Include working-class whites in ed reform

Image result for white "working class" american familiesTrump supporters recite the Pledge of Allegiance at a June campaign rally in Redding, California. Photo: Stephen Lam/Reuters

By framing education as the “civil rights issue of our time” and focusing on the racial achievement gap, reformers “tacitly made education reform a race-based endeavor,” Robert Pondiscio wrote last year. There’s been much praise for inner-city charters for black and Hispanic students, little attention to small-town schools that educate (or fail to educate) white working-class kids.

Pondiscio didn’t think Trump would win. But he saw the people who might be drawn to Trump.

There are about twice as many non-Hispanic whites as blacks living below 150 percent of the poverty line in the U.S.

. . . Keen observers like Charles Murray in his book Coming Apart warned us that we are becoming a nation divided less by race than class. Births out of wedlock, crime and joblessness are not uniquely inner city problems. They are almost as prevalent in Murray’s “Fishtown.” As work disappears, physical disability claims have skyrocketed by millions, creating a new economic underclass helpfully absent from sunny unemployment figures.

“If education reform truly is the civil rights struggle of our time, it’s time once again to widen the definition of rights-at-risk to include working class white people too,” wrote Pondiscio.

I’d like to see a serious push for high-quality career-tech education linking high schools to community colleges to employers. Two-thirds of young Americans do not earn bachelor’s degrees; a majority won’t earn any college credential. They need more than college-failure prep.

Meritocracy’s losers: No degree, no respect

Horatio Alger stories spread the belief that anyone can succeed, if they work hard enough. Educational elitism marks the modern U.S. economy, writes Victor Tan Chen in The Atlantic. College-educated winners scorn working-class Americans as “as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated.” A Virginia Commonwealth sociology professor, he’s the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy. 

Our culture is an extreme meritocracy, writes Chen. We believe anyone can “make it” in America. It follows that those who don’t succeed deserve their low status.

“The well-educated and well-off who live in or near big cities tend to endorse the notion, explicitly or implicitly, that education determines a person’s value,” writes Chen.

More so than in other rich nations, like Germany and Japan, which have prioritized vocational training to a greater degree, a college degree has become the true mark of individual success in America . . .

For his book, Chen interviewed laid-off auto workers, all former union members, who shared the view that the educated deserved to live better than the uneducated. Yet, “two-thirds of Americans age 25 and over do not have a bachelor’s degree,” he writes.

The labor market has become more polarized, as highly paid jobs for workers with middling levels of education and skill dwindle away. And as many have argued, advances in artificial intelligence threaten a net loss of employment (even for the well-educated) in the not-so-far-off future.

A new government report warns automation will increase demand for high-level technical skills — and decrease demand for routine skills.

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli calls this the great “coming apart.” Educational attainment (or the lack of it) is “the new dividing line.”

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He suspects “that a college education is simply a marker — of people who were lucky to be born into relative affluence and the stable homes that generally accompany it; of individuals with the ‘soft skills’ that allow them to persevere in their educations, but also—when they’re so disposed—in their jobs, even in their marriages.”

Some countries — Singapore, Switzerland, Germany — offer high-quality career and technical education linked to apprenticeships and jobs, he writes. The U.S. pushed a “bachelor degree or bust” strategy, writes Petrilli.  “The number of bachelor degrees has increased a bit, but the size of the ‘bust’ is much, much larger.”

Middle-class kids are ‘squeaky wheels’

Middle-class parents train their children to be “squeaky wheels” in class, asking teachers for help, a new study finds. That may annoy teachers at time, but it pays off in the long run, concludes sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco of Indiana University Bloomington.

“Middle-class parents were explicitly telling their children to go to the teacher and ask for help, to ‘not take no for an answer,'” Calarco said. Working-class students worried about “bothering” the teacher.

“Working-class kids were most comfortable asking for help when the teacher came to their desk and said, ‘You look like you are having trouble, do you need help?’ Sometimes the working-class students working in a pair would ask their partner to go for help rather than going themselves.

. . . By contrast, middle-class students were more likely to ask repeated questions, and further negotiate for help even if a teacher rejected initial requests.

Middle-class students were more likely to get in trouble with teachers for talking out of turn or disrespect, but they treated reprimands as “joking,” Calarco said. “Middle-class students see help-seeking [behaviors] as opportunities for reward; working-class students see them as opportunities for reprimand.”

Calarco suggested teachers discuss with students how to ask questions.

Fishtown slides

While college-educated professionals are thriving, the white working-class is sliding into underclass behavior, writes Charles Murray in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  In affluent “Belmont,” most people marry before having children, work and obey the law. In working-class “Fishtown,” the “founding virtues” have eroded.

Belmont and Fishtown are parting ways, writes sociologist Nathan Glazer in Education Next.

A 10 percent difference between Belmont and Fishtown in marriage rates in 1960 expanded to a 35 percent difference in 2010. In the census that year, only  “48 percent of prime-age whites in Fishtown were married, compared to 84 percent in 1969.” Related disparities arose in births out of marriage and in children living with a single parent—not much change in Belmont, a great change in Fishtown: almost 30 percent of white births are now nonmarital, up from just a few percent in 1960.

On work, Murray notes the great increase in the percentage of the population on disability payments, from under 1 to more than 5 percent of the labor force, and the growth in the number of prime-age males who are not in the labor force, contrasted with almost all in the labor force in 1960. On chart after chart reporting work behavior, we find stability in Belmont, with almost all males at work, a striking contrast to the large absence from the labor force, willed or unwilled, in Fishtown.

Fishtowners are much more likely to do prison time and less likely to go to church than in 1960.

While 90 percent of Belmont residents vote in a presidential election, only 51 percent in Fishtown voted in 1988, down from 70 percent in 1968, with a modest rise in 2008.

“People can generally be trusted” believed more than 75 percent in Belmont in 1970, contrasted with 45 percent in Fishtown. In 2010, 60 percent in Belmont still concurred, but Fishtown was down to 20 percent, Glazer writes.

Is it a decline in virtue or in good union-wage-paying manufacturing jobs? Murray says virtue. Glazer isn’t so sure.

Public schools should “resist the prevailing nonjudgmentalism and try to restore some of the moral authoritativeness practiced in the past and that we see today in many successful charter schools,” writes Glazer.

Why some black men succeed in college

Black males who do well in college have parents — and at least one K-12 teacher — with high expectations, concludes the National Black Male College Achievement Study.

Black male achievers typically come from working-class families, concludes Shaun Harper, an associate professor higher education at Penn who founded the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education. Nearly half have parents with no college degree. “As a group they shun the idea that they are cognitively smarter than their less-successful friends or cousins or other peers (and their high-school academic records largely back that up),” notes Inside Higher Ed.

In addition to parents who considered college a “non-negotiable” goal, and a teacher who took a special interest, achievers had adequate financial support to pay for college and support from black juniors and seniors when they started college.

Sixty percent grew up in homes with two parents. “Census data show that 35 percent of black children grow up in two-parent homes,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

Harper asked each of the 219 black men to talk not only about themselves but about the experiences of their three best black male childhood friends — and these differences virtually jump off the report’s pages.

“When asked what differentiated their own paths from those of their peers who were not enrolled in college, the participants almost unanimously cited parenting practices,” the study states. “Their friends’ parents, the achievers believed, did not consistently maintain high expectations and were not as involved in their sons’ schooling. By contrast, most of the achievers’ parents and family members more aggressively sought out educational resources to ensure their success — tutoring and academic support programs, college preparatory initiatives, and summer academies and camps, to name a few.”

Like the well-to-do parents in the preceding story, the black male achievers’ parents invested in their children’s success.