Saturday, December 3, 2011

Poverty and Education-The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy



For my Historical Struggles for Educational Equity Class at USD, we have assignments called Roundtables.  Twice during the semester we are given a specific article to read and become an “expert” on.  We have to read the article thoroughly and be able to explain the arguments and sub-arguments to the class.  We then have to come up with one or two discussion questions to pose to the class.  The second roundtable that I did was on an article by Ray Rist entitled “Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations:  The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education”.  This article was written in 1970, and there was also an introduction to the article written by himself thirty years later, commenting on whether or not things have changed since he wrote the original article.  I want to summarize what I learned from this article and introduction because I believe that it is something that our schools and society still struggle with today and it is important as future educators to recognize that poverty in education is a problem and work to start eliminating some of this self-fulfilling prophecy that happens in our schools.
This article, in summary, details a study that Rist and some of his colleagues did in a school in St. Louis.  Rist quotes his motivation for the study, “Many studies have shown that academic achievement is highly correlated with social class.  Few, however, have attempted to explain exactly how the school helps to reinforce the class structure of society.”  Rist’s major goals of the study include determining the importance of teacher’s initial expectations for the success or failure of students, to analyze the critical factors in the teacher’s development of expectations  for students and how that shapes the classroom experience, and to describe how imposing inequalities on children result in differential education experiences for children of different social-class backgrounds. 
Rist gives his argument in five propositions:
1.        The teacher possessed a rough “ideal-type” as to what characteristics were necessary to achieve success both in school and society.
2.       The teacher made subjective evaluations of the students, then divided them into groups of students expected to succeed (“fast learners”) and those expected to fail (“slow learners”).
3.       Differential treatment was given to each of the groups.  The “fast learners” were given the majority of the teaching time, reward-directed behavior, and attention from the teacher.  The “slow learners” received more frequent control-oriented behavior and little, if any, supportive behavior from the teacher.
4.       Interactional patterns between the teacher and the different groups in the classroom became rigified, taking on caste-like characteristics, with the gap in completion of academic material widening.
5.       A similar process occurs in subsequent years, but has taken on an objective outlook because of information provided by the previous teacher and academic record.

Rist’s main argument is this, “The public school system is justifiably responsible for contributing to the present structure of the society, but the responsibility is not its alone.  The school strongly shares in the complicity of maintaining the organizational perpetuation of poverty and unequal opportunity.”

     The study was done in the St. Louis public school system and began in September of 1967 in Kindergarten.  Rist and other observers went into the classroom twice a week for an hour and a half each visit.  In first grade they did four informal observations, and in second grade (1969) then resumed the same type of visits as in Kindergarten, but only for the first half of the year.  A little bit of background information on the school:  Built in the 1960s, K-8, one special education class, 900 students, 26 teachers, 1 librarian, 2 physical education teachers, 1 Principal, 1 Assistant Principal, and a part-time speech therapist, social worker, nurse, and doctor.  Some things to note is that all administration, teachers, and staff were black, 55 percent of the students come from families on welfare, and the population around the school was 98 percent black.

      The Kindergarten teacher evaluated her students from different sources of information.  These sources included:  a pre-registration form, information from the social worker about students on welfare, an initial interview with the parents, a behavioral questionnaire, and experience with older siblings (or information passed on from other teachers about older siblings).  Something important to note is that NONE of these sources of information had anything to do with academic ability and/or academic potential. 
The Kinder teacher grouped the students on four major criteria:
1.       Physical appearance (body odor, hair, clothes)
2.       Interactional behavior (i.e. leaders vs. followers)
3.       Use of language (Standard American English vs. Black Dialect)
4.       Series of social factors (i.e. family conditions, income, education, and size)
Rist argues that the teacher developed a series of expectations about the potential performance of each child and grouped  them according to perceived similarities in expected performance.  STILL NOTABLE:  There was no formal testing of students’ academic ability and all of this grouping was done within eight days of the start of the school year.  The teacher criteria was based on her personal experience, as she was middle class, college educated, had a neat and clean appearance, her family was intact and was interested in her well-being, development, and education.  These experiences resulted in differential behavior towards certain students throughout the school year.

There are two examples of this differential behavior towards the students by the Kinder teacher that really stand out for me:

“(The students are involved in acting out a skit arranged by the teacher on how a family should come together to eat the evening meal.)  The students acting the roles of mother, father, and daughter are all from Table 1 (the “fast learners” table).  The boy playing the son is from Table 2 (the “slow learners” table).  At the small dinner table set up in the center of the classroom, the four children are supposed to be sharing with each other what they had done during the day---the father at work, the mother at home, and the two children at school.  The Table 2 boy makes few comments.  (In real life he has no father and his mother is supported by ADC funds.)  The teacher comments, “I think that we are going to have to let Milt (Table 1) be the new son.  Sam, why don’t you go and sit down.  Milt, you seem to be one who would know what a son is supposed to do at the dinner table.  You come and take Sam’s place.”

“Lilly stands up out of her seat (Table 3-“Slow Learners”).  Mrs. Caplow asks Lilly what she wants.  Lilly makes no verbal response to the question.  Mrs. Caplow then says rather firmly to Lilly ‘Sit down.’ Lilly does.  However, Lilly sits down sideways in the chair (so she is still facing the teacher).  Mrs. Caplow instructs Lilly to put her feet under the table.  This Lilly does.  Now she is facing directly away from the teacher and the blackboard where the teacher is demonstrating to the students how to print the letter, ‘O’.”

     Rist argues that through observations such as these, the teacher was creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  This is supported by the teacher observations of the students at each of the different tables:
Table 1:
“I guess the best way to describe it is that very few children in my class are exceptional.  I guess you could notice this just from the way the children were seated this year.  Those at Table 1 gave consistently the most responses throughout the year and seemed most interested and aware of what was going on in the classroom.”
Tables 2 and 3:
“It seems to me that some of the children at Table 2 and most all the children at Table 3 at times seem to have no idea of what is going on in the classroom and were off in another world all by themselves.  It just appears that some can do it and some cannot.  I don’t think that it is the teaching that affects those that cannot do it, but some are just basically low achievers.”

     The Kinder teacher was also enabling the negative attitudes of the “higher” students towards the “lower” students, which perpetuates the attitudes prevalent in the different social classes in society.  This treatment also had psychological effects on those that were labeled “slow learners”.  These effects included:  staring into space, not completing work (or even trying), aggression towards each other, name-calling, and threatening each other.  Rist argues that there is a myth that children are inherently cruel, but says there is evidence from this study that much of the cruelty displayed was a result of the social organization of the class.

    In first and second grade, the most important things to note were that there was no upward mobility of students within groups, so the social class stratification within the classroom took on a caste-like rigidity.  Each of the teachers were similar to the Kinder teacher in background and beliefs, but the biggest different in their evaluations of the students was that whereas the Kinder teachers were subjective, the first and second grade teacher’s became objective.  Rist observes of the second grade classroom, “No matter how well a child in the lower reading groups might have read, he was destined to remain in the same reading group.  This is, in a sense, another manifestation of the self-fulfilling prophecy in that a ‘slow learner’ had no option by to continue to be a slow learner, regardless of performance or potential.”

    This argument shows the self-fulfilling prophecy for both those children at Table 1 and also the children at Tables 2 and 3.  For those at Table 1, this self-fulfilling prophecy happens in 4 stages:
1.       The teacher developed expectations regarding students possessing a series of characteristics essential for future academic success.
2.       The teacher reinforced these students through positive differential behavior.
3.       The children responded with more behavior that gained them attention and support of the teacher.
4.       The teacher then focused more attention on these students because they manifested behavior she desired.
The self-fulfilling prophecy for those students at Tables 2 and 3 also happened in 4 stages:
1.       The students were put at these tables because their behavioral and attitude characteristics were perceived as showing academic failure.
2.       The students showed a reinforcement of the teacher’s initial expectations and “proved” that the students were not similar or equal to the “fast learners”.
3.       The children withdrew because of lack of support from the teacher who had deemed them “failures”.
4.       There became a cyclical repetition of behavioral and attitudinal characteristics that led to the initial labeling of these students as educational failures.

Rist details two theories of the teacher’s role in this self-fulfilling prophecy of maintaining social class separation within the classroom.  The first is that the reinforcement by the teacher of the characteristics in the children that she had perceived as leading to academic failure, may, in fact, have created the very conditions of student failure.  The second is that the teacher developed the system of caste segregation within the classroom because she believed that the “ghetto” community inhibited the development of middle-class success models (so in effect, it was her duty to “save” at least one group of children from the “streets”).  Rist pulls this all together to argue that schools are transmitting values and attitudes necessary to legitimize and continue social organization (the idea that the “lower” are not allowed to be a part of the “higher”).  The significance of this study and Rist’s argument is summed up well in this quote, “When a teacher bases her expectations of performance on the social status of the student and assumes that the higher the social status, the higher the potential of the child, those children of low social status suffer a stigmatization outside of their own choice or will.”  I think that this statement is really powerful because it really makes you think about the idea in society that we are living the “American Dream” in which all people in our country have the opportunity to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and it is an individual choice and based on your own motivation on whether or not you succeed in life.  This study shows that poverty is not something that is easily overcome and with our own education system contributing to the social stratification of our society, these children really have no chance.  Yet, we blame them.  THEY are the ones who don’t care.  THEY are the ones who put themselves where they are.  THEY aren’t motivated.  THEY don’t take advantage of the opportunities given to them.  I think that we as a society really need to think about the institutions in our country and if these institutions really provide EQUAL opportunities for ALL.  Rist ends his article with a really powerful statement, “The system of public education in reality perpetuates what it is ideologically committed to eradicate—class barriers which result in inequality in the social and economic life of the citizenry.”

Rist says in his introduction to this article that in 30 years basically nothing has changed.  Things have not gotten better.  He notes that Black children in remaining urban schools are now overwhelmingly poor.  He states that there is little evidence that urban schools are any better prepared or positioned to address issues of color and class.  He believes that the rhetoric of education is opportunity but that is not the reality of the bottom 20 percent, which is an argument that is being ignored.  Rist argues that the stratification of the American underclass is now more permanent and pervasive than 30 years ago.  He believes that having a window into the actual lives and views of others, especially those who are not like one’s self, can be a powerful means of conveying information and creating new awareness.  He argues for diversity and that we need to give a voice to the poor and marginalized and if we don’t do this, then the decisions made in education and everywhere else will reflect the perceptions and values of those making the decisions.  I think we see this now in education (which is about 11 years even after his introduction was written).  We are not giving a voice to the poor and marginalized, and when we do, we don’t take them seriously.


The two questions I posed to the class for discussion were:
1.        Reflect on the actions of the teachers.  What needs to change in order for the elimination of social stratification within the classroom to happen?
2.       If these changes were implemented, how might the outcomes of this study have turned out differently for the students?

If you made it all the way to the end, thank you so much for taking the time to read this unusually long post.  I would love it if you would leave comments about what you think about the study and/or the subject of poverty and education, and also if you could answer the questions I posed.

Thanks again,
Sherilyn

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