In this report, I examine the effects of the dominant middle-class discourse on students of low socioeconomic status. Focusing on current political policies, i.e. Race to the Top, to the school and classroom level instruction, I try to see how current policy ignores a student’s primary discourse and how this ignorance affects student growth. In my methodology, I researched a variety of articles to provide a theoretical and evidence based reasoning for my stance. My research analysis demonstrates that the more a teacher involves a student’s primary discourse into lesson curriculum, and introduces the secondary discourse into their households, the better the student growth and discourse retention. My research revealed many insights and implications I hope to use as an educator and future administrator. In immersing oneself into the community in which the school is located, one can truly bridge the discourse divide between home and school.
Discourse and Its Impact on Learning:
The majority of classroom curricula, texts, teacher preparation courses, and national discourse are presented in the class-privileged and middle class vernacular. When discourse differs between socioeconomic statuses (SES), the low SES discourse is left out of classroom curriculum by those instructing it (Dutro, 2010). Though mainly unintentional on the teacher/classroom level, the higher than average levels of first and second year teachers at low SES schools rely heavily on corporate generated texts that ignore the dominant discourse of schools containing a high number of students in poverty (Hughes, 2010). Not connecting to a student’s primary discourse hinders classroom instruction and behavior as it limits how a student can express him or herself (Dutro, 2010). It is then the school administrator’s job to address any areas of need in regard to discourse by a bottom-up leadership approach that encourages teachers to become introspective of their own dominant discourse and how it relates to their classroom instruction.
Payne states that a main function of a formal institution, i.e. school, is to create a relationship between a student’s primary and secondary discourse. If the secondary discourse is not connected to the primary, the student will not retain the secondary discourse as it is non-advantageous to their daily lives (2005). It is this loss of secondary discourse that affects low academic achievement and graduation rates among those students with low SES. According to the Hughes, demographic data from the 2005 U.S. Census determined that 37.9% of low SES students did not obtain a high school diploma, compared to 14.3% of middle to high SES (2010). This rate will only be exacerbated as the current recession has caused the U.S. poverty rate to continuously rise the past four years, which was 46.2 million in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 (Denavas-Halt, 2011).
Current Solutions on the Political Level
Recently, politicians and corporate interests have tried to address the socioeconomic gap through Race to the Top (RttT), a program in addition to No Child Left Behind. It emphasizes competition between states, incentive pay for teachers based on student performance, and closing “failing” public schools, replacing them with privately owned charter schools. The program is modeled after Chicago’s Renaissance 2010, a corporately driven plan with a top-down approach intended to economically transform depressed communities into by dispersing low SES families to no greater than 40% of a school population (Lipmann, 2009). Chicago Renaissance 2010 is trying to achieve this goal by opening charter magnet schools with the hopes of attracting more middle class families that speak the dominant discourse thus improving city test scores (Lipmann, 2009).
The problem with this current political approach is that it masks the causes of low SES by not dealing directly with poverty and its culture, i.e. low SES families tend to be single parents, non-English-speakers, and less educated (Hughes, 2010). Low SES students are merely moved with the hope that they will assimilate to the middle-class discourse as they become the minority. The current political approach does not bridge the primary/secondary discourse low SES students face on a daily basis. The classroom teacher needs to be conscious about the low SES disconnect between primary and secondary discourse, and if it is not directly addressed it in his/her instruction, dropout rates in these communities will remain high.
Challenge to Educators: Belief Systems of the Dominate Discourse
Many low SES students have difficulty adapting to the secondary discourse learned in school, due to a lack of empathy of teachers and administrators. Administration and educators from the dominant discourse do not need to adapt to the discourse around them. Their primary discourse dominates the society and they subconsciously adapt to discourse patterns, register changes, and middle-class discourse. As a result, administrators and educators have trouble empathizing with students from a low SES households which can lead to frustration and arguments, affecting a student’s classroom discourse (Dutro, 2010). This can also cause a ripple effect as the student is unable to convey their feelings into words, which can result in misbehavior (Payne, 2005). Society then views students in low SES schools as “behavior problems,” causing these schools become harder to staff. As a result, low SES schools usually have a higher rate of first and second year teachers who rely on the corporately made texts, and the cycle continues (Hughes, 2010).
Educators Working to Ensure Student Success
The current political and school-wide models only perpetuate the current cycle by hiding the low SES, objectifying them into statistics, and dispersing them as problems. Districts and schools need to implement a more bottom-up approach, beginning with teacher training. Hughes states to truly change the current system there needs to be a systematic adjustment in attitudes about low SES students and families (2010). Teachers need to be trained in curriculum empathy by more consciously connecting core standards, not to the texts, but to the students’ lives. Administration and teachers need to be made aware of the corporately driven dominant discourse in which curriculum texts are written today. Teachers need to provide the bridge to low SES students by allowing them to have different viewpoints than what is written in the teacher’s edition of the curriculum (Dutro, 2010). They must immerse themselves into the primary low SES discourse and negotiate it into the secondary discourse on which a classroom runs. This will connect low SES students to the core curriculum and allow them to bridge the divide by schematically connecting their primary and secondary discourses.
Woodland Park High School in Colorado has successfully connected their students’ primary and secondary discourses. At Woodland Park High School, a math and science teacher had trouble connecting the mathematic and scientific discourses in their classrooms with the primary discourse of their students. To remedy this problem, they came up with “the flipped-classroom.” They video-taped their lectures onto podcasts and fundraised money for IPods, which the students would take home and watch the lecture for homework. When the students came to school the next day, they were instantly immersed into applying the lecture’s discourse into a hands-on lab. They noticed a hidden benefit of the flipped classroom, parents were watching the lectures with their students and were able understand the classroom discourse and use it with their child at home (Pi Lambda Theta, 2011).
It is important that administrators and educators become conscious and empathetic to low SES students and their daily struggles with primary and secondary discourses. The federal government’s current policy of RttT emphasizes competition, teacher paid incentives, and closing “failing schools,” which will only lead to further dispersing and hiding of the low SES families. Teachers programs and administrators need to recognize this, and better train future and current educators to be more introspective about primary discourse and how to connect with low SES students in their discourse and how to structure a bridge to cross the discourse divide between home and school. Creativity also needs to be emphasized, like that of Woodland Park High School, to realize what can be done to bridge the divide and achieve success. It is only in connecting with primary student discourse, validating it, and acknowledging it, can administrators and educators truly build an interactive classroom for all.
Dutro, E. (2010, February). What hard times’ means: Mandated curricula, class-privileged assumptions, and the lives of poor children. Research in Teaching of English, 44(3), 255-291. Retrieved October 14, 2011, from ERIC database.
Hughes, J. E. (2010, Spring). What teacher preparation programs can do to better prepare teachers to meet the challenges of educating students living in poverty. Action in Teacher Education, 32(1), 54-64.
Lipmann, P. (2009, September). The cultural politics of mixed-income schools and housing: A racialized discoudisplacement, exclusion, and control. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 40(3), 215-236. Retrieved October 19, 2011, from ERIC database.
Payne, R. K. (2005). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc.
Pi Lambda Theta. (2011, October/November). Flipping the classroom. Educational Horizons (90), 5-7.
Denavas-Halt, C., Proctor, D. B., & Smith, J.C. (2011). Income, poverty and health insurance in the United States. Retrieved October 22, 2011, from U.S. Census Bureau Web Site http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/incpovhlth/2010/highlights.html