra resources brought in by community tax dollars to be used towards furthering education beyond the standards of the state educational system, therefore the children within these communities are not able to reach the same level of achievement as those in more affluent communities. This divide in the American educational system is what academians call the “achievement gap”, and because poorer communities are made up of minority majorities, children of color usually tend to fall within this gap (Unknown: 2011).  According to Dr. Matthew Ladner and Dave Myslinski of the American Legislative Exchange Council, as of 2015 Massachusetts in the number one ranking state in education and South Carolina is number fifty-one (Ladner: 2015). Williamsburg, South Carolina is the poorest county of the lowest ranking state in education, and according to the 2013 state census 65.5 percent of the population is African-American. In comparison, Norfolk, Massachusetts is the richest county of the highest ranking state in education, and according to their 2013 state census 81.7 percent of the population is white (United States Census: 2015). Each state’s respective high school graduation rate is 77.6 percent versus 97.3 percent. Primarily white communities have higher graduation rates, proof that not every student is afforded the same opportunities as others.

How the American Educational System Perpetuates Racial Disparity

According to The Scientific American Book of the Brain (1999), humans are born with 100 billion brain cells. With this in mind, every child, regardless of their background/race, age, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, etc. should be given the same opportunity to learn. But, in reality, this is not the case. Children born into poor home environments, lower socioeconomic communities or into families of color they are immediately at a disadvantage than those who are not. America’s educational system is a mess of ill-fitted policies and reformations that put these disadvantaged and under-served youth at risk for poor classroom performance, expected learning capacity and diminished hopes for the future. According to a report by the New York Times, “racial minorities are more likely than white students to be suspended from school, to have less access to rigorous math and science classes, and to be taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience” (Rich: 2014). Differences in cultural achievement and status can lead to “ethnic boundaries” (which ethnographers Yosepha Tabib-Calif and Edna Lomsky-Feder consider the overarching theme of symbolic and social boundaries found in cultures worldwide). “Michele Lamont and Virag Molnar (2002) distinguish between social and symbolic boundaries: social boundaries are the outcome of the structural arrangements that bring about the unequal distribution of social resources between ethnic groups, while symbolic boundaries are social actors’ interpretations and conceptualizations of this distribution. Social and symbolic boundaries are not only macrolevel social categories and structural arrangements, but also “conceptual distinctions individuals make in the course of their everyday lives” and refer to “how these distinctions can—and do—influence more durable and institutionalized social differences” (Tabib-Calif, Lomsky-Feder: 2014, 22-23)”. Social boundaries are simply the manifestations of symbolic boundaries. And in this case, symbolic boundaries are a means of psychologically separating one group of students from another based off of differences in habits, speech, mannerisms, or, in most cases, skin color. As these boundaries take shape in an actor’s (student or teacher) mind, an actor creates a discrepancy in how they approach or act in the presence of another person of a different group. Therefore the real issue lies not in the lack of capability of one group of children over another (i.e. whites versus blacks), but in the lack of impartiality amongst students of all races, genders and socioeconomic statuses – an impartiality that has caused major disparities amongst children of color and their performance in the classroom.






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