Education is not Meritocratic (by Anonymous, first-year student)

posted Jun 1, 2017, 6:40 AM by Daniel Laurison   [ updated Jun 1, 2017, 6:41 AM ]

A common misconception is that education is a meritocratic system: Teachers, for the most part, pick out the bright students, and these students then go on to be largely successful. Implicit here is that if children do not grow up to maintain or reach a high class position, this either because the child was not an intelligent student or the result of poor parenting. Class-based success in education is not nearly realized—Racism, classed parenting styles, and current economic constraints make this currently impossible.

Parenting styles occur along class lines, and this often has direct effects on children’s experiences in school. Annette Lareau charts the differences between class parenting styles—of “concerted cultivation and natural growth”—and their effect on children’s access to institutions.  With regards to education, she found that middle class parents are much more likely than working class parents to intervene in any situation that will affect their children’s lives. One such parent, Ms. Marshall, had her daughter’s IQ tested privately after she missed the cut off for the admittance to the gifted program at her school by two points (Lareau 177). Similarly, she reached out to a teacher upon learning of her daughter’s ‘C’ in math. In contrast, working class parents are less likely to reach out to school administrators or educators. This difference in parenting style compounds existing inequality, granting wealthier kids increased access to quality education through gifted programs and increased attention in the classroom. These translate into higher likelihoods of college admittance and career success.

 The immediate marker of the success of secondary education in leveling the playing field is college enrollment—If it were really so that later success was caused be only intelligence and not class, we would see no correlation between class and college matriculation. However, a study on Class and the Transition to Adulthood found that the aforementioned disparity in enrollment of working class students can be understood by differing parenting styles along class lines. Remarkably similar to parental involvement explained in Unequal Childhoods, middle class parents take a much more active role in college preparation, helping their child with college essays, evaluating their personal strengths and weaknesses, attending a number of college visits, and even intervening to meet with school counselors and take an active role in planning their child’s schedule. In contrast, working class parents have substantively less involvement in their child’s post-secondary plans. Researchers did not document the range of conversations had between parents and children on the long-term financial benefits of college, for instance, that they did with middle class families. Because many working class parent themselves did not attend college, many felt that it was not their place to guide their children on something which they had little personal experience with. Moreover, expensive and time-intensive college visits were often financially out of reach for low-income families. As with Unequal Childhoods, this difference in parenting approach is not normatively good or bad, but rather a result of parent’s financial conditions.

Education is also deeply unequal in terms of race. In Black Picket Fences, Mary Pattillo discusses the discrepancy in school funding in poor and working class Black neighborhoods. Because education is often funding by property taxes, poorer neighborhoods, which are disproportionately Black, are less funded and thus deliver a poorer quality of education to their students. This has real implications for class mobility of Black children. It is then also troubling that enrollment in private schools, according to 2000 census data, is 12% for white children and 7% for Black children.

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