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IU sociologist’s book shows how middle-class elementary students negotiate advantages in school

Jul 25, 2018

Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco set out to study the dynamics of friendship between middle-class and working-class students in a socioeconomically diverse elementary school. But as she spent time in the school, her focus shifted to differences in how students interacted with their teachers.

Middle-class students, she said, consistently advocated for themselves. They asked for help with tests and homework. They made excuses when they didn’t get their work done. They expected exemptions from the rules. They talked themselves out of trouble. They kept pushing until teachers said yes.

Working-class students, on the other hand, deferred to authority and expected to face consequences if they didn’t do what teachers asked. The result was that middle-class students secured advantages in the classroom, getting more assistance, while working-class students were sometimes ignored.

Jessica Calarco
Jessica Calarco

“These students are getting very different opportunities in school,” Calarco said. “The middle-class kids are getting out of trouble. They’re getting help on tests and extensions on assignments. They’re getting more time and support from teachers. Ultimately, they get better grades, and they’re more likely to end up in advanced classes.”

The assistant professor of sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences details her findings in “Negotiating Opportunities: How the Middle Class Secures Advantages in School.” Published this year by Oxford University Press, the book results from years of research in which she observed students as they moved from third through fifth grade, then followed up with them when they reached middle school.

Calarco, who conducted the research as a doctoral student, planned to study cross-class friendships in the school. But her attention shifted to obvious differences in the way students interacted with teachers. Middle-class students, typically with college-educated professionals for parents, used what she calls “strategies of influence” to get what they wanted. Working-class students, whose parents worked in blue-collar or service jobs, used “strategies of deference” and waited for teachers to offer help.

Even when middle-class and working-class children attended the same school and had the same teachers, Calarco said, “social class still mattered a lot in terms of the way kids talked to teachers, the way they negotiated advantage in school, the way they tried to get attention.”

Along with extensive classroom observation, her research included interviews with teachers, students and parents. Middle-class parents revealed that they taught their children to advocate for themselves and ask teachers for help. Working-class parents taught that teachers’ directions should be followed and, if their children made mistakes, they should face consequences.

In a reversal of what one might expect, students who respected authority and accepted the rules ended up paying a price – they got less help and attention and were more likely to get in trouble. And it wasn’t because they didn’t want to do well in school.

“The kids, regardless of social class, craved the teachers’ attention,” Calarco said. “Especially in elementary school, students want to do well. They don’t want to misbehave. They want their teachers to like them.”

Teachers didn’t deliberately play favorites and often weren’t attuned to their students’ class status, she said. But pushing back against middle-class students’ requests often seemed to take more time away from lessons. And teachers were aware that certain parents would advocate for their children and push back if teachers tried to deny their children’s requests, creating another incentive to provide students the help and attention they wanted.

Figuring out how to truly level the playing field in the classroom will be difficult, Calarco said. Middle-class parents could use their powers of persuasion to ensure that all children have access to the help and support they want for their own children. But those parents have little incentive to give up the advantages they have gained.

 A first step would be for teachers and schools to recognize the class-based dynamics that play out in the classroom, she said. Administrators can support teachers who push back against students and parents who demand special treatment. And teachers, if provided enough time and resources, can reach out to working-class students and provide them with help and attention, even if they don’t ask for it.

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