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Exploring Equity: Class

How educators can push back against hidden curriculum and the inequalities they may reinforce in the classroom
Diverse group of kids hiding behind books

Socioeconomic status shapes many aspects of a child’s development, including how parents raise a child, how families choose schools, how teachers educate, and how a child learns. Yet “class” is not an identity that educators in the United States consider within their schools and classrooms as routinely as they do race, ethnicity, or gender, says Xin Xiang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who taught a new module this January on how class shapes identities and experiences in educational contexts, as part of a pilot of HGSE’s Equity and Opportunity Foundations course.

This may be because, in most modern societies, schools tend to be relatively homogeneous socioeconomically — working-class children and upper-middle-class children rarely go to school together. Schools have different hidden curricula, Xiang says, depending on the class they serve, which cultivate class-related skills and identities and prepares children toward specific educational trajectories. For example, she says, consider how an affluent school may emphasize student creativity, complex answers, and discovery with a focus on rigor and excellence, as compared to a working-class school, where the focus may be on rote memorization more than conceptual understanding or creativity.

>> Learn more about Equity and Opportunity and HGSE’s other foundational learning experiences.

Educators can take steps to interrogate or push back against hidden curriculum and the inequalities it may reinforce, says Xiang. Here are three ways to recognize and consider the role of class in shaping a student’s identity or educational experience:

  1. Recognize how class impacts your students’ lives at home and in school. “Some students have parents who can supervise and help them complete worksheets and projects at home, but some students have parents who don’t even understand what’s on the worksheet because of their own limited schooling,” Xiang says. This is just one example of how class can affect a student’s ability to conform to teachers’ expectations. In middle-class homes, parents may coach children on how to negotiate with authorities and argue for themselves, Xiang says, whereas working-class parents tend to emphasize following instructions and not talking back. As a result, middle-class children tend to get more attention, resources, and leniency than working-class children. Not only does class affect whether families can afford extra tutoring and extracurriculars, the different hidden curricula that children experience at school also shape their identities, habits, and attitudes.
  2. Learn more about your students. Use information provided to you about the demographics in your school’s community to better understand how class may be affecting them and their behaviors. If you have questions or need more information, there are ways to simply talk with students and gain insight into their lives, Xiang says. Building relationships can help you better anticipate and respond to students’ needs and understand what kind of support to provide.
  3. Change what you do and how you react. Once you are aware of the structural factors at play, address class inequalities in your daily practice. For example, not completing homework may not always equal laziness or inattention, says Xiang. Learning about where a student attended elementary school or the amount of support they have at home could help you identify a need for remedial programs or extra attention at school. Similarly, as you learn how class backgrounds shape how children interact with authority, you may rethink how extensions or extra help are handed out, ensuring that every student has access to these aids, and not just the loudest voices.

“As educators, it’s easy to attribute these differences we see in classrooms to a student’s ability, engagement, or effort, but in fact there are a lot of structural factors at play,” says Xiang. “It’s crucial for educators to learn to see the structural conditions underlying a student’s behaviors and performances so that they can address these unequal conditions rather than placing the blame on the most disadvantaged individuals.” A thoughtful educator thinks about what backgrounds their students come from, what they bring to the classroom, and whether assignments, expectations, and rules are equitable, Xiang says. With that kind of consideration, educators can work to meet students where they are.

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