Archive | October, 2011

Parsing socioeconomics and class

25 Oct

Regarding yesterday’s post: It’s important to note that kids tend to conflate two discrete and yet related aspects of identity: socioeconomic status and class. (After all, they’re 3 years old.) In Blink’s work, I use the following definitions for socioeconomic status and class:

Socioeconomic status (SES) refers to the aspect of identity that is based on the possession of wealth and other societally-valued assets, including education and employment. SES matters because it impacts access to resources and opportunities. Very simply: more assets usually means easier, better or more social opportunities.

Class refers to the aspect of identity and culture that is informed by:

  • SES,
  • access to social resources and opportunities,
  • daily living norms and expectations, and
  • sense of entitlement and constraint in the world

that has historically and systemically accorded preferential status, privilege and freedoms to economically advantaged individuals as a group, while subordinating groups with less economic power and authority.

But SES and class aren’t always directly linked. In other words, higher class status doesn’t just or always mean having more money. Russian history is rife with examples of titled, landed and socially-privileged nobility who were financially impoverished. Yet, their class identity continued to open doors and opportunities (including a place in the history books) for them.

Here’s a more contemporary example of what I mean: Maybe I identify as living paycheck to paycheck, and I have an Ivy League education, a network of resources through which I could find a better-paying job if I wanted, and family resources that I can fall back on when things get really tight. Or maybe I identify as living paycheck to paycheck, and I’m sending money home to my mother, whose medication has gotten really expensive, and walking to work instead of taking BART so that I can save at least a little money for a rainy day or back to school fund.

In the first scenario, “living paycheck to paycheck” describes my SES: it reflects my income, but not my total pool of resources; in the second scenario, “living paycheck to paycheck” describes my class: it summarizes my resources, daily living and planning and, to a real extent, my opportunities to change that status. And while I certainly could change my status (through more education or other opportunities), I may never shake that rainy day savings mentality. Because class identity and culture are acquired and lost less easily than money.

While this distinction is obviously not toddler-material, I believe it’s critical to untangle these two aspects of identity as children develop the capacity to think critically and complexly because understanding the difference between SES and class means understanding how (much) money defines who we are.

Having said all this, I hope the takeaway isn’t that we should be the semantics police and arrest people for conflating SES and class. No, while I think the distinction and relationship between SES and class are helpful in understanding individual and group identity and dynamics, I think it’s also important for the conversation just to happen. And even naming SES or class is a quantum leap for folks who have been raised not to talk about money. The accumulation of biases we have (rich = “good” to be and also “bad” because to be rich is to be greedy; while poor = “bad” to be and also morally virtuous in our romanticized narratives) makes a conversation about SES and class a veritable minefield for those striving not to offend or misspeak.

So while I hold this distinction in my work, I try to discern when and how it’s best to fold it into my conversations and practice with others. Because the point isn’t to be correct people back into silence, but to help them do their best thinking and action.

How we talk about class

24 Oct

Talking about social class is hard. While there are many reasons for this, I’m interested in one really basic explanation: the language.

Here’s some terminology from sociologists Coleman and Rainwater (1978):

  • Upper-upper class
  • Lower-upper class
  • Upper-middle class
  • Middle class
  • Working class
  • Semipoor
  • The bottom

Sound familiar? While other language preceded and follows this model, the upper-middle-lower framework persists. We’ve even filled in some of the cracks (“lower middle class” and plain old “upper class” being the obvious holes).

What is so uncomfortable and problematic with this language is the explicit hierarchy that implies other hierarchies: of morals, quality of character and inherent human worth. And while we rationally “know better” than to judge a person by her/his bank account, that judgment is rooted in some biases that form early on:

  • Around 3-4 years of age, children tend to demonstrate a bias for “rich” people as happier and more likeable. They also believe the rich should share with the poor (Bisson et al.)
  • At 10 years, while children still advocate for wealth-sharing, they begin to explain different socioeconomic circumstances with concepts like “motivation” (Bisson et al.)
  • Around 10-14 years of age, children develop a social perspective of race and ethnicity, recognizing socioeconomic correlations and patterns for different racial and ethnic groups (Quintana, 1998)
  • In adolescence, children tend to accept socioeconomic inequality and explain it with concepts like “merit” (ex. people are poor because they don’t work hard enough), even though they understand structural, systemic inequities (Bisson et al.)

In other words, children tend to believe rich is good (and deeply so, enhancing one’s very desirability as a friend, if you follow the logic that rich = likeable). They also normatively come to believe–no doubt through the example and attitude of adults–that being rich is a result of personal merit (earning it by working hard) and inherent identity (being white, as opposed to Latino, in the US).

If you’re deeply depressed right now, here’s the good news. Knowing the arc of children’s awareness and biases around socioeconomic status means that we can intentionally educate to expand their self and worldviews in a developmentally supportive way.

Of course, that requires evolving language that doesn’t enforce the default bias that elevates “rich” and diminishes “poor.”

So here’s a DIY (Do It Yourself) workshop moment:

  • How do you identify your socioeconomic status? Use language that means something to you. And consider how you’d name that identity to a child, to a friend or colleague, to someone from a different country and then to someone who speaks a different language. What language is clear and useful to you and to them? Some examples that I’ve heard in my workshops: “comfortable,” “just getting by,” “living paycheck to paycheck” and “privileged.”
  • How would you identify other socioeconomic statuses, relative to yours? Try to push beyond degrees-of-the-same-concept (“less” comfortable, “more” comfortable and “really” comfortable) that only serve to muddle what you’re trying to identify clearly and usefully. So, for example, if you identify as “living paycheck to paycheck” perhaps some useful distinctions are: “not getting a regular paycheck,” “building savings,” or “financially independent from employment.” See what names convey meaning for you.
  • Test drive your language. See how it sounds out loud, just to yourself and then to someone whom you trust.

Maybe we can start a revolution in language that brings intention back to how we talk about socioeconomic status and class. (See tomorrow’s post on language for more.)

Saturday quote

22 Oct

“It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends.”

–J.K. Rowling

Keeping breast cancer awareness clean

21 Oct

Gilbert High School in Arizona supports breast cancer awareness… just watch your mouth( School administrators banned cheerleaders from wearing t-shirts that read: “Feel for lumps, save your bumps.”

The arguments for and against the t-shirts are not surprising:

The cheerleaders assert their right to wear the shirts, arguing, “We’re not saying anything a doctor wouldn’t say,” while the school has expressed its full support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and “age-appropriate” student activism.

I think two separate issues need to be untangled for the conversation at Gilbert High to move forward meaningfully:

  • On one level, this struggle over “feeling your lumps” v. “performing breast self-exams” is about effective messaging: saying what we have to say about breast cancer (or Wall Street, famine or drone warfare) in a way that facilitates people actually hearing us. If we’re always preaching to the choir, perhaps it’s because we only ever sermonize. Expanding our literal or metaphorical congregation might be as simple as trying a Q&A, a blog or a provocative slogan.
  • Simultaneously, this debate is just another instance in a normative dialogue between teenagers exploring their sexuality and adults trying to provide parameters for this process of self-discovery. Although the cheerleaders and their supporters downplay the controversy (“All we want to do is support the cause and raise money for breast-cancer research”), I can’t imagine that they aren’t thrilled to ride the line between serious and sexy… for a good cause. They get to be provocative (from within the safety of a group all sporting the same teaser t-shirt) and stand for a cause in a hip, young way (as opposed to handing out glossy brochures in front of the supermarket). While the causes are very different, the crusade to “feel [our] lumps” reminds me of the SlutWalk protest marches. While the marches have a very legitimate and serious  mission of “enforc[ing] the truth that those who experience sexual assault are never at fault–no exceptions” (, it’s also evident that supporting the cause has a thrilling and fun side for supporters: play-dressing like a “slut” with the immunity granted by a good cause:

Whether you agree with the advocates or the critics of provocative activism, I think it’s helpful to recognize the complexity of the provocation. It serves two intertwined functions in allowing both the official cause and the social expression/engagement/individuation of the activist to assert themselves and evolve.

$50 for a tablet, anyone?

20 Oct

India’s education ministry has announced the Aakash, “the world’s cheapest computer”  (,2817,2394196,00.asp#fbid=ApipAaA0E7L). Price tag: $35 (the government subsidized price per student–a whopping $50 without the subsidy).

Pictured below is the Aakash and India’s Minister of Communication and Information Technology Kapil Sibal.

 What does this gadget offer?

  • portability
  • Wi-Fi Internet connection
  • Video playback
  • 2 USB ports
  • Preloaded apps including e-mail
  • touch interface

By early reviews, the Aakash is hardly blowing the iPad or the Kindle out of the water with sophistication, but that’s not why it was invented or what makes it so cool. According to PC Magazine, the education ministry intends to “hand out” the Aakash to university students. I’ll take that feature over “gesture-based touch interface” any day.

For comparison, when I asked colleagues who teach in independent schools about the price per student for a tablet, they reported (and this is anecdotal, not researched): 

  • $500 for an iPad (plus a budget for apps)
  • $2300 for a PC tablet (including software)

The mass economies of the US and India are certainly different. And I don’t claim to understand technology, entrepreneurial ventures or retail pricing, but <$450 in price difference makes me wonder: as we integrate technology into education, what are the features that matter?

You may not like this post

19 Oct

I said something the other night at a school event that was received with some nods, a vehement objection and general silence:

“Rich people are in a contradictory position in independent schools. They are simultaneously appreciated for their wealth (which the schools depend on to operate and grow) and blamed for making others feel excluded or inferior, by the sheer fact of their affluence.”

By now, some of you have stopped reading and maybe even put me on your do-not-read list. Maybe you heard me say that the super-rich are victims who deserve our pity (

So let me be clear: by no means am I suggesting that the woes of the rich are the same as or greater than those of the poor or the working-and-just-getting-by. I’d like to avoid the Oppression Olympics (wherein we need to rank misfortune, and only the three most exceptionally unfortunate victims get a medal). But I am suggesting that the rich have issues, too. Issues that aren’t just theirs. Issues that independent schools need to consider, if they’re serious about inclusion and equity for all, not just some.

This is a “yes, and…” proposition. When we talk about socioeconomic diversity in communities, we need to address the very real, persistent and steep hurdles to access and inclusion for individuals and families with less financial resources. We also need to acknowledge the experience of being socioeconomically identified for all families and individuals. Just as we recognize that some members of our community have to explain their limited resources to their children, to the admissions office, and even to the teacher who assumes that everyone can afford to buy a sweatshirt or bring pocket money for a field trip; we need to recognize that other members of our community are struggling to adjust and remain financially solvent when their formerly comfortable circumstances have shrunken drastically over the past few years. Meanwhile, other members of our community feel compelled to coach their kids not to brag (i.e. mention their vacation or chauffeur), so that they aren’t labeled “entitled (brats)” by peers or even adults. Still others resent being blamed for having money and distance themselves from occasions when people they’ve never met may judge them.

We need to recognize all these experiences of socioeconomic diversity because, quite simply, money matters in our daily lives and as integral aspects of our identities: we are the people who shop at Whole Foods, the people who just attend the silent auctions for the free food (because we can’t afford to bid, but it’s a nice night out), or the people who wear clothing donated to us by our employers. And if schools don’t address how having money (and the status that goes with it) affects people’s experiences and interactions, the misunderstandings and judgments accumulate, and our communities end up factionalized into self-identified groups of have’s and have not’s (and semi-have’s, otherwise known as the middle class).

The opportunity in recognizing the full spectrum of socioeconomic diversity is that we have the opportunity to educate all people on the norms and expectations of our community: while many schools work to help financially-constrained families to understand how to be in the community (ex. accessing resources and opportunities), they could also be working to help financially-comfortable families understand how to be in the community (ex. doing the most good with their resources in a way that fits the school’s values of inclusion–perhaps by reconsidering the fees associated with “open invitation” parent/guardian events, or understanding that all donations are recognized equally, regardless of amount).

So when I said we need to recognize the untenable position that wealthy families and individuals are in and incorporate their roles and experiences into our conversations about equity and inclusion, it’s not because they’re “poor rich” people whose needs are more important than their less affluent peers, but because at the very least when we ask the question, we can discern what the issues are and how important they are to us. We can decide if equity and inclusion are really about charity for some (to make them a little more equal), or justice for all.

From accommodation to access: rethinking education

18 Oct

I’m not done with Philip Garber’s experience at County College of Morris (see yesterday’s post). 

CCM’s Communications Director Kathleen Eagan’s commented:

“As we do with all students seeking accommodations, we have taken action to resolve Philip’s concerns so he can successfully continue his education… [The college] strives to educate faculty and staff on how to accommodate students.”

Let’s talk about accommodation. “Accommodating” a student connotes providing for their special needs: laptops so they can type instead of handwriting their responses, extended time so they can process questions and form their responses, and audio tapes of assigned readings.

While providing these tools is becoming more and more commonplace in schools, consider the attitude underlying this support, embodied particularly vividly in the expression: “special needs.” It’s all well-intended, but in the field of education, “special” is all too often a euphemism for “disabled.” But we don’t say that. Instead, we talk about a student being “special” or “different” (as in having a “learning difference”). The problem with our circumlocution is not just the persistent connotation (and sometimes intentional implication) that this student is unfortunate and less than her/his peers: by pinning the defect on the canary, we fail to see the disability generated by the coal mine.

Through the early 20th century, miners would take a canary with them down into the coal mines while they worked. When the canary died, it was a signal that it was time for the miners to come up. Of course, black lung disease and silicosis are just two indicators that this safety measure for miners was flawed. While the canary did, indeed, have more sensitive lungs than the miners, its death was not its fault. The fault was in being down in a mine in the first place. And their having weaker lungs did not immunize the miners, who, after all, had lungs, too. The takeaway for education is that if we only try to fix or save the students who we label as “struggling” or “needing accommodation,” then we are a lot like those miners, not recognizing that the canary is just an indicator of a systemic condition that affects us all.

The truth is that a need for “accommodation” is as much about environment as it is the individual. The same student who needs to be “accommodated” in a traditional classroom is an adept learner when it comes to the physics of playing pool or semantics in spoken word. Any need for “accommodation” is due to a gap between their innate abilities and capacity to learn, and their learning environment, which is comprised of the teacher’s pedagogical and instructional style and the normative learning style of the majority or dominant group of the student’s peers.

These students, the ones whose learning styles fit the teacher’s methods, are the learning enabled. They are the ones whose learning strengths are played to, whose abilities work synergistically with the teacher’s. They may not be the majority–too often, they are an elite minority–but they are powerful nonetheless because they affirm the teacher’s methods, and the unintentional teacher tends to affirm them. However, they are not “normal” or “regular” or even as “gifted” as we sometimes make them out to be. They are situationally enabled, and we need to factor that into whatever success they accomplish or demonstrate as students.

As for the students whose learning doesn’t click with the methods and opportunities of the classroom: they are not “learning different” any more than their peers are. Difference is something that exists because you and I are unique. So to suggest that I am “different” means that you are, too. But we refer to students as having “learning differences” because it camouflages something we are reluctant to admit: that they are, in actuality, “learning disabled.” Maybe we resist this label because it is unkind, impolite and just flat-out mean-spirited to talk about children like they’re broken or defective. But in skirting the language of disability, we miss the opportunity to effectively answer the question: What is disabling them? Are they truly incapable of learning? Or can a shift in how they’re taught enable them to learn better? 

Recognizing how to enable a currently “disabled” student in a class has a potential ripple effect, in that diversifying instruction can benefit other students, who might be doing OK but could learn more effectively through a different approach. Intentionally rethinking teaching through a lens of how we are always enabling and disabling learning can also benefit those students who are currently enabled (and like things just the way they are, thank you very much) to diversify their abilities and ultimately become more versatile learners. Because the goal isn’t just to accommodate every student to their preferred, comfortable learning style. It’s to create durable and adept learners who have a toolkit and the skills to keep learning, even when the learning environment isn’t a ready-made fit for them. 

And so, while it is commendable that CCM “strives to educate faculty and staff on how to accommodate students,” it’s my hope that the college and other educational institutions are also striving to understand how they already accommodate students everyday, and how they can enable even more kids and adults to thrive as learners.

** Thanks to my colleague EB for sparking this distinction and flipping the script on how we think about “accommodation” in education.