A few weeks ago, my second grader's teacher chose him as the class's Leader of the Month. He didn't tell his dad or me. When he got the T-shirt that comes with the honor, he went upstairs and tucked it into his dresser without saying anything.
I spent my middle school years (and OK, also the 26 years since then) as an awkward nerd, and when I saw what he was doing, my heart sank. Could he already be picking up on the idea that being praised at school was a bit shameful? But when I asked him about it, he seemed less worried than dismissive. Leader of the Month, he told me, was stupid. I thought about it a little, and I think he's right.
The thing about Daniel (which I'll pretend for this purpose is my son's name) is that he gets recognized a lot at school. His report cards come home with comments that make it clear that he's among the high achievers. When he got a particularly good score on a standardized test recently, his teacher let the whole class know.
Do I enjoy bragging about this stuff? God knows I do. But Daniel is not some sort of academic superstar. What he is is the child of highly educated, middle-income parents, in a school where most kids aren't. When he was born, board books flooded in from grandparents and friends. Without thinking about it at all, his dad and I chattered non-stop to him—a middle-class norm that many poor parents work very hard to adopt. Sending him to a decent preschool was a big expense for us, but not the laughable extravagance it would have been for a lot of our neighbors.
The effects of class stratification in this country are stark. High levels of stress in low-income households hurts kids' brain development long before they enter school, and the differences only widen as they get older.
In other words, we’re lucky. Daniel's achievements are the predictable result of material advantages that make his life easier than many kids' and a cultural background that equips him with skills that schools value. And as economic inequality in this country grows, it's getting more and more ridiculous to ignore the systemic reasons that some kids do better in school than others.
More than three quarters of the kids in Daniel's school get free or reduced-price lunches, which means their families make less than 185 percent of the federal poverty line. That's $36,612 a year for a family of three, for example. In the age of Thomas Piketty and Elizabeth Warren, it’s become increasingly clear what that means: They're already living with disadvantages that will affect their whole lives. On average, an eighth-grader from one of the nation's lowest-income families reads about as well as a rich third-grader. And the gap has widened fast. The difference in reading ability between the 90th and 10th income percentiles for Daniel's generation is 40 percent larger than it was for kids like me with birth dates in the 1970s.
I found out that Daniel was chosen as Leader of the Month when his friend, who I'll call Sonia, mentioned it. Sonia doesn't get the kind of accolades in class that Daniel does. Her family lives in a drafty apartment above neighbors who yell a lot. They've moved multiple times in her eight years, living with Sonia's grandma at one point and an aunt another time. Her parents work odd hours at retail and food service jobs, making it hard to help with homework. One week she had trouble sleeping because she was staying on her parents' bedroom floor to make room for family friends who had gotten evicted. It may not surprise you to hear that she struggles with grade-level reading and math.
Sonia hasn't learned the same skills Daniel has, but she has other ones. She can navigate her neighborhood by herself, visiting aunts, cousins, and friends who live nearby. She's polite and self-possessed and quick to make herself useful if there's a bag that needs to be carried or a littler kid who needs some kind of help. On all these fronts, she's years ahead of Daniel.
In her 2003 book Unequal Childhoods, sociologist Annette Lareau looked at the lives of 10-year-olds from different economic classes through intensive case studies of their families. She found that the kids from middle- and upper-middle-class backgrounds developed big vocabularies, comfort with authority figures, and strong abstract thinking skills. Working-class and poor kids learned other things: how to show respect for adults, keep themselves entertained, and be good allies to their brothers and sisters.
These skills aren't always celebrated by schools or other social institutions that shape our lives—which, not coincidentally, are run by the upper middle class and the rich. Being able to confidently travel the neighborhood hasn't won any praise for Sonia at school; it's gotten a state social worker called to her house to make sure she's being properly supervised. Her teachers give her extra help while other kids are at recess and buy her food and clothes to bring home, but they don't point to her achievements as examples for the rest of the class.
If a teacher holds Daniel up to his working-class peers as an example of someone who's doing something special to reach those standards, that really is stupid. In general, the things that make him a good student aren't things he controls.
The effects of class stratification in this country are stark. High levels of stress in low-income households hurts kids' brain development long before they enter school, and the differences only widen as they get older. The mechanisms we use to fund schools often exacerbate the problems by providing the most resources to the students who need them the least. Even many low-income kids who defy the odds and do well in high school don't go on to great colleges, in part because their families often have trouble navigating the application process. And, of course, there's the question of paying for college. Ultimately, nine percent of young people in the bottom quartile of U.S. income levels get a bachelor's degree by age 24, compared with 77 percent in the top quartile. Even more strikingly, the graduation rate rose only three percentage points for the low-income kids since 1966, while it nearly doubled for the wealthiest.
Public school teachers are charged with setting high standards for all their students, regardless of the odds. But if a teacher holds Daniel up to his working-class peers as an example of someone who's doing something special to reach those standards, that really is stupid. In general, the things that make him a good student aren't things he controls. And it's even more stupid when schools in wealthy towns brag about high test scores that are a predictable result of their student body's demographics, or when school administrators act like shouting "no excuses" at low-income kids is a substitute for adequate funding.
A lot of students of color grow up with adults telling them they'll have to work twice as hard as white people to get the same rewards. That might be kind of a shitty message for kids to hear, but I think it's better than pretending there's no such thing as racism and that, any time they fail, it's on them.
The same message could easily apply to class: Sure, every kid can succeed, but given the unfair world we live in, some will need to work a lot harder and get a lot more support. I'm doing my best to encourage Daniel to keep being a great big nerd. I'm proud of his love of puns and his quick grasp of how multiplication works, and I'm more excited than I should probably admit that he's getting into playing Settlers of Catan. But pride in how he performs in class comes dangerously close to implying that kids like Sonia, who are growing up without the resources he's always had, are somehow lesser than him.
Privilege is a word that rankles in this country. Even if we recognize systemic inequalities, it's hard to acknowledge that we've benefitted from them. And it seems especially harsh to suggest a little kid's achievements aren't really his own. But I'd like to think that's exactly what Daniel meant when he said that Leader of the Month is stupid. He's certainly at least somewhat aware of the hierarchies that shape his small world, and he knows he hasn't done anything particularly virtuous or difficult (compared to children from lower-income families) to rank relatively high within them.
I want Daniel to know that he lives in an unfair world in part so he doesn't think he's earned something that Sonia hasn't. But there's also another piece. If he gets the chance—as I sure hope he will—to go to a selective college and have an exciting professional career, many of his peers will come from far wealthier backgrounds than he does. And if that happens, I hope he'll be gentle with himself about the ways he'll no doubt fall short. If he doesn't have the same skills as kids who grew up with Mandarin-speaking nannies and vacations in Europe, that's no more a personal failing than Sonia's difficulties learning multiplication.
Of course, I hope Sonia will go on to a great college and great career, too. The two of them aren't statistics. They're kids who sing songs from Frozen and love fart jokes and have unlimited potential to surprise everyone around them. They both surely do have a chance for all the success in the world. I just can't honestly say their chances are equal. And I think it's probably best for both of them to be aware of it, even if it does make that Leader of the Month T-shirt seem kind of stupid.