The Real Disadvantage Gap In Our Schools

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Does having a family culture and structure at home, which aligns to the values of a school, equate to success?

This week on an early morning train journey from London to Winchester – working with 60 school leaders in Hampshire – I came across a fascinating social media update by Jack Schneider (of Sommerville, Massachusetts), a scholar of education history and policy and author of  He shares the challenges of the disadvantage gap in our schools. Schneider affirmed what I’ve been thinking for a number of years. The very same message I gave to 60 school leaders that morning. With Jack’s permission, I’ve quoted the entire thread.  

Socio-Economic Factors

People wonder why SES (i.e. family income/race/parental education/etc.) is such a strong predictor of student standardized test scores. Here’s just one example. I just grabbed my daughter from school. We came home. She was hungry, and I was able to give her a snack. It’s cold outside and our house is warm. She has no health problems. We then went into the room we call the book nook. It’s a small room full of books. (So: messaging here about what her parents value, etc.) Time for homework…

I’m sitting next to her writing. She asks what I’m up to. Oh…just writing an essay (again: the message “this is something worth your time, and that your parents will praise you for.”) I ask: what are YOU up to? (BTW: I work a job that allows me this flexibility to be with her.) She says: “homework.” Totally flat affect. I go: “cool.” Because…well…I did well in school and felt valued in it. So I have no baggage with homework (though I’m not endorsing the homework regime by any means).

A minute later, she says: “dad, I have a problem.” I get all excited. Because I love 2nd grade math. I’m the Michael Jordan of 2nd grade math. So I’m like: “can’t wait to help you.” I give her a hug (that hug does a lot in that moment, it turns out). We look at the problem. It’s basically an algebra problem. I explain that. Algebra is awesome, I say. It’s like…super big kid math. (She’s fired up and ready to go at this point). Yadda yadda yadda. We solve for x.

All Parents Should Value Learning

No but for real: I show her that every problem has a solution. That learning is fun. That dad values this. I tell her she’s smart. I praise her effort. She’s feeling good. This is like a positive feedback loop cyclone. Meanwhile, she has been writing on a Magritte book. It was the closest thing I had to a clipboard, which she had requested. Homework is done. I’m all like: “yo, you should check out Magritte. He’s crazy.”

Then she’s all like: [insert sound of cultural capital vacuüm machine]

We’re happy. Hanging out. School is cool. Be like dad. Books are everywhere. Parents proud. Algebra is dope. So many messages. So much support.

Then she’s like: “hey dad, is being a teacher harder than being a student? Because you have to figure out how to teach the stuff, not just learn it.” And my head almost explodes. Because…wow this kid is now metacognating. Another advantage for her.

While my head is exploding, she puts Magritte away and grabs one of a dozen books we recently grabbed from the library (what with my flexible schedule) or bought (what with my middle class income) or that were given to us (what with our social capital).

And then she’s reading. Which she loves to do. Because…you know…mom and dad have this notion that curling up with a book is a treat.

Money or Whiteness?

And people like us are NO BETTER than other people. We just happen to have a household culture/structure that aligns with what is valued/expected in school.

Do you have to have a book nook? SHOULD you have a book nook? Come on. No. That’s crazy. We’re so weird.

But this kid is just getting advantage upon advantage as a result of it. Especially since someday our society will pretend that it was her innate ability and hard work that produced her school success. And she’ll reap the rewards of this. Great for her, I guess. So unfair.

By the way we’re now getting ready for dance class. Because, you know, just advantage on top of advantage. (“Put thine own ballet clothes on child! Father doth need to make the tweets!)

Is it the money (because money is a correlate of test scores)? Is it my whiteness (another correlate)? Is it my collection of diplomas (another correlate)?

No. It’s all the stuff that those things tend to align with. The being home. The having a working furnace. The valuing of learning. The positive view of education. The mastery of second grade math. The fondness for books. Etc. Etc. Etc.

But by all means let’s pretend that none of this matters. Let’s pretend that my kid is from the same kind of house as every other kid.

Let’s pretend that her friend [name redacted], who has literally no books in his house, whose parents I have never seen set foot on the schoolground, etc., etc., but who is a LOVELY, SMART, KIND, CAPABLE boy…let’s pretend that he’s no different.

Stop Shaming Schools

And then let’s praise the school for it’s work with my daughter. And shame the school for it’s work with her friend.

And then let’s really praise the schools that have [kids like my daughter] x [a majority of the school population]

And then let’s really slam the schools that have [kids NOT like my daughter] x [a majority of the school population]

And while we’re praising and slamming, let’s also then have some formal rewards/punishments. And maybe let’s make decisions about where we live and enroll our kids in school. Pretending all the while that this is all a school thing, rather than an out-of-school thing.

And then let’s dole out social and economic goodies, based on the false belief that the end results of school (grades, diplomas, etc.) are all the product of choices, effort, talent. Come on, gang. It’s all that other stuff.

I gotta go to dance.

But then, you know…back to just unintentionally (and that’s really one of the keys…that this stuff just all flows from different kinds of advantage) giving my kid every privilege w/r/t her education.

You know…healthy dinner, more reading, lots of rich vocab chatter from two grownups (who are not generally sick, stressed, etc., who speak the dominant language, etc.)

Every day.

Every. Damn. Day. And then I get people coming at me with “oh but that’s a bad school” or “oh that’s a good school” and never step foot. Bah.

Ha. Who says “bah”? Nobody.

Dude, for real, it’s ballet time.

PUT THY TIGHTS AND TUTU ON! WE SHALL LEAVE FORTHWITH! ALL WHO WISH TO JOIN MUST CARRY THEIR OWN SLIPPERS!

I was nervous when Twitter announced ‘thread and 280 tweets updates’, but may tweeters like Jack have proven the critics wrong, with wonderful examples rich in content, turning simple social conversations into thought-provoking mini-theses. 

If you want the authentic version, you can read Schneider original tweets here. Follow him on Twitter @Edu_Historian and definitely consider buying his book, Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality.

@TeacherToolkit

In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account in which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated for '500 Most Influential People in Britain' in The Sunday Times as one of the most influential in the field of education - he remains the only classroom teacher to feature to this day ... Sharing online as @TeacherToolkit, he rebuilt this website (c2008) into what you are now reading, as one of the 'most influential blogs on education in the UK', winning the number one spot at the UK Blog Awards (2018). Today, he is currently a PGCE tutor and is researching 'social media and its influence on education policy' for his EdD at Cambridge University. In 1993, he started teaching and is an experienced school leader working in some of the toughest schools in London. He is also a former Teaching Awards winner for 'Teacher of the Year in a Secondary School, London' (2004) and has written several books on teaching (2013-2018). Read more...

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