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.

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Discussions to focus on equity in local schools

Researchers have shown school choice via charter schools and private school vouchers is increasing the segregation of American schools by race and social class. That’s a worrisome and important finding, but schools were growing more segregated before the rise of choice, in part because of decisions we made as individuals and communities.

HMI symposium posterOne example is Bloomington, Ind., the small college town where I live. With relatively few black and Latino students, you can’t say the schools are segregated by race. But students from different socioeconomic groups are separated in different schools.

That’s the backdrop for discussions that will take place this week at the Harmony-Meier Institute’s third annual symposium. It will include conversations on local school equity issues on Thursday and a panel featuring legendary progressive educator Deborah Meier and Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick on Friday.

Thursday’s event celebrates the legacy of the late Indiana University education professor Ellen Brantlinger, who described class segregation in local schools in her 2003 book “Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage.”

The local school district has put more resources into high-poverty schools since then, but the basic situation continues. Students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch range from over 85 percent in one school to less than 7 percent in another. Not surprisingly, low-poverty schools tend to have higher test scores and consistently get As on the state’s school grading system, while high-poverty schools sometimes struggle.

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