This article was originally published on TalkPoverty.org.
From Grades 4 to 6, I went to a small, independent school in West Los Angeles. I was the first Black child at the school, and for the first two years, I was the only one. I was also likely the only student who wasn’t upper-middle class. Before I even set foot on campus, my mother sat me down and told me that my future classmates would have more than me — much more — but it didn’t mean they were better than me. It didn’t mean I wasn’t good enough. “You are just as good as any other child there,” she said.
But even with those words of encouragement, there were still times when I felt I was lacking, and that I stuck out like a sore thumb — beyond the difference in my race and skin color. I had my fair share of racist encounters: classmates asking if we were going to get shot by gang bangers on a school trip to see Watts Towers, and being bullied by boys who were universally kind to the white girls in my class. I also had my first experiences with classism, even at the age of 9.
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Classism — especially in a country where most people believe they are middle class — is subtle and implicit. It was there when my Spanish teacher didn’t realize some students might not be able to afford a camcorder to complete an assignment, until my mother called and asked for an alternative way for me to complete the project. It was there when the same teacher became inexplicably obsessed with my statement, during a class discussion, that I owned an armoire. She was concerned enough about my furniture to talk to my mother about it at a parent-teacher conference: “Loryn claims she has an armoire, but I really think she was trying to fit in with the wealthier kids,” she said.
Those moments were embarrassing, and that embarrassment kept me in my place (which is to say, quiet). Then the class gap started to steer entire curriculums. Like a lot of students, I struggled with math. But while other students had access to expensive tutors, I had to rely on the lessons in school or my parents helping me whenever they could. I often got answers wrong when I was called on, which led to the other kids teasing me. It got to a point where I didn’t even bother raising my hand to speak — I didn’t want to feel that embarrassment again.
In the classroom, we acted according to our status: The rich kids asked for attention, while I tried to be obedient. Research shows that’s typical: An Indiana University study concluded that social class leads to differences in how parents tell their kids to navigate school. More affluent parents tell their kids to ask questions and actively seek attention, while working class parents tell their kids that asking for extra help is disrespectful. And so, the divide between the haves and have-nots is multiplied.
This divide makes the current administration’s emphasis on “school choice” a hard sell. President Trump’s budget called for a $250 million increase in voucher programs, which would pay for more students to attend private schools. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has not provided many additional details, but she is an outspoken advocate for school choice programs, arguing that it focuses on the needs of the individual child. But more often than not, sending students to schools with more resources simply means they’re attending schools that are whiter and wealthier. And that comes with a culture shock.
A study by the Department of Education showed that test scores fell when students moved from public to private schools. Though there are a number of potential causes for the drop in performance, researchers suspect that the different behavioral expectations — just like the ones that plagued me — play the biggest role. And it doesn’t help that teachers have lower expectations for students of color and students from disadvantaged backgrounds — those expectations actually play a bigger role in student outcomes than a student’s own motivation or effort.
If you are convinced that private school vouchers are the answer to the country’s education woes, you will also need to be ready to prepare students who do not come from wealthy families for the classism and class differences they will face. This means training teachers and other faculty to be sensitive to how these differences affect the way kids learn — and yes, how to unlearn the assumptions they may make about poor students.