Why Working-Class Kids Don’t Ask Enough Questions in School

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Because of the Occupy movement, coverage of the widening wealth gap, a certain best-selling book by a certain rock-star economist, and a bunch of other factors, inequality has been a hot topic in the United States the last few years. Embedded in the main debate over widening inequality is a smaller, heated sub-debate about the question of culture: specifically, whether and to what extent we should look to cultural differences to explain diverging economic outcomes. (Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates had a fascinating back-and-forth on the question of race and culture back in March.)

One new study offers a fascinating, if slightly depressing, example of how cultural differences in kids’ behavior may contribute to economic stratification.

In a paper that will be published in the October edition of the American Sociological Review, Indiana University sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco writes about what she saw when she observed a bunch of third-through-fifth-graders in a public school. Crucially, she only studied white kids — she wanted to isolate the effects of socioeconomic class. What she found, as McCrory put it in the study's press release, is that “Middle-class parents tell their children to reach out to the teacher and ask questions. Working-class parents see asking for help as disrespectful to teachers, so they teach their children to work out problems themselves.”

The natural question, she said in an email to Science of Us, is why working- and middle-class parents give their kids different sorts of guidance about proper behavior in school. "What I found was that middle-class parents were deeply involved in their kids' schooling, and as a result, had a lot of detailed knowledge about what today's teachers expect," she said. "Working-class parents tended to be less involved and, as a result, relied on their own experiences in school to gauge what teachers would expect (i.e., 'My teachers used to yell at students if they asked for help')."

Whatever the causes of these differences, it's easy to see how this could lead to bad outcomes in the classroom for the quieter students. Let’s say two third-graders enter the school year in the exact same place, academically and cognitively speaking. One of them is constantly raising her hand, asking the teacher to explain this or that, while the other, remembering admonitions from her parents not to waste her teacher’s valuable time, doesn’t. The first kid’s going to get a lot more attention, as well as a class more tailored to her personal strengths and weaknesses as a learner, and as a result, she will likely end up progressing at a faster rate.

Obviously, this doesn’t, on its own, “explain” inequality any more than regressive state taxes or food deserts or any other single part of this giant, 12-dimensional puzzle. But it’s still interesting to see such a specific example of how these mechanics might play out in daily life — especially among members of such a young, vulnerable population.