Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education

Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education

by Peter Sacks

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We often hear about the growing divide between rich and poor in America. This compelling exposé, backed by up-to-date research, locates the source of this trend where we might least expect to find it—in our schools. Written for a wide audience, Tearing Down the Gates is a powerful indictment of American education that shows how schools, colleges, and


We often hear about the growing divide between rich and poor in America. This compelling exposé, backed by up-to-date research, locates the source of this trend where we might least expect to find it—in our schools. Written for a wide audience, Tearing Down the Gates is a powerful indictment of American education that shows how schools, colleges, and universities exacerbate inequality by providing ample opportunities for advantaged students while shutting the gates on the poor—and even the middle class. Peter Sacks tells the stories of young people and families as they struggle to negotiate the educational system. He introduces students like Ashlea, who grew up in a trailer park and who would like to attend college, though she faces constant obstacles that many of her more privileged classmates can't imagine. Woven throughout with voices of Americans both rich and poor, Tearing Down the Gates describes a disturbing situation that has the potential to undermine the American dream, not just for some, but for all of us. At the heart of this book is a question of justice, and Sacks demands that we take a hard look at what equal opportunity really means in the United States today.

Editorial Reviews

New York Review Of Books - Andrew Delbanco

“An indignant and informative book.”
Against The Current

“Sacks understands class in a multi-faceted way. . . . [The book] is an insightful work written from a critically important perspective.”

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Tearing Down the Gates

Confronting the Class Divide in American Education
By Peter Sacks

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 Peter Sacks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24588-4

Chapter One


Ashlea Jackson remembers the moment she decided to choose a different path than her troubled brothers had followed. She was in fourth grade, and one day, walking down the hallway, she looked up when she heard some girls call out her older brother Justin's nickname, "Jay Jay."

"They were saying, 'Bye, Jay Jay,' and I turned around and saw my brother being taken out of the school in handcuffs by two cops, and that is when I knew I didn't want to end up like my older brother," Ashlea told me. "He was in fifth grade. He was eleven or twelve. I mean, that is something I will never forget. Because that was the first time I'd ever seen anyone in handcuffs."

This happened at Whittier Elementary, a school in Boise, Idaho, which draws virtually all its students from Garden City, a geographically strange and often-forgotten enclave, out of sight of most Boiseans, where Ashlea lived for several years. Garden City includes some of the Boise area's poorest families. Surrounded by the city of Boise, Garden City itself has no public school, and so the largely Hispanic and poor children from its many trailer parks are bused to Whittier, which is part of the Boise school district. In any given year, more than 90 percent of Whittier's threehundred students are eligible for the school's free lunch program.

Debbie Bailey is Whittier's principal of two years. Before that, she served as principal of a far more affluent elementary school in Boise for seven years. Earlier in her career, she received special training at the Cooperative Urban Teacher Education Program in Kansas City and taught in a number of urban schools before returning to her home state of Idaho.

Bailey took the job at Whittier because she missed the sorts of kids who go to schools like this one. But she was also painfully aware of the challenges of keeping Whittier afloat in the era of No Child Left Behind, with its mandate to meet annual test score targets or face closure by the government. Bailey knows where her students come from, and she knows all too well that she and her staff are limited in what they can do for these kids, who start the academic race so far behind their peers in other schools-peers who start out and grow up with all the opportunities that their well-to-do families and schools provide.

She described Garden City's trailer parks this way to me: "The majority of our kids are bused from Garden City. I live right up the hill from there, and the trailer parks down there were eye-opening to me. They're horrible. They're a ghetto. They are Boise's ghetto."

* * *

In truth, I do not know many kids like Ashlea, living where I do and knowing the people I know. I first met Ashlea when she was twelve or thirteen through my wife, Kathleen, who is her Big Sister. When I spoke with her over a period of several months for this book, Ashlea was in her junior year of high school. Over the years, I've watched her struggle with school and with life, facing difficulties associated with growing up poor that are unimaginable to children in most middle-class families. The difficulties she faces come with being poor, but they also come from the lack of something far more intangible: the cultural, social, and economic "capital" that upper- and middle-class families routinely provide their children. The benefits of such capital manifest themselves in a multitude of both highly visible and often subtle ways that make going to college, and going to good colleges, a common destiny for the children of wealthier families.

After being escorted out of Whittier Elementary by the police at age eleven, Ashlea's older brother would spend several years in and out of juvenile detention at various facilities across the state. By the age of eighteen, he was married and living with his wife and the child of a former girlfriend, although he soon would be divorced.

Her younger brother wound up at an alternative school for troubled kids. "His biggest problem is that he does not want to go to school," Ashlea explained. "And, basically, they are saying if you do not go to school, then you go to Juvie, pretty much."

When Ashlea realized that she didn't want to end up like her brothers, staying out of trouble became a conscious choice that she made daily, because trouble was all around her in the Garden City trailer parks. "There were always a lot of problems," she says. "There were always cops."

When Ashlea was in elementary school, being from Garden City wasn't a big deal, because all the students at Whittier were bused in from Garden City. But when she moved to junior high at Riverglen, surrounded by nice houses in middle-class neighborhoods, Garden City became a place of shame for her.

"I didn't let on that I lived in Garden City, because I was ashamed of it," Ashlea admitted. "Nobody knew that I lived in Garden City. When someone asked me where I lived, I would say I lived up the hill. There were like two hills, so nobody really knew."

During these years, I heard how the family became homeless after they confronted a slumlord in their Garden City trailer park over holes in the walls of their rented trailer. I heard about the family getting kicked out of a homeless shelter because Ashlea's mother and father refused the humiliation of being split up according to the shelter's single-sex rules.

During her sophomore year, Ashlea tried to commit suicide in a bout of severe depression, and school officials tried to remove her from school-just two weeks before the end of the school year-claiming she had too many absences after her suicide attempt. I watched Kathleen, loath to interfere in Ashlea's life in ways that might be inappropriate for a Big Sister, draw the line at this heavy-handed move by the school.

As a physician, Kathleen knew what Ashlea's parents might not have realized: schools were organizations run by people who could be influenced. Kathleen got on the phone with Ashlea's high school counselors, school officials, coordinators at Big Brothers Big Sisters, private counselors she knew from her medical practice, and others in order to keep Ashlea in school.

During all this, Kathleen said more than once to me that the school would have treated a middle-class child far differently than it treated Ashlea, and she wasn't going to stand for it. In effect, Kathleen did what most highly educated and affluent parents would have done in a similar situation, deploying whatever knowledge, information, contacts, political clout, stature in the community, and financial resources she had to ensure that Ashlea's interests were protected-drawing on her own cultural and social capital to help Ashlea in ways that the Jacksons didn't know how to do or perhaps weren't in a position to do.

* * *

Families matter when it comes to the academic success of children, and the social class background of children matters. That much is given. But these things matter far more than the recent approaches to education policy at the federal and state levels-which have an inveterate obsession with schools as the agent of social change-would lead most people to think. Indeed, the nation's preoccupation in recent years with standardized test scores and public school accountability belies more than forty years of social research, which underscores that schools themselves contribute insignificantly to student achievement relative to what children bring with them to school from the first day of kindergarten-derived largely from the social class background of their parents and grandparents and from other aspects of their life beyond school.

The 1966 Coleman Report first staked out this ground. Titled Equality of Educational Opportunity, this far-reaching study, headed by prominent sociologist James S. Coleman, grew out of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The report's fundamental finding was that families' social and economic status, the stuff that children bring to school, trumped just about all else in accounting for students' educational achievements and prospects.

Coleman summarized that report:

Taking all these results together, one implication stands out above all. That schools bring little influence to bear on a child's achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school. For equality of educational opportunity through the schools must imply a strong effect of schools that is independent of the child's immediate social environment, and that strong independent effect is not present in American schools.

The unavoidable policy implications are that good schools can go only so far in raising the achievement levels of disadvantaged children and that attacking the problem with policies that improve the social and economic conditions of individuals and families will be more effective than creating policies aimed just at schools. (I should note, however, that, in addition to the influence of family on individual student achievement, the socioeconomic characteristics of a student's peers also had a powerful effect on Coleman's data. Ironically, these peer effects were weakest for the very advantaged groups whose parents might be most conscious of choosing the "right" schools for their children. But for disadvantaged students, the socioeconomic background of other students at the school they attended was of considerable importance.)

In one way or another, the basic findings of the Coleman Report have been reiterated in the research literature ever since. About thirty years later, The Black-White Test Score Gap, edited by Christopher Jencks and Meredith Phillips, documented that fully two-thirds of the gap in school achievement between white and black students could be explained when the researchers accounted for the full range of social and economic conditions of individual students, a range that went far beyond the conventional factors of education and income and included such intergenerational resources as those passed on by grandparents to their heirs.

In trying to pinpoint the source of the class advantages that affluent parents provide children, researchers in recent years have paid considerable attention to the concept of "cultural capital," a term widely attributed to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. His notion of cultural capital, explains Patricia McDonough in her book Choosing Colleges, "is precisely the knowledge that elites value yet schools do not teach.... Cultural capital is of no intrinsic value. Its utility comes in using, manipulating, and investing it for socially valued and difficult-to-secure purposes and resources." In Bourdieu's analysis, various types of human capital can be converted into other forms. Family wealth, for example, produces cultural and social capital for children: the children of well-to-do families are able to attend museums, study art, or acquire useful social networks. Such parents provide their children with skills, resources, and-perhaps most important-a sense of social power in the world. What's more, schools and the larger society reward and reinforce that social power, all under the guise of supposedly merit-based selection methods that favor the most culturally privileged-a self-reinforcing system that reproduces social class advantage.

Indeed, this ineffable sense of social power and confidence that wealthy parents pass on to children showed up vividly in Coleman's data. Along with schools, families, peers, and other possible influences on student achievement, the Coleman Report examined the extent to which student attitudes explained differences in academic performance. Coleman discovered that students' motivation, interest in school, self-concept, and sense of control over the environment-all intimately related to one's class background-produced surprisingly strong effects on academic achievement.

"For children from advantaged groups, achievement or lack of it appears closely related to their self concept: what they believe about themselves," Coleman wrote. "For children from disadvantaged groups, achievement or lack of achievement appears closely related to what they believe about their environment: whether they believe the environment will respond to reasonable efforts, or whether they believe it is instead merely random or immovable."

But schools seemed largely powerless to affect these attitudes, according to Coleman's findings: "This study provides little evidence concerning the effect of school factors on these attitudes," he wrote. "If family background characteristics are controlled, almost none of the remaining variance in self concept and control of the environment is accounted for by the school factors measured in this survey.... It appears reasonable that these attitudes depend more on the home than the school."

Conservatives have taken Coleman's conclusion to suggest that student attitudes are simply a question of individual choice, as if parents can just choose success or failure for their children by providing them with the right values. But the research evidence paints a far more complicated picture. Attitudes are situated in economics and the social tastes acquired from one's class position. A family can, in effect, "buy" the right values for its children with sufficient wealth, income, time, and knowledge.

For example, in their ethnographic study of children from working-class and middle-class neighborhoods, Tiffani Chin and Meredith Phillips discovered stark differences among children in terms of summer activities and vacations-differences that stemmed not from parental values but from family resources. While working-class children's summer activities tended to be unorganized and nonacademic, affluent parents variously organized book clubs, involved children in university research projects, arranged piano lessons, and provided many similar sorts of enrichment.

"Even though children's summer experiences are stratified by social class, most parents from all social classes aspire to develop their children's skills and talents," Chin and Phillips write in Sociology of Education. "Most parents from all social classes believed that they should actively nurture their children's development, and most tried to do so. Yet, relative to the working class and poor parents, the middle-class parents tended to be more successful in constructing highly stimulating summers for their children because they tended to have greater financial resources, more flexible jobs, and more knowledge about how to match particular activities to their children's skills and interests." They continue, "These social-class differences probably produce both a 'talent development gap' and a 'cultural exposure gap,' which, if exacerbated each summer, contribute to disparities in children's future life chances."

While there's little doubt that a child's family circumstances account for most of his or her chances of success in school, the exact sources of this family effect are uncertain. Does family income matter more or less than, say, providing children with lots of learning opportunities, such as puzzles, games, and a daily newspaper? Does cultural capital matter more or less than a family's financial capital?

One recent international study, for example, found that a child's cultural capital at home trumped family economics in predicting school success. Researchers Yang Yang and Jan-Eric Gustafsson examined some sixty-two thousand students in twenty-three countries in order to see how student resources and possessions at home, such as having books, newspapers, and computers, compared to family financial resources in predicting reading achievement. "The results show the cultural aspects of home background to be more important than the economic aspects in accounting for individual differences in reading achievement," the researchers conclude.


Excerpted from Tearing Down the Gates by Peter Sacks Copyright © 2007 by Peter Sacks. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"An indignant and informative book."—New York Review of Books

"Sacks understands class in a multi-faceted way. . . . [The book] is an insightful work written from a critically important perspective."—Against the Current

Meet the Author

Peter Sacks is an author, essayist, and social critic who writes and speaks extensively on education and American culture. He is author of Generation X Goes to College: An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America and Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We can do to Change it. His essays have appeared in The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Boston Review, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and other publications.

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