Income inequality in the United States has reached levels not seen since the Gilded Age. While most public school teachers come from a middle-class background, the same is not true for their students. This school year, more than half of students in U.S. public schools come from families with low incomes. I reached out to University of Georgia Professor Stephanie Jones to ask her about strategies teachers can use to build awareness of the many ways socioeconomic status impacts students and to develop what she calls “class-sensitive pedagogy.” Jones has published widely on the importance of class-sensitive pedagogy and has trained thousands of teachers to reflect on the impact of classism in schools.
You've written a lot about the impact of social class in schools. Can you tell me a little bit about why you became interested in this field?
Because I grew up in a working-poor family, I have been thinking about these issues my whole life. I lived in a trailer park that was like an amazing childhood paradise for me. When I started to see how outsiders perceived trailer parks, it surprised me. As I started my teaching career, I became interested in how social class, class discrimination and class privilege manifested in schools. Now, as a researcher, I look into theories of social class and the history of class in our country and across the globe.
What are some of the most common assumptions we make about social class in this country?
One is that the “rags to riches” fairy tale is possible for anyone who's willing to work hard. We know that upward mobility is just not happening right now for the majority of people. In fact, a lot of people are experiencing downward mobility. Also, we assume that upward mobility is always a positive experience. Many who have moved across class boundaries deal with mixed emotions and complicated experiences in their upward mobility. One example is a deep sense of guilt about being the only one in a family to have more economic security. Some feel isolated living in a world where class privilege is assumed.
It is also common to assume that people who have more money are smarter than people who have less money, or that people who work with their hands or their bodies are less intelligent than people who work sitting at a desk or a cleaner environment. Another assumption is that charity is a way to alleviate and end poverty. That's the backend way of trying to fix a symptom of a major systemic problem. You really have to look at the front end of what creates class inequality and poverty at the beginning.
What are some of the major ways that class manifests in schools?
Attendance zones are critical, as they determine who is in which schools to begin with, and we have a lot of social-class segregation as a result. Then there’s the fact that public schools aren’t free. Whether it’s a $50-$200 supply list at the beginning of the year, field trip payments or fundraisers that are used as competitions, there is always payment for full participation in schools. Competitions often reproduce the unequal social networks that kids [experience] outside of school. Who's winning the pizza parties or the bikes at the end of the fundraising project? Usually these are not kids who live in places where people are just managing to keep their lights on.
Even food drives are problematic. I was visiting a child's grandmother in her kitchen where she was cooking, and I just happened to see a really big bag of rice and beans on the floor. The grandmother noticed me looking and said: “I picked up extra food at the food pantry because Kylie is having a food drive competition at her school and she really wants her class to win the pizza party." The food drive is supposed to be supporting people who have food insecurity, but the emphasis becomes a competition and prize rather than curricular investigations into who experiences food insecurity and why.
You've talked about the need for a "class-sensitive pedagogy." Would you describe what that might look like?
We educators have to begin with reflections about how and when social class—as well as race, gender, sexuality and dis/ability—has impacted our lives. When we think about broader systems and practices and the personal effects they have on us and others, we can start seeing, hearing and responding to the ways that class and classism play a role in schools. A child may say, for example, "I want to be a waitress when I grow up.” In education, it’s so ingrained in educators to push kids [toward] upward mobility and to not promote work with hands or bodies. If we’ve thought about class, we might realize that we have to have waitresses. Therefore, the response “You can do better” doesn’t make sense, but talking about this kind of work and its importance does. Then we can address the social context, the low wages that most waitresses make, and encourage students to think about why someone who is so important to society is paid below minimum wage. And, crucially, what do we do about that?
What advice would you give to educators who want to work on their own class-sensitivity? And how might a single teacher change her classroom practice?
First, teachers and administrators should take a serious look at how students are assigned to different groups. We may think assignments are based on “ability,” but we need to step back and ask ourselves if groups also align with social-class hierarchies. If they do, groupings need to change. The danger is that the kids with the most resources get the most resources, and the kids with the least resources then get the least opportunity. Tracking is a social experiment. We think it’s about academics, but grouping risks reproducing social groups based on class.
We also need to think about the texts we use and the people we bring in to speak. If you read a lot of children's literature, you might think that everyone lives in a 2,000-square-foot home with a mom and dad and a white picket fence. We have to learn to ask the right questions: “Where are the workers who made this life possible? What kind of work are they doing?”
Another very specific idea has to do with the way we teach about slavery. If we think of the history of the United States as a pursuit of cheap and free labor, it is easier to understand the enslavement of Africans as one part of a troubling narrative. Teachers can think about class in everything they teach. We can step back and ask, "How is social class or economics involved in this particular theme or this particular unit?" Then we create space for inquiry and conversation.
Shuster is an independent education researcher and evaluator who has worked on multiple studies assessing curricular and co-curricular reforms.
Do you want to learn more about the topics raised in this Q&A? Jones recommends these resources:
Class Lives: Stories From Across the Economic Divide edited by Chuck Collins, Jennifer Ladd, Maynard Seider and Felice Yeskel (Cornell University Press).
Girls, Social Class and Literacy: What Teachers Can Do to Make a Difference by Stephanie Jones (Heinemann).
Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap by Paul Gorski (Teachers College Press).
Where We Stand: Class Matters by bell hooks (Routledge).