Public schools are intended to be great equalizers, but children from different racial groups and socioeconomic backgrounds often have persistent achievement gaps even though they may get special support for learning.
What is it about a disadvantaged background that leads to a persistent achievement gap? Jacob Cheadle, one of the many researchers to tackle this issue, writes in the Sociology of Education that class-based parenting strategies may be key to understanding the gap, especially in the early school years. Parents of higher socioeconomic status (SES) seem to guide development more actively than parents of lower SES who are more likely to allow spontaneous development, he says.
Cheadle conducted a longitudinal study of more than 14,000 children to examine the impact of social class differences in parents’ “concerted cultivation” of their children’s lives on academic achievement.
According to Cheadle, an ethnographic study several years ago by Annette Lareau reported “pronounced social-class differences in the ways parents organize their children’s lives around adult-orchestrated leisure activities, interact with teachers and the educational system, and verbally and academically engage their children.” Parents higher in socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to reason and negotiate with their children, he notes, while parents from lower classes are more likely to use directives and restricted codes of speech.
“Lareau suggested that higher-class parents engage in ‘concerted cultivation’–the deliberate cultivation of cognitive and social skills, whereas lower-class parents engage in a collection of practices that she termed ‘the accomplishment of natural growth,’ which are geared toward children’s spontaneous, rather than guided development.”
Using comprehensive data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999, Cheadle identified 3 measures of concerted cultivation that could be used to study the impact of what Lareau described as concerted cultivation.
One measure was whether the child has ever, outside of school hours, participated in dance lessons, organized athletic activities, clubs or recreational programs, music lessons, art classes or lessons, and organized performing arts programs.
Another measure of parental involvement asked whether any of the adults in the household had attended an open house or back-to-school night, attended a PTA or PTO meeting, been to a regularly scheduled parent-teacher conference with the child’s teacher, attended a school or class event, volunteered at school or served on a committee and participated in a school fundraiser.
There was no direct measure of the ways in which parents speak to their children, he says. The best available measure was the number of the child’s books.
Concerted cultivation is related to children’s academic skills at kindergarten and early in their academic careers, the researcher writes. “These results indicate that early in their educational careers, children recoup modest returns to the concerted cultivation pattern of educational investment, although the returns appear to decrease as children age.”
The effect on growth was modest, suggesting that concerted cultivation is only a partial explanation, he writes. While Lareau did not believe concerted cultivation explained racial or ethnic gaps in learning, Cheadle says his results show that, after controlling for socioeconomic background, the concerted cultivation pattern of educational investment was related to the black-white reading gap at kindergarten and to the Hispanic-white gap over the study period.
“One would not expect the return to disadvantaged children’s reading scores from a book-distribution program to be the same as that reported for this sample, for example, because disadvantaged parents do not approach reading the same way as do advantaged parents,” Cheadle writes.
Participation in public after-school programs also would also not have the same returns.
“Not only are these programs likely to be larger and of lower quality, but disadvantaged children are probably not likely to spend their time commuting with their parents, talking with them about their day, and contextualizing their experiences,” Cheadle says.
Educational Investment, Family Context, and Children’s Math and Reading Growth from Kindergarten Through the Third Grade Jacob E Cheadle, Sociology of Education, Vol. 81, No. 1. (January 2008), pp. 1-31.