Social Class in the Classroom: Highlighting Disadvantages
By Megan Smith
Students in the classroom come from differing backgrounds and home environments, and certainly some students begin school with a greater advantage than others. A great deal of research has demonstrated a relationship between social class and academic achievement (1). (In 2007, the American Psychological Association put together this report to outline what we know about socioeconomic status and academic achievement.) However, we do not fully understand all of the ways social class leads to differing levels of academic achievement. Are classrooms arranged to mitigate the effects of social class on academic achievement? Or, are they further widening the gap? In a research paper that went to press at the very end of 2016 (2), Sébastien Goudeau and Jean-Claude Croizet begin to address these questions.
Goudeau and Croizet conducted three studies with 5th and 6th-grade students in France. The purpose of the experiments was to examine whether typical classroom procedures, such as hand-raising, might highlight existing differences between students from working-class families and students from middle-class families, subsequently widening the achievement gap between students from these different backgrounds.
In the first study, 6th graders from both upper-middle-class families and working-class families took a difficult reading comprehension test. The students read a difficult text (designed for 7th graders) and then answered 15 questions presented one-at-a-time on a screen. Classrooms were randomly assigned to one of two conditions:
Hand Raising: In this condition, achievement differences between students were made visible. When students were done answering a question they were instructed to raise their hand to signal that they were done with a question.
No Hand Raising: In this condition, achievement differences were not visible. students were told explicitly not to signal when they were done with a question.
Students in from upper-middle-class families performed better on the reading comprehension questions than those from working-class families, though this result is not surprising in light of previous research. Students from working-class families performed worse on the reading comprehension test when the hand-raising procedure was used. These results suggest that highlighting the superior performance of their peers through hand-raising led to a decrease in their own performance. A simple procedure often used in classrooms, such as raising ones hand when they are done with a question, actually increased the achievement gap between the two social class groups. The upper-middle-class students were not affected by the hand-raising procedure.
In study 2, the researchers tested the idea that working-class students underperform because of lower familiarity with academic culture, and highlighting these differences leads to even lower performance. To directly study this, the researchers manipulated how familiar students were with academic standards in a task, which served as a proxy for social class. Some students were given extra training on the task. The researchers then used the same hand raising procedure with one group of students while the other group of students did not raise their hands when they knew the answer to a problem.
The pattern of results was the same as from study 1. As was to be expected, students who were more familiar with the task performed better than students who were less familiar with the task. When students were highly familiar with the task at hand, the hand raising had no effect on their performance. But, when students were not very familiar with the task, the hand-raising procedure led to lower performance. Thus, highlighting different starting points during a task leads to lower ability students to perform even worse.
Up to this point, it seems that highlighting differences between groups of students who are more or less familiar with a task through hand raising leads to the disadvantaged students performing even worse. In study 3, the researchers attempted to mitigate the harm caused by highlighting the disadvantages. In this study, some students were made to be more familiar with the task then others, and all of the students used the hand raising procedure. However, in some classrooms, the students were told that some classroom peers were more familiar with the task because they had better training.
Results indicated that, again, students who were more familiar with the task performed better than students less familiar with the task. For students who were highly familiar with the task, talking about whether the students were familiar with the task had no effect on their performance. But, for students who had low familiarity with the task, being made aware of a previous disadvantage led to better performance than when the disadvantage wasn’t mentioned.
Take Home Message
The researchers showed that educational contexts can amplify achievement gaps between social classes. Asking students to raise their hand to signal their achievement (when they knew an answer) highlights differences in performance between students, making it more visible. This can lead to students in lower social classes, or with lower familiarity with a task, to perform even worse than they would have. In other words, highlighting performance gaps with no explanation for the gap can make the gap even wider! However, making students aware of the fact that some are more familiar with the tasks, due to extra training, can mitigate these issues.
(1) APA Task Force on Socioeconomic Status (2007). Report of the APA Task Force on Socioeconomic Status. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/task-force-2006.pdf
(2) Goudeau, S., & Croizet, J. C. (2017). Hidden advantages and disadvantages of social class: How classroom settings reproduce social inequality by staging unfair comparison. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797616676600