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Middle-Class Students Ask For More Help Than Working-Class Peers, Create Own Advantages

Students Raise Hands

First Posted: 12/07/11 03:17 PM ET Updated: 12/07/11 03:32 PM ET

Disparities in success among students from varying socioeconomic backgrounds and communities have long been attributed to the resources available to them from schools and their families. But a new report suggests that while home and institution are factors, inequalities in education also reflect differences in the resources that children can identify and secure for themselves in the classroom.

According to a study released today from the University of Pennsylvania, children from middle class families ask their teachers for help more often and more assertively than children from working class families. As a result, middle class students tend to receive more support and assistance from their teachers.

"We know that middle-class parents are better able than working-class parents to secure advantages for themselves and their children, but not when and where they learned to do so, or whether they teach their children to do the same," study author Jessica McCrory Calarco said in a statement Wednesday. Calarco is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology in UPEnn's School of Arts and Sciences.

The paper, "'I Need Help!' Social Class and Children's Help-Seeking in Elementary School" is published in the latest issue of the American Sociological Review. Calarco followed students for three years -- from 3rd to 5th grade -- and specifically examined those children's role in how they try to secure advantages for themselves in the classroom.

She found that middle-class students more proactively and assertively asked teachers for help. They often directly called out or approached teachers, sometimes making requests even if it means interrupting the teacher. Working-class students, on the other hand, rarely admitted they were struggling and tended to wait for assistance and rarely actively sought help, only making requests as a last resort. When those students did seek assistance, they did so more passively and tended to wait longer for teachers to notice. Sometimes when teachers don't take notice, working-class students gave up entirely.

An example from the report briefs an instance in which 5th grade student Jared, from a working class family, is sitting out of teacher Ms. Hudson's direct line of sight while she is explaining a food web assignment. Jared is visibly confused. From the report:

He tips his head to the side, but hesitates a moment. After a long pause, Jared raises his hand slowly and only halfway with his elbow bent. At the same moment, however, Jamie, a middle-class girl, calls out curiously, asking: "Do we have to draw [the food web]?" Ms. Hudson turns toward Jamie, explaining: "No, just arrange the cards."

As Ms. Hudson was answering Jamie's question, Jared let his hand droop, resting his forearm on his head. Not seeing Jared's hand, Ms. Hudson then told the children to head back to their seats and get to work.
While Jared still has a puzzled look on his face, he hears this announcement and drops his hand down by his side. He gets up and heads back to his seat with the rest of the class.

Jared was confused about the assignment -- going back to his desk, he arranged his cards in a line instead of a web and never completed the assignment correctly. Despite this lack of understanding, however, Jared did not call out his question, even after watching Jamie do the same.

Calarco does note in her research that middle-class children tend to glean their more assertive habits from home, as those parents are more likely to explicitly encourage their children to be comfortable with asking questions and actively seeking help, "and also deliberately coach children on the language and strategies to use in making these requests." She also points out that while teachers don't intentionally privilege certain students, they tend to be more receptive to how middle-class children seek assistance.

"What that means is that middle-class kids' help-seeking skills and strategies effectively become a form of 'cultural capital' in the classroom -- by activating those resources, middle-class kids can secure their own advantages in the classroom," she explained. "It also means that children play a more active role in stratification than previous research has recognized."

In 2009, the dropout rate for low-income students was five times greater than their high-income counterparts -- 7.4 percent compared with 1.4 percent, according to an October report by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Another study released last month by the Pew Economic Mobility Project showed that students from low-income and less educated families are further disadvantaged -- not only compared to their peers from higher income and well educated families, but also compared to their counterparts in other countries. Those students are both disadvantaged in educational and academic success as well as opportunities for income mobility.

Still, the American Dream survives even in the areas hit hardest by the recession. In places like Seminole County, Fla., more than 1,100 homeless students traverse its public schools. CBS's 60 Minutes aired a report last month that profiles those families who have reached the point where they can't even make ends meet in motels -- and have resorted to living out of their cars.

But for those children, education is "everything," 15-year-old Arielle Metzger told CBS' Scott Pelley.

"I plan to be a child defense lawyer," Metzger says. "If I focus on my studies, I have that opportunity."

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Filed by Emmeline Zhao  |