How Schools Leave Less Privileged Kids Behind
A new study suggests important ways for teachers to support lower-income students.
TGIF, everyone! Recently, NYU psychologist Andrei Cimpian reached out to me to share a new study he and his collaborators published. Dr. Cimpian’s earlier work is featured in my book, and I’ve covered it here and here too. So I always take a close look at research he sends my way.
The new study, which he published with researchers at Stanford, Northwestern University, and Université de Poitiers in France, has important implications for early childhood education, because it highlights another potential reason why young lower-income students often struggle at school: They aren’t given as many opportunities to participate in class. This is worrisome considering that there’s an important relationship between school engagement and academic achievement.
I know I have a number of subscribers who are teachers, so I felt this was an important study to share and unpack here — and I think it’s helpful for parents to understand what’s going on in schools, too. I’m going to talk about what the study found, why it’s important, and share several suggestions the researchers have for teachers in light of their findings.
What the Study Found
One longstanding theory about the so-called “achievement gap” is that kids with less privilege don’t do as well at school because they arrive at school with various academic and language “deficits” that persist throughout school (perhaps, among other things, because their parents talk to them less at home). Cimpian and his colleagues wanted to investigate this hypothesis and explore if school-related factors might also fuel the problem.
First, Cimpian and his colleagues videotaped and analyzed 49 whole-class discussions at four preschools in France. (Although they were preschool kids, the average age of the kids was five-and-three-quarters, so they were more like U.S. kindergarteners.) They also measured the students’ language proficiencies.
They found that kids from middle and high socioeconomic status families spoke in class after being called on by a teacher 46 percent more frequently than low class students did, and that the higher class students also spent more time talking after being called on. When the researchers analyzed unsolicited participation, they found that students from middle- and high-class families spoke in class without being called on 71 percent more frequently — and interrupted other kids 74 percent more frequently — than lower class students did.
Importantly, these differences persisted even after accounting for any language deficits, which, as the researchers write, suggests that the discrepancies do “not reflect ability differences but rather inequalities in opportunities for engagement.” (Other recent work has raised questions about the purported language gap between high and low-income kids, too.)
In a separate arm of the study, the research team presented preschoolers with fictional scenarios involving kids at another school. They asked the kids to share their opinions about students who, they were told, participated a lot in class discussions. The kids said they believed chattier kids were smarter, better at school, nicer, and better liked by teachers compared with less chatty kids.
The researchers found these peer evaluations worrisome because they could create a vicious cycle whereby higher income students who participate more in class become better liked and valued by their peers, which then makes them more confident and more likely to stay engaged in school — and that this cycle might also ”exacerbate the inequality in opportunities for engagement that already disadvantages low-SES students.”
Implications for Teachers
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