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Education’s help-seeking gap

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Esther Cepeda
January 15, 2012
— “Ask and ye shall receive” has become our mantra in a society where for many of us, asking for what we want or need is second nature.

Yet for those who have been drilled with the comforting adage “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” the results of a recent study by Jessica McCrory Calarco, a sociologist from the University of Pennsylvania, will no doubt be a surprise: Our nation’s low-income public school students don’t know how to ask for help.


Based on long-term observations of third- through fifth-grade students in one socioeconomically diverse public elementary school, the study, published in the December 2011 edition of the American Sociological Review, found that middle-class students ask their teachers for help more often and more assertively than do working-class students and, in doing so, receive more support and assistance from teachers.


Middle-class children were also much more proactive and assertive in approaching teachers with questions and requests, sometimes interrupting the class. Working-class children rarely sought assistance and often only as a last resort or in more understated ways, hanging back from a group or sitting quietly with their hands raised.


The author found that unlike working-class parents, middle-class parents explicitly encouraged their children to feel comfortable asking their teachers for help and taught them the language and strategies to use in getting support. In other words, each set of parents passed their own aid-seeking skills on to their children.


When I ran across a story about the study, I was amused that this was news to anyone—probably because I had spent my professional teaching experience with low-income and minority students. Compared to the wealthier students who start to curry favor in lower grades and grow up to be grade-grubbers in high school, the majority of my low-income students had to have student-teacher interactions dragged out of them.


Unfortunately, not knowing this crucial difference in student assertiveness allows educators, policymakers and well-meaning observers who don’t regularly interact with working-class people to rely on their own beliefs about how engaged and motivated students act. They then never fully understand what our current and next generations of diverse students need to succeed.


Recently Gene Marks, a Forbes magazine contributor, wrote a widely condemned column called “If I Were a Poor Black Kid”—listing free Internet-based learning tools and minority scholarship opportunities he would take advantage of if he lived in poverty.


His theory was that with hard work, free tools and opportunities designed for disadvantaged students, even the very poor can lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Marks didn’t recognize that low-income youth often have no idea such tools and opportunities exist and don’t know how or whom to ask about them.


“Privilege has this really interesting way of blinding folks to experiences different from their own, and you have to consider the impact of that on our public schools,” said Christopher Emdin, a professor and director of secondary school initiatives at the Urban Science Education Center in New York.


“There are lots of aspects to think about: We know that teachers don’t earn as much as they should, but we know that teachers are strongly middle class, and in diverse and low-income schools they generally make higher salaries than that of parents,” Emdin told me. “The nature of their communication styles are just totally different—how can we expect parents to teach kids how to engage with people who are not like them?”


And this doesn’t even take into account cultural differences. Like many poor white students, Hispanics and Asians grow up intimately familiar with sayings such as “children are meant to be seen and not heard.” Yet Emdin noted that many classrooms, black students’ enthusiasm is dulled by requirements to sit still and be quiet.


Experts working to improve educational outcomes for low-income and minority students often look to curriculum and technological innovations to bridge the gaps. Perhaps the biggest advances lie in training educators to understand the different ways that low-income students must be engaged, and in directly instructing those students on how to ask for help.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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