Working to Achieve Educational Equity With Social Class-Sensitive Education

In Minnesota and across the country, there is continuing concern about the opportunity gap and why some socioeconomic and racial groups are falling behind their peers in school. As one of the co-founders of the CLASSroom Project, conducted in cooperation between the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) and my colleague Stephanie Jones of the University of Georgia, I’ve been studying the ways that school and classroom policies and practices might be contributing to this gap and how social class-sensitive examinations of these policies and practices might help us achieve educational equity for all students.

Working to Close the Opportunity Gap with Workshops and Classes

I created the Minnesota branch of the CLASSroom Project in 2012, and have been doing research on the opportunity gap and educational inequities, and conducting outreach programs like “The Other Side of Poverty in Schools” workshops. I’m proud to say they have been attended by over 250 teachers, school administrators and concerned parents. During these seminars, we introduce attendees to our Five Principles of Social Class-Sensitive Change in Schools. We’ve also been able to work directly with Minnesota school districts like Faribault Public Schools to design activities and policies that integrate the Five Principles into their schools to help create educational equity.

Based on our conversations with educators, parents and community members, we’re beginning to see how social class-sensitive examinations of policies and practices can make a difference in the lived experiences of students in Minnesota—and we think we can provide a framework for discussing social class issues in schools that can be applied nationwide. Additionally, we are happy to report that we’ll be educating our next generation of elementary school teachers here at the U of M about social class issues with a new course. This course will be a requirement for all elementary education undergraduate majors moving forward: “Social Class, Education and Pedagogy.” We will engage students in the examination of their own experiences of social class, introduce them to the Five Principles and ask them to apply these principles to their curriculum planning, policy development and instructional practice.

Through our efforts to foster a dialogue about social and economic class issues, educational inequities and the opportunity gap, we believe we can begin to come together as educators, students and concerned citizens to begin the process of change. We’ve already learned a great deal from the conversations we’ve had, and I’d like to share five questions that school administrators and teachers can ask themselves to help develop more social class-sensitive policies and practices in their schools.

Five Questions For Educators About Social Class and the Opportunity Gap

How might this policy or activity affect my lower-income students? This question should be a guiding principle when dealing with issues of social class, educational inequities and the opportunity gap. Many of us who are lucky enough to have enjoyed financial security throughout our lives can have difficulty seeing how school and classroom policies can place unintentional burdens on families suffering from economic instability.

How much of a burden are school fees and supplies? Fees for sports, class activities and field trips can add up. It’s especially hard in the fall, when families might have to buy $50 to $100 worth of school supplies for each child. In multi-child families with one or more parents unemployed, this can be an extremely difficult time. Look for ways to reduce the fees and supplies required of students, or ways to help those in need.

Do we assume that all students have access to computers and high-speed Internet? As education becomes increasingly dependent on technology, the “digital divide” is another major contributor to the opportunity gap. How much homework and communication about grades and class activities has to be accessed online? Parents who work multiple jobs, for example, often struggle to get their kids to public libraries where they can access the web. In some neighborhoods, multiple families will pool their resources and share the cost of high-speed Internet so they can take turns using it. Make sure there are offline alternatives built into coursework—and make activities requiring high-speed Internet something that can be completed at school.

Do I use “distancing pronouns?” One thing we encourage educators and administrators to do is be conscious of the pronouns they use when speaking about all of their students and families, especially those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. We find that the use of words like “those,” “them,” “their” and “they” serve to create a divide between teachers and some of their students and families. Use “we,” “us” and “our” instead. This may seem like a minor issue, but it’s important in creating a sense of shared community.

Do I assume that parents who aren’t able to participate don’t care? This is a common problem we’ve observed. Teachers often assume that parents who aren’t involved as volunteers in school activities and sports, or don’t show up for parent teacher conferences, don’t care about their children’s education. In fact, they may care deeply but are working long hours or double shifts on an hourly job that does not allow for them to dictate their schedule like someone in a salaried position (like me). Examine your assumptions and try to see if there are ways you can better accommodate their schedules.

For more information about the CLASSroom Project, please contact me at And please join us at our upcoming “Other Side of Poverty in Schools” workshop on August 11, 2015, or a future workshop January and May 2016 (date to follow).

Mark Vagle

About the Author

Mark Vagle, Ph.D.

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One thought on “Working to Achieve Educational Equity With Social Class-Sensitive Education”

  1. Peter Soulen says:

    Excellent Mark. Especially the points you make in how WE can use language to avoid distancing, and promote a sense of being “allies” to OUR urban poor students.

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