Almost a half century ago, the famed sociologist James Coleman conducted a study of the factors that most powerfully influence academic achievement for American students. Authorized by Congress as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Coleman Report analyzed 600,000 students in 4,000 schools. Many expected that the study would find that per pupil expenditure drives achievement, or that racial segregation does. But Coleman found something different: the biggest predictor was the socioeconomic status of the family a child comes from. The second biggest predictor? The socioeconomic makeup of the students in the school a child attends. Today, low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools are educationally two years behind low-income kids who are able to attend more affluent schools.


Class Rules: Exposing
Inequality in American
High Schools

by Peter W. Cookson Jr.
Teachers College Press, 146 pp.

With Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools, another veteran sociologist, the educator, scholar, and author Peter W. Cookson Jr. (whom I’ve known since 2010), returns to Coleman’s central idea, with an interesting twist. Employing qualitative rather than quantitative methods, Cookson finds that the socioeconomic status of the students in a school affects much more than academic outcomes. He finds that high schools “pass on class position through rites of passage that instill in students the values, dispositions, and beliefs of their class.” Certain schools groom students to be leaders, while others channel adolescents into the laboring class. The manner is not as explicit as the way West Point graduates become Army officers or seminaries graduate clerics, but it nevertheless happens with great consistency. Cookson writes that “almost nobody discusses this function of schooling, but it is very real.” High schools have a “latent curriculum,” a set of rules and norms that are written in considerable measure by fellow students. Almost as importantly, high schools also have different physical narratives that send what Cookson calls “unspoken messages.” “Do I go to a school that is beautiful, well equipped, and mirrors back to me a sense of privilege,” he asks, “or do I go to a school that reflects back to me poverty, disorganization, and confusion?”

Cookson focuses on high schools because they are such formative institutions—indeed, Americans spend nearly 6,000 hours of their lives there. High schools are critical in the process of forming class identity, he contends, because “they enroll … socially unformed adolescents who over time are, in a social sense, reborn.”

In Class Rules, Cookson paints portraits of five schools spanning the socioeconomic spectrum, four of which he has studied for decades: Highridge Academy, an elite private boarding school; wealthy suburban Meadowbrook High; Riverside High, in a middle-class neighborhood; Patrick Henry High, in a rural working-class community; and Roosevelt High, in a destitute urban area. (All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the subjects.)

Cookson examines the quite distinct “class rites of passage” in these schools. At Highridge, the boarding school, students are educated amid 1,000 acres of carefully manicured grounds. The halls are adorned with oil paintings, and the driveways are lined with “large majestic oak and maple trees [that] signal that Highridge was not born yesterday,” Cookson writes. The food is “abundant, tasty and healthy,” sports are an obsession, and gossip centers around vacation plans.

At upper-middle-class Meadowbrook, the physical plant is impressive. The parking lot is filled with expensive foreign cars (in the student section) and more modest American-made cars (where the teachers park). Police are present, but only to direct traffic.

Middle-class Riverside is modest: there are few playing fields, and the architecture, Cookson writes, “echoes that of the small office buildings found in the area,” with “no wasted money on charm, no individuality.” At the same time, the teachers, many of whom began their careers in urban schools, feel fortunate to be in a safe environment, and visitors may enter the school without showing identification. When trouble erupts, police are rarely called.

At working-class Patrick Henry, there are no large fields, and the buildings are made of brick and cinder block. With low ceilings and few windows, Cookson writes, “the school was built with cost savings and functionality in mind.” There is no need for police to direct traffic because most students ride the bus and can only dream of owning a car. But police are readily called by teachers for other reasons. “At Patrick Henry, the boundary between education and law enforcement is thin and easily crossed,” Cookson writes. Student gossip is likely to be “about who is getting out of rehab or having a court hearing.” Because lunch is frequently the students’ biggest meal of the day, they load their plates with extra—if unhealthy—portions when they can.

Meanwhile, underclass Roosevelt, located in the South Bronx—in the poorest congressional district in the country—has dimly lit hallways, no outside recreation facilities, and a high chain-link fence surrounding the faculty parking lot. Students must go through airport-like security to enter the building, and there is a permanent police presence within the school. “The Bronx is in your face,” Cookson writes.

The “authority narrative” also differs dramatically between schools, Cookson writes. “A very big part of class socialization is learning whether or not you are a follower, a leader, or a complete outsider,” and in high school, the principal is a key role model. At Highridge, the headmaster leads with an easy self-confidence, ruling “by indirection and inference.” At Meadowbrook, the principal is like a corporate leader, and is careful to stay on the right side of the school’s powerful parents. At Riverside, the principal rules like a mid-level professional. At Patrick Henry, the principal acts like a no-nonsense athletic coach: much more important to have a principal who can run a tight ship than to have one who is a visionary. Finally, at Roosevelt, the principal is part police officer and part clever bureaucrat—and has the mark of “an overworked and underappreciated civil servant.”

Class position is also reinforced by the curriculum and extracurricular activities offered. At Highridge, the curriculum is rigorous, classical, and worldly; the class size is small, the faculty experienced, the extracurricular offerings plentiful, and the student body sports crazed. At Meadowbrook, courses are intellectually demanding, classes small, and more than 100 clubs offered. At Riverside, fewer courses are offered, and sporting events are poorly attended since many students have jobs; still, 90 percent of Riverside students plan to go on to a four-year college. At Patrick Henry, where 70 percent of college-bound students will attend a local community college, the focus is on American rather than world history, because it is seen as impractical to explore other cultures. At Roosevelt, students sit in large classes, rely heavily on workbooks, and are frequently disengaged or sleeping in class. Yet 96 percent of parents report being satisfied.

From these very different experiences, students come away from high school with considerably different ideas about how they will fit into the adult world. At Highridge, says Cookson, “leadership is the watchword” and the students are expected to become part of the global social elite. It is little surprise, then, that the last five major U.S. presidential candidates all attended elite private boarding schools. Pupils at Meadowbrook take on “the mantle of merit,” and see themselves as part of a global business elite. At Riverside, the narrative emphasizes hard work, traditional values, and fitting into the regional economy. At Patrick Henry, students learn to labor, will likely marry someone from the local community, and often have little awareness of the outside world. The school’s leadership style prepares students for a life of employment where “there is a clear chain of command.” At Roosevelt, meanwhile, the system teaches students that they are powerless and unlikely to move beyond the confines of their poverty-stricken neighborhood. Leadership is out of the question, says Cookson, and instead students engage in something much more basic, and poignant: “the search for an elusive dignity.”

Having painted a vivid, if highly depressing, picture of American schools, Cookson does not venture into public policy solutions other than to say that we should look to nations like Finland, whose schools are both egalitarian and high achieving. Finns have much lower student poverty rates than the United States, and the extreme socioeconomic school segregation that we experience here is absent. Cookson acknowledges his initial skepticism of taking lessons from Finland, given its small size and relative homogeneity, but he argues that there is much to learn from the way Finnish teachers are trained and treated. And, of course, the U.S.’s relatively higher poverty and segregation levels are not immutable facts of life but stem from policy choices.

In the U.S., a number of school districts—now more than eighty—are taking steps to break down economic school segregation in order to raise academic achievement for students. But Cookson’s research makes clear that economically integrated schools can not only improve educational results but also alleviate the profoundly undemocratic ways that children are socialized into different adult roles.

It is an affront to our democracy that our education system is divided into schools that create leaders and schools that create laborers. Cookson’s powerful book poignantly raises the question first asked by educator George Counts eighty years ago: “Dare the schools build a new social order?”

Buy this book from Amazon and support Washington Monthly: Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools (Multicultural Education)

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg is an education and housing policy consultant. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action, and Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.