Class in the Classroom

This week I had the incredible fortune of working with the teachers and students of Richmond-Burton Community High School in Richmond, IL.  I facilitated two assemblies of my workshop, “The Wall,” and I led a student leadership training with an AMAZING group of young people.  I also had the unique opportunity to lead a professional development session for teachers based on the feedback I had gotten from students about what could be improved in the school.  The professional development was entitled, “Best Practice in Serving Diverse Student Populations.”

One of the things that I stressed in the PD is something I firmly believe about diversity in our schools: there is no social issue or form of diversity that will affect your classroom more than class.  Class, indeed, is the great, oft-unspoken divider in our society.  Though we like to think of our society as one built upon equality, the reality is that we live in a class-divided country (and world), and it has been that way since the U.S. was founded.

Take, for instance, the reality that approximately 13% of the American population is officially classified as living within 125% of poverty level, where a family of three earns approximately $17,163 per year (and those statistics come from 2008, a time in which the U.S. economy was doing much better than today). The statistics for child poverty are even more alarming.

Children Under 18 Living in Poverty, 2008

Category Number (in thousands) Percent
All children under 18 15, 451 20.7
White only, non-Hispanic 4, 850 11.9
Black 4,480 35.4
Hispanic 5,610 33.1
Asian 531 13.3

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009, Report P60, n. 238, Table B-2, pp. 62-7. Accessed here.

Number of children living in poverty in each state.

Source of the above image

Simultaneously, the top one percent of wealth holders in the United States owns roughly 50% of all financial and business wealth, and the top 5 percent owns almost 70% of such wealth (Gar Alperovitz, the Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland, College Park).

Now, I might actually concede that this is statistical reality is acceptable if there were realistic ways for those living on the bottom rung of our society to climb the ladder or to ensure that wealth is not simply concentrated in the top, but that is frankly not the country we live in.  Why is that not our country?  Well . . . because the number one predictor of class mobility, education, is inherently unequal.

As I discussed in a past blog, the national average funding gap between the richest schools and poorest schools is $1,348 per student per year (Illinois and New York have the largest gaps for poor children, at $2,615 and $2,465 respectively).  In a school of 800 kids, that’s a difference of $1,078,400 per year that can pay for teachers, technology, books, resources, tutoring, and after-school programs in wealthier schools.

I often hear conservative pundits and politicians say, “Well, you can’t throw money at the problem.  This is not an issue of funding.  This is an issue of [insert the blame the teachers or unions mantra].”  Now don’t get me wrong.  I know there is waste in public schools.  I mean, the rubber rooms in NYC are deplorable.  However, having an extra 1 million dollars in some of our poorest schools would go an incredibly long way.  That’s 16 salaried teachers being paid $60,000 a year to cut down on over crowding.  That’s 10 salaried teachers and much-needed books or technology.  That’s much-needed renovation!  That’s a different school for our poorest (and by extension poorest-performing) students.

The $1 million dollar gap between a school of 800 kids in a wealthy area versus a poor area could pay for 16 full-time teachers!

However, educational reform almost never talks about solutions that would create more equitably-funded schools.  Sure, in the world of educational reform, we talk about how we can hold teachers and students more accountable through testing (which undoubtedly would eliminate some waste), but that is not going to fix the structural inequality!  So until we can change the national discourse, those of us working in education are left looking to other ways that we can address the realities of class in our schools.

Often times that means creativity on the part of our teachers.  My friend Becca recently held a highly-successful fund-raising campaign to get a set of culturally-relevant fiction books for her students.  Teachers everywhere are writing DonorsChoose grants in incredible numbers to give their students expanded learning opportunities.  When I was teaching, I had to ensure that the structure of my lessons accounted for the home realities of my students (such as that many of them didn’t have functioning computers at home, so if I wanted a paper typed and wanted them practicing word processing skills, I had to have them write it in class).

In our professional development with the teachers at Richmond-Burton, that is one of the main questions I encouraged teachers to wrestle with: In what ways are you working to address class in your classrooms, especially knowing that you have an incredible diversity of class backgrounds in this school.  After all, with an educational system that has been fundamentally unequal since its inception, can we rely on the powers that be to address the realities of class in our classrooms?

Recently, the United States Senate failed to pass The DREAM Act, a bill that would allow undocumented students who were brought to the United States by their parents a chance at earning conditional permanent residency if they serve at least two years in the military or complete at least two years at a four-year undergraduate college.  It would also create avenues for eligible students to receive federal loans and grants for school just like their documented peers.  The possibility that this bill would pass was profoundly exciting to those of us working for sane immigration policy and for equal opportunity for those living and working in this country.

It’s failure, though, left me feeling hopeless.  I began to wonder if we could ever hope for policies at the state or national level that would address some of the profound class inequality when it comes to education.  Hope, though, came in the form of the stories I hear from the teachers I know all over the country.

Becca told me of one of her students, a student who spoke before the city council of Denver and to representatives in both houses of the U.S. Congress to lobby for the DREAM Act.  He, after all, is undocumented, but he loves this country, and as one of the top students in his school, he wants to succeed.  He wants to go to college.  When the DREAM Act failed, instead of getting discouraged, he simply focused his college efforts on receiving aid and scholarship from private institutions in hopes of making his dreams of attending college a reality.

Every day there are students who are fighting against the odds to overcome the structural inequality in our system.  There are students, documented and undocumented, who are fighting their way into college and fighting to earn a degree.  There are students who are fighting to earn their way into trade schools so that they can break the cycle of poverty.

It is time for us to fight as hard as these brave students.  We must fight to address the class realities in our educational system.  For those of us working in the classroom, we have to make sure that we are carefully considering how class affects our students and how we can critically look at class in our curriculum.  For those of us outside of the classroom, every time there is an opportunity to more equitably fund schools, we need to vote for it.  Every time there is a movement in legislation or in private organizations aimed at leveling the playing field in college access, we need to support it.

If we want to boast that we are the land of opportunity, it’s time we make that farce a reality.

Peace be the Journey.

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