This article was originally published in leftbucket.com in 2017.

To secure that . . . all shall be provided with the means
and facilities requisite for their proper education and
training as Citizens of a Free and Gaelic Ireland.

Democratic Programme of the First Dáil

Class in the classroom: who goes there?

When the Leaving Certificate examination was introduced in 1924, only a small minority of Irish students graduated to universities and very few, if any, working-class students reached Leaving Certificate level until free compulsory secondary education was introduced in 1967. The Leaving Cert was consequently a de facto entrance exam for traditionally middle-class careers—the civil and public services, for instance.

Almost a century later, more than half the population now graduates to third-level study of one sort or another, the majority of working-class students now complete the Leaving Certificate, and grant-aid is available for students from the poorest families. On the face of it, these factors should add up to a more democratic spread of educational opportunity. But the general population of students in Irish universities is still predominantly from the upper and middle points on the socio-economic scale. Leaving School in Ireland points out that,

Young people who attended a school with a concentration of working-class students were much less likely to go on to higher education than those who attended middle-class or socially mixed schools, even [allowing] for individual social background and Leaving Certificate grades (esri.ie/publications).

The significance of that pattern is enormous. All other things being equal—Leaving Cert results, for instance—students who attend schools in working-class areas are less likely to graduate to third-level study than all others. Those who do move on to third-level are less likely to go to the top universities. And within those top universities, they are less likely to get into the top programmes.

But why hasn’t removing the most obvious obstacles to working-class participation in third-level education resulted in a greater impact on the numbers of working-class students attending our universities? Two classic studies go some way to answering those questions by exploring some of the insidious ways in which social class affects educational opportunities. In A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labeling Effects, John M. Darley and Paget H. Gross found assumptions that working-class students would perform less well academically than their more affluent colleagues. Those assumptions, combined with a strong correlation between teacher expectations and student performance found by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson can have devastating real-life effects.

A vicious cycle of lower teacher expectations negatively affecting grades leads to more lowered expectations and more lowered grades for students in ‘a school with a concentration of working-class students’. Of the two, lower expectations are more damaging than lower grades; they shrink students horizons while invisibly shaping their future.

But even that can’t explain the persistence of the gap in the numbers of working-class university freshers and their more affluent colleagues. That remained a mystery until the coronavirus pandemic unexpectedly revealed a bureaucratic practice—school profiling—that would make sure our universities and colleges were filled with the ‘right’ people.

Perception is everything

In A Hypothesis-Confirming Bias in Labeling Effects, Darley and Gross showed two groups of participants (graduate students at Princeton University) video recordings of a young fourth-class girl, Hannah, in the area where she lived, in a local playground, and at her school.

In one group, participants saw Hannah living, playing, and attending school in a working-class neighbourhood. They were told that both of her parents were blue-collar workers with a secondary-school education: her father was employed as a meat packer and her mother was a seamstress who worked from home.

The other group saw Hannah living, playing, and attending school in an affluent suburb. The participants were told that both of her parents were college graduates; her father was a solicitor and her mother a freelance writer.

Immediately after viewing one or the other of these two background videos, participants were given an evaluation form to complete. They were asked to grade Hannah in reading, mathematics, and liberal arts on a scale from pre-school to sixth class. Importantly, they were given a box to tick for ‘insufficient information’ if they felt they couldn’t judge. Nevertheless, having seen only the background video, the group that had seen ‘working-class’ Hannah gave her a grade appreciably lower than the grade ‘affluent’ Hannah had received from the other group.

The perceived differences between the two Hannahs’ grades were 0.32 for liberal arts, 0.39 for reading, and 0.18 for maths. These are not insignificant differences—for any child in fourth class, to be perceived as lagging that far behind their classmates would be a noticeable distinction.

Both groups were then shown another video recording in which Hannah responded to 25 achievement-test problems ranging from second- to sixth-class level. In this case, both saw the same recording. They were told that the test included ‘easy, moderate, and difficult problems’. Hannah’s performance was prearranged to present an inconsistent picture of her abilities; she answered both easy and tough questions correctly as well as incorrectly. She appeared to be fairly verbal, motivated, and attentive on some portions of the video recording and unresponsive and distracted on other portions. The tester provided little feedback.  

Having seen the ‘objective’ evidence of Hannah being tested, participants became much more confident in their judgment. Rather than judging the ‘two’ Hannahs equally, however, they showed a reliably greater distinction between ‘working-class’ and ‘middle-class’ Hannah on all three indices: 1.04 for liberal arts, 1.06 for maths, and 0.96 for reading. Remember, all participants had seen the same recording of the same girl giving the same answers to the same questions on the same test. Nevertheless, those participants who had seen the video of Hannah suggesting that she was from a lower socio-economic background judged her to be about a full grade behind Hannah when the graders thought she was from an affluent background.

When asked to explain their evaluations, participants spoke only about the test items on which Hannah’s performance was consistent with their expectations. Participants who expected a good academic performance (from ‘affluent’ Hannah) thought the test was hard, which would account for apparently inconsistent wrong answers. Participants who expected a poor performance (from ‘working-class’ Hannah) reported that the test was easy, which would account for the facility with which she came up with some correct answers.

Participants were also asked to report what they saw as positive or negative behaviours. They attributed a significantly greater number of positive behaviours to ‘affluent’ Hannah and a significantly greater number of negative behaviours to ‘working-class’ Hannah. ‘Working-class’ Hannah was reported to have ‘difficulty accepting new information’, whereas ‘affluent’ Hannah was said to have the ‘ability to apply what she knows to unfamiliar problems’. Again, both groups were talking about the same video recording of the same girl responding to the same questions.

Importantly, the participants’ differing assumptions about the relative intelligence of ‘working-class’ and ‘affluent’ Hannah were comparatively mild—although far from inconsequential—when the graders were aware that class might be a factor (that is, after seeing only the video showing Hannah’s social background). When presented with ‘objective’ information, however, their unconscious bias showed through as much more pronounced. With the issue of social class apparently off the table, and with no resulting guilt or conscious corrective of unconscious bias, the gap between grades given to ‘working-class’ Hannah and ‘affluent’ Hannah increased markedly. When questioned, nevertheless, all participants said that the demographic information was ‘not useful’ in making their evaluations.

Generations of cultural biases—the ‘truths’ that
‘everybody knew’ as we grew up—don’t disappear
because we know better now.

This isn’t just an interesting academic finding. By fourth class ‘working-class’ Hannah’s educational prospects are already very different from ‘affluent’ Hannah’s even though the two performed identically, what with them being the same girl an’ all. Had this been an actual test, the differing assessments would have had a serious and ongoing effect, for better or worse, on either one of Hannah’s two putative futures.

These results demonstrate the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of a claim to class-blindness, gender-blindness, colour-blindness, race-blindness, etc. on an individual, group, or national level. Generations of cultural biases—the ‘truths’ that ‘everybody knew’ as we grew up—don’t disappear because we know better now. They just hang out in our collective unconscious, our Jungian ‘shadow side’, detectable only by their effects, and even then, only if we’re brave and honest enough to examine them.

Bloomers

The powerful potential consequences of those unexamined assumptions are demonstrated in the second study. In Pygmalion in the Classroom, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson explored the extent to which teachers’ expectations influence a student’s achievements and, more importantly, their expectations.

The researchers told teachers at a primary school that they were administering a test to identify ‘academic bloomers’, i.e., those expected to enter a period of intense intellectual development over the following year. After the test, the researchers let the teachers know that the results identified specific students who would be ‘bloomers’. In reality, the test was a regular IQ test, and the ‘bloomers’ were randomly selected. These students were not in any way distinguished by their test performances.

Nevertheless, a year later, when the researchers returned to the school and administered the same test to the same students, the students who had been randomly selected by the researchers and identified as ‘bloomers’, were now testing significantly ahead of their classmates.

The researchers concluded that the teachers, under the impression that they were ‘harvesting unseen talent’, expected more from these students. And, when we expect certain behaviours of others, our affective, noncognitive thought processes interact with our cognitive, social behaviours. The tone, the facial expressions, the body language, all the small reinforcers—the ‘tells’ that give away a teacher’s higher expectations for one student over another—are more than likely both given and received unconsciously. They amounted, nonetheless, in Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study, to a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the students who had been labelled as ‘bloomers’ actually outperformed their peers.

Later research suggests that the effects are strongest in the first two years of school when patterns are being established. Self-evidently, those effects diminish as the teacher and student get to know each other better or as students establish and settle into their ‘place’ in a complex school social and academic pattern. But, like the unconscious assumptions in the first study, those effects don’t go away: what the teachers ‘know’ about those students, and the place into which the students themselves had settled, are based on attitudes established in those early years.

Teacher expectations affect student performance and hence their grades, which will affect the expectations of both the student and future teachers, which will, in turn, affect grades, and so on in an endless loop. And without anybody consciously doing anything, both the grades and the ambitions of working-class students are kept artificially low. 

Clearly, countless other elements will affect student performance and progression to third level, including the availability of physical or financial resources both at school and at home and the psychological effects of poverty or wealth. As Gary Gannon puts it: ‘something you learn when you grow up in a working-class house is that somehow poverty is your fault’.

You work hard in school. You work hard helping with your siblings and supporting family members who might be ill. You have to go off and get a second job while you are 16 so you can support the family income. No matter how hard you work, it will not be enough to shake off the limitations forced on you because of your family’s wealth, or lack thereof.

And importantly, those limitations include the internalised lower expectations that shrink a student’s horizon such that, even given identical results, students from schools in working-class areas are less likely to go on to third-level study than all others.

These issues are more nuanced and deserve more attention than space and time allow here. Social attitudes change over time; even the glacial pace of social evolution should have had more of an impact by now. But those nuances and those changes aren’t reflected in the socio-economic profile of the universities that stubbornly remain the province of the wealthy. Working-class students are still seriously under-represented in the university population, and the seven per cent or so of the population who attended private schools are still massively over-represented there.

The conundrum remained unresolved until Covid-19 laid it out clearly for us. It turns out the disparity between progression to third level by graduates of working-class schools and those of their more affluent neighbours is intentional. They call it ‘school profiling’, a social engineering practice that has successfully kept working-class people out of the top university courses ever since free secondary education made it possible for them to apply. Check out how they did this in The Unbearable Lightness of Cornflakes.


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