Book examines opportunity hoarding in the classroom

It’s widely accepted that schools segregated by race and socioeconomic status create unequal opportunities. But a new book by sociologist Jessica Calarco shows there’s more to the story – and suggests that giving all students a fair shot may be more challenging than we thought.

The book, “Negotiating Opportunities” describes how middle-class students – typically those with college-educated professionals for parents – advocate for themselves in the classroom, securing more attention and assistance than their classmates. Working-class students, meanwhile, defer to their teachers, accept consequences when they mess up and often don’t get the help they need.

“These students are getting very different opportunities in school,” Calarco, an assistant professor at Indiana University, told me. “The middle-class kids are getting out of trouble. They’re getting help on tests and extensions on assignments. They’re getting more time and support from teachers. Ultimately, they get better grades, and they’re more likely to end up in advanced classes.”

Calarco conducted extensive classroom observations of a cohort of students as they moved from third through fifth grade in a socioeconomically diverse elementary school, then followed up when they were in seventh grade. She also surveyed parents and interviewed students, teachers and parents.

She describes in detail how middle-class students pressed their teachers for help with study problems and test questions. When they made mistakes, they often talked their way out of trouble. Working-class students waited patiently for teachers to notice they were struggling and often went without help.

The interviews revealed that middle-class parents taught their children to advocate for themselves via “strategies of influence.” Working-class parents taught their children to follow teachers’ directions and own up to mistakes: “strategies of deference.” Working-class students needed and wanted help as much as their more affluent classmates, Calarco said, but they used different strategies to seek it. Middle-class students reaped rewards; working-class students suffered consequences.

She said teachers didn’t deliberately favor one group over the other. But middle-class students were so persistent and persuasive that it was often easier to give in than to push back. Teachers also knew middle-class parents might email or contact the principal if their children didn’t get what they wanted.

I’ve written about the late Ellen Brantlinger’s research on how affluent parents secure advantage for their children, often at the expense of less privileged kids in the same community. Calarco’s work shows how this hoarding of opportunity can extend to the classroom.

What can schools do to level the playing field? A first step, Calarco said, would be to recognize class-based factors in student-teacher interactions. Administrators can support teachers who push back against students and parents who demand favors, she said, even if it won’t make them popular.

Also, teachers can make sure they reach out to working-class students and provide them with help and attention even if they don’t ask for it. That’s more likely to happen if schools get proper resources, class sizes are reasonable and teachers have time to recognize the individual needs of all their students.

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