Since the popularization of public education in the mid-nineteenth century, the school system has been the breeding ground for the future of the American country. Schools are the location for the creation of the nation’s leaders of mechanical engineers, neurologists, Supreme Court Justices, and CEOs as well as those who fill the less desirable roles of janitors, waiters, clerks, and gas station attendants. Many scholars and theorists believe it is more than coincidence that these lower paying and less stimulating jobs are most often occupied by working class and minorities. Various propositions are made to explain this phenomenon of some students participating in the powerful middle and upper class and others toiling in the lower class which Martin Carnoy and Henry M. Levin identify as the “reproductive dynamic” (Carnoy, Schooling and Work in the Democratic State 155). Some suggest social inequality is perpetuated by the apparent institutional structures such as segregated schools, poorly trained teachers, and uneven resources, while others investigate the more concealed structures such as tracking, teachers’ values and students’ personalities, and the effects of the dominant culture (Sadovnik 6-7). It is these structures that construct the “hidden curriculum,” the unconscious rules and patterns to allocate power and prestige to the middle and upper classes while denying them to the lower class.
Jeannie Oakes has proposed that curricular “tracking forces schools to play an active role in perpetuating social and economic inequalities” (Oakes, 457 in Sadovnik). Tracking is the process of grouping students of different abilities into corresponding classes (Oakes, 457 in Sadovnik). The highest achieving students, often the upper and middle class children, are placed into one category of classes pertaining to college preparatory and advanced math, English, science, etc., while the working class and minority students are tracked into the low-level courses concerned with vocational training and non-intensive math, English, and science. Students are often assigned to these tracks in elementary and middle school and remain in the same level track throughout high school preventing students from the upward mobility promised by the educational system’s “democratic dynamic,” that which claims schools are the instruments for creating equal opportunity among students of all backgrounds and ethnicities (Oakes, 459-460 in Sadovnik). “Access to knowledge” is thus dramatically uneven as the high-tracked students critically study college-level literature and mathematics and remedial-tracked students are taught basic grammar and computations (Oakes, 461 in Sadovnik). The students enrolled in low-level courses are never adequately, intelligently challenged preventing them from attaining financially successful and invigorating careers.
Oakes states that “teachers and administrators generally assume that tracking promotes overall student achievement” (Oakes, 458 in Sadovnik). They believe that the students will learn more if their classes are designed in accordance with their ability; students with high abilities are not held back by students with low abilities and the lower-level students can receive the necessary teacher-attention to succeed in gaining mastery of the lesson (Oakes, 458 and 463 in Sadovnik). Educational leaders also believe tracking is the best way to prevent self-esteem issues among the lower-achieving students (Oakes, 458 in Sadovnik). The students are not confronted by comparison and competition with the more able students, and are thusly better situated to learn at their own pace.
“Access to knowledge” is unequally divided among the high-tracked and low-tracked students. The intellectually rigorous skills are taught to the already high achieving students, while the low-track students are inundated with basic facts and lessons serving as direct transitions into the working force (Oakes, 461 in Sadovnik). The knowledge encouraged in high-tracked students is in-depth comprehension, analysis, and synthesis. College-level literature and mathematics fills the curriculum and students are assigned to write “thematic essays and reports of library research” (Oakes, 461 in Sadovnik). The knowledge provided for low-tracked students is limited in breadth and scope. Many assignments target assimilation into working class jobs and focus on “memorization or low-level comprehension” (Oakes, 461 in Sadovnik). These classes do not utilize intellectually stimulating resources, instead “workbooks, kits, and ‘young adult’ fiction” teaches the students limited reading skills (Oakes, 461 in Sadovnik). These students are not supplied with the tools necessary to succeed in school which translates to poor success in the work place. The students are “prevented from ever encountering at school the knowledge our society values most” (Oakes, 461 in Sadovnik). This process of poor education for low-status students never receiving the knowledge needed to move to a higher track relates to Carnoy and Levin’s “reproductive dynamic,” the students’ low status is perpetuated by the school system by retaining the students in the low-level courses which will reproduce their low-status in the work place.
Oakes presents tracking as a facilitating factor in the hidden curriculum because it ensures that the greatest knowledge is reserved for the upper and middle classes. This knowledge will translate in wealth and power as these students will be the ones to attend college and attain professional careers. Tracking promotes the reproduction of hierarchical power divisions under the illusion of providing the best instruction for the students’ needs. Teachers believe tracking will maintain students’ self-esteem and will enable them to understand the material, yet the students never obtain the knowledge that will give them an equal opportunity for success as the high-tracked students. The realities behind tracking would suggest that it is an ineffective way to balance the playing field between the working-class and the others. Teachers must either revise their approach towards lower-tracked classes and provide more intense lessons and materials and reevaluate the students’ abilities at the conclusion of each year, or tracking must be abandoned and students should be instructed in mixed ability classrooms.
Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis provide another look at the “hidden curriculum” by analyzing the Meyer study. They suggest that the school system promotes conformist students who submit to authority by attaching achievement and value on those students who display a submissive consciousness (Bowles and Gintis 137). “Submission to authority” is a phrase identified by Bowles and Gintis to label students which encompasses various personality traits such as “consistent, identifies with school, punctual, dependable, externally motivated, and persistent” (Bowles and Gintis 136). Consciousness is defined as the “beliefs, values, self-concepts, types of solidarity and fragmentation, as well as modes of personal behavior and development” that are instilled within in person through social interaction with family and outside institutions such as the school (Bowles and Gintis 127).
Teachers and administrators may justify their value placed on submission by asserting that it is this very submission which regulates who succeeds in the work place. Individuals who display the characteristics synonymous with the “submission to authority” label appeal to employers who wish to retain the prestige of that particular company because it is these individuals who are usually a part of the middle or upper class (Bowles and Gintis 141). Schools can argue that they want to give their students that best advantage in the work place by ensuring they comply with the social demands of corporate America.
While Bowles and Gintis provide in-depth analysis of the Meyer study and its implications towards education and career placement, they do not actively investigate how these characteristics and the accompanying reactions actually play out in the classroom. From my Weemes observations, I have encountered direct instances of a teacher valuing and favoring students’ compliance to authority. This teacher externally motivated her students by presenting punishment whenever the students were off task or misbehaved. This motivated the students to remain on task and follow any order administered by the teacher. Students who failed to comply were prevented from playing during recess. This particular teacher also enforced the value of consistency by following the same schedule everyday. Every detail of class is structured the same, including when the students are allowed to put away their reading books and take out their math packets. Students begin the day by putting away their backpacks, jackets, and school supplies. They then review their homework, put they papers away, take out their reading books, and read. The teacher’s insistence on order and following the schedule sends tacit messages to the students concerning the importance of consistency.
Bowles and Gintis identify the study as revealing that submission to authority is positively correlated to the attainment of higher status jobs; but unfortunately, the low-status students are the ones who most often reject or lack this personality and are thusly condemned to remain in the low-status jobs of their parents. This is the “reproductive dynamic” at work. The characteristics which are apparent in the middle and upper class students are those which correlate with academic and career success (Bowles and Gintis 141). The working class students are once again left at a disadvantage in education and career as their low socioeconomic status is reinforced by the school system. This reproduction goes unnoticed because teachers, administrators, parents, and students do not question the validity of teachers’ values and how students’ personalities affect their academic performance. Teachers want to help their students obtain every advantage by encouraging those characteristics valued by our society; but, at the same time, are providing a situation deleterious to those students who do not conform to those values because they cannot academically succeed and do not gain any support for progress.
Pierre Bourdieu claims that schools are influenced by the dominant culture, the middle class commonly for public schools as the upper class attends private schools, and reflect those beliefs, values, and views held by the dominant class. Schools encourage the skills of the middle class and label those skills as necessary for academic achievement and career success (Bourdieu 57). The middle class’ control over the educational system results in cultural reproduction where standards and requirements that will accommodate the middle class and continue their interests and power, but also sets the lower class at a disadvantage in acquiring social mobility, forcing them to remain at the bottom of society (Bourdieu 58). The dominant culture possesses the cultural capital, the inherited knowledge, views, and skills serving as a kind of social wealth, which is considered valuable in American society (Bourdieu 58).
Bourdieu suggests that schools and those who organize the schools are reluctant to provide a multicultural education because they assume that the dominant culture’s culture is the culture of everyone (Bourdieu 57). The dominant culture is available to every culture and is thus the best way to communicate with students. It is a common ground for all to come together and learn. A multicultural education would not meet all of the needs of any student, whereas an education based on the dominant culture meets the needs of most students.
Annette Lareau, in using Bourdieu’s framework, reveals how closely related middle-class families socialize and schools socialize. Her research displays family interaction where the parents rationalize situations with their children and asked the children questions (Lareau 88-89). The children had to consider the question and make reasonable responses, enforcing the notion of critical thinking that schools also employ. Children in both home and school situations are encouraged to realize their own solutions to problems, while low-class families do not provide situations where children can rationalize and solve and problems. Working class students are thus at a disadvantage when entering school because they do not know how to participate in the school’s structure.
The school’s organization fuels the reproductive dynamic because working-class students are not given the chance to succeed. The school targets a middle-class discourse which is not understood by the working-class students. They cannot relate to school and become discouraged by the fact that they perform poorly in class. Meanwhile, the middle class students excel in the environment that conforms to their cultural understanding. This reproductive dynamic continues unseen by most because it assumed that the school’s values are what should be valued by the educational system and the work force. The entire system is never called into question as it is seemingly how the system essentially is.
Bowles and Gintis and Bourdieu state that the culture and values of the upper and middle classes are those which are enforced in schools; and unfortunately the working class students are not acquainted with this culture and are punished through grades and discouragement. Oakes insists that these students are prevented from gaining these needed skills by being placed in low tracks and never being given the required skills to succeed in school or the workplace. The reproductive dynamic is thus continued as students cannot move up the social ladder and will remain a part of the working class.
The social structures presented by Oakes, Bowels and Gintis, and Bourdieu seem to create a very low sense of self-concept in the working-class students. They are made to believe, not that their skills are not as valuable, but that they lack any skills as only the skills of the dominant culture are validated as actually being skills. The working-class students are given nearly no chance to succeed and are made to believe their failure is their own fault. I imagine students who face these structures in particularly harsh forms can develop deep psychological problems concerning their abilities and life chances, dropping out of school and participating in crimes as a result. Understanding the consequences of these structures is vital as a prospective teacher to know how to break the cycle in my classroom. Recognizing when situations are unequal and will result in disadvantages for those students who need every advantage to succeed in our society is crucial in becoming the kind of teacher a student grows up thinking about as being the “one who made it all possible.”