Peter Demerath
Peter Demerath

Conventionally, the goal of public education is said to be to level inequality at birth. When students with drastically different backgrounds are enrolled in a semi-standardized system of public schooling, predispositions to learning are supposed to be neutralized such that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. While this is a noble goal, real life has proven that educational equality is hard to achieve because the factors behind inequality are so hard to pin down.


In his Levitt Speaker Series lecture on April 5, Peter Demerath, a University of Minnesota professor of organizational leadership, policy and development, discussed educational inequality and the reproduction of class status. Demerath drew on four years of personal research experience at a public high school in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio.


There has been significant research conducted on the subject of income inequality, and studies have generally agreed upon the causes—factors like poor funding, inadequate teachers  and low parental involvement contribute to poor test performances and disappointing graduation rates. But battling these factors in the lowest performing schools to close the achievement gap is not working, because middle class students continue to pull ahead, in terms of academic success, which maintains and even widens the achievement gap.


Demerath decided to conduct a study that examined the ways in which success were measured, promoted and achieved in an upper middle class public school, with the hope of shedding light on the factors that render educational equality so elusive. He spent four years observing one class as it moved its way through high school. He called the town “Wilton,” and its model for success “the Wilton way.”


What he determined, at the end, is that the Wilton way is a manifestation of a neoliberal ideal that treats academic and personal success as a commodity to be acquired, nurtured and protected. Wilton students are taught from a young age to be goal-oriented, self-assured and ambitious. They play sports, take extra classes, and stress almost compulsively about their grades.


Competition is central to the Wilton way of life. Students are taught that winning is a proven achievement, and the competitive atmosphere transcends varsity sports in its involvement in academic life—Wilton even has competitive pottery spinning at its student art show.


The emphasis on competition and personal success is central to what sociologists would call Wilton’s “hidden curriculum.” The learning experience of students everywhere is only partially academic—the values and worldviews that a school instills in its students (in Wilton’s case, competition and positive self-worth) are part of a curriculum that is as important but far less overt than the one that is in the books.


Demerath found that Wilton students are taught, as part of the hidden curriculum, that life is necessarily stressful and that stress must be habituated—that is, that they need to find ways to deal with, rather than avoid, stress. He also found that the students displayed remarkable tendencies to exert control, identify and acquire new cultural capital as a preemptive measure for success and self-consciously cultivate their work ethic.


The Wilton parents and school district contribute in more explicit ways, too. Wilton has a policy of bestowing the honor of valedictorian on every student who graduates with a grade point average of 4.0 or higher. This usually works out to be about 10 percent of the class, and gives students a distinct advantage when applying to schools that have valedictorian-specific scholarships. Wilton parents have been known to actively seek out psychological disability diagnoses for kids who display few or no signs, because if the students are labeled special needs, they have more time on standardized tests, and more time correlates strongly with high scores.


The Wilton way contributes to what Demerath calls “hypercredentialing”—basically paperwork bragging rights—which can translate into nearly across-the-board admission into selective universities. In Wilton’s case, this is not anyone’s “fault,” per sé, but is a culture that is perpetuated by students, teachers and the community. Everyone benefits from it, too, if you measure success in terms of eventual income, but many of the students Demerath interviewed resented  the stressful environment they were forced to navigate every day. Although it’s difficult to fault a community for emphasizing hard work and achievement, Wilton’s success comes at the expense of other, poorer schools that do not have the resources to train students the way that Wilton does.


Demerath attributes part of the problem to the United States’ model of education, which leaves the bulk of the policy-setting to individual districts. A more standardized system would help lower income communities to navigate the system, and would disrupt the perpetuation of class status. The problem is that there is currently very little oversight to curb these practices.


There is constantly research being done in the field of educational inequality, and Demerath hopes that new studies will illuminate the issue more deeply and provide an avenue for policy to take to make equality a realistic goal.

This presentation was made possible through support from the Arthur Coleman Tuggle Lecture Fund.

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