This course will investigate documentary films as social and political texts in order to identify historical and contemporary views on schools and the purpose(s) of education. The May X will examine primarily films addressing poverty, class, race, and privilege as they intersect with the purposes and realities of public education in the U.S.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
The Trouble with the ‘Culture of Poverty’ and Other Stereotypes about People in Poverty by Paul C. Gorski
The most popular measure of parental attitudes about education, particularly among teachers, is “family involvement” (Jeynes, 2011). This stands to reason, as research consistently confirms a correlation between family involvement and school achievement (Lee & Bowen, 2006; Oyserman, Brickman, & Rhodes, 2007). However, too often, our notions of family involvement are limited in scope, focused only on in-school involvement—the kind of involvement that requires parents and guardians to visit their children’s schools or classrooms. While it is true that low-income parents and guardians are less likely to participate in this brand of “involvement” (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005), they engage in home-based involvement strategies, such as encouraging children to read and limiting television watching, more frequently than their wealthier counterparts (Lee & Bowen, 2006).
It might be easy, given the stereotype that low-income families do not value education, to associate low-income families’ less consistent engagement in on-site, publicly visible, school involvement, such as parent-teacher conferences, with an ethic that devalues education. In fact, research has shown that many teachers assume that low-income families are completely uninvolved in their children’s education (Patterson, Hale, & Stessman, 2007). However, in order to assume a direct relationship between disparities in on-site involvement and a disregard for the importance of school, we would have to omit considerable amounts of contrary evidence. First, low-income parents and guardians experience significant class-specific barriers to school involvement. These include consequences associated with the scarcity of living wage jobs, such as the ability to afford childcare or public transportation or the ability to afford to take time off from wage work (Bower & Griffin, 2011; Li, 2010). They also include the weight of low-income parents’ and guardians’ own school experiences, which often were hostile and unwelcoming (Lee & Bowen, 2006). Although some schools and districts have responded to these challenges by providing on-site childcare, transportation, and other mitigations, the fact remains that, on average, this type of involvement is considerably less accessible to poor families than to wealthier ones.
Broadly speaking, there simply is no evidence, beyond differences in on-site involvement, that attitudes about the value of education in poor communities differ in any substantial way from those in wealthier communities. The evidence, in fact, suggests that attitudes about the value of education among families in poverty are identical to those among families in other socioeconomic strata. In other words, poor people, demonstrating impressive resilience, value education just as much as wealthy people (Compton-Lilly, 2003; Grenfell & James, 1998) despite the fact that they often experience schools as unwelcoming and inequitable.
in a study of low-income urban families, Compton-Lilly (2000) found that parents overwhelmingly have high educational expectations for their children and expect their children’s teachers to have equally high expectations for them, particularly in reading;
in their study focusing on low-income African American parents, Cirecie West-Olatunji and her colleagues (2010) found that they regularly reached out to their children’s schools and stressed the importance of education to their children;
similarly, Patricia Jennings (2004), in her study on how women on welfare respond to the “culture of poverty” stereotype, found that single mothers voraciously valued and sought out educational opportunities for themselves, both as a way to secure living wage work and as an opportunity to model the importance of school to their children;
based on their study of 234 low-income parents and guardians, Kathryn Drummond and Deborah Stipek (2004) found that they worked tirelessly to support their children’s intellectual development;
during an ethnographic study of a racially diverse group of low-income families, Guofang Li (2010) found that parents, including those who were not English-proficient, used a variety of strategies to bolster their children’s literacy development;
a recent study shows, contrasting popular perception, that poor families invest just as much time as their wealthier counterparts exploring school options for their children (Grady, Bielick, & Aud, 2010); and
using data from the more than 20,000 families that participated in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Carey Cooper and her colleagues (2010) found, quite simply, that “poor parents reported engaging their children in home-learning activities as often as nonpoor parents” (p. 876).
As with any stereotype, the notion that people in poverty don’t value education might have more to do with our well-intended misinterpretations of social realities than with theirdisinterest in school. For example, some low-income families, and particularly low-income immigrant families, may not be as informed as their wealthier counterparts about how educational systems in the U.S. work (Ceja, 2006; Lareau & Meininger, 2008), an obvious consequence of the alienation from school systems many poor people experience, starting with their time as students. It can be easy to interpret this lack of understanding, which is a symptom, itself, of educational inequities, as disinterest. Similarly, it can be easy to interpret lower levels of some types of school involvement, including types that are not scheduled or structured to be accessible to low-income families, as evidence that low-income parents simply don’t care about school. But these interpretations, in the end, are based more on stereotype than reality. They are, for the most part, just plain wrong.
The challenge for us, then, is to do the difficult work of considering what we are apt to misinterpret, not simply as a fluffy attempt at “inclusion,” but as a high-stakes matter of student success. After all, research also shows that when teachers perceive that their parents value education, they tend to assess student work more positively (Hill & Craft, 2003). Bias matters.