I watched how class played out in a preschool classroom, creating disadvantages for the already disadvantaged and privileges for those born into privilege.
I spent eight months observing in a preschool classroom full of four years old. About half of the preschoolers in this classroom were from working-class families and were receiving scholarships to attend the preschool, while the other half were from upper-middle-class families who were paying up to the equivalent of a year of in-state college tuition for one year at the private preschool. Other than that the children receiving scholarships did not attend school on Fridays, everything should have been equal between the working-class and upper-middle-class students. They engaged with the same energetic and dedicated teachers, they played with the same toys, and they participated in the same learning activities.
I found, however, that the linguistic resources that the children brought to school made it so that everything was not equal. Upper-middle-class children tend to learn many more words at home. Betty Hart and Todd Risley, for example, discovered that upper-middle-class preschool-aged children speak more words per hour than do parents who are on welfare. Other research also found that upper-middle-class children learn to feel more comfortable approaching adults, asking them questions, and treating them as equals.
When children from different classes were in the same classroom, they spent different amounts of time “taking the floor.” Upper-middle-class children called out at story time, getting their voices heard while preventing the working-class children, who more timidly raised their hands, from being heard. The upper-middle-class children also interrupted, asked for attention, and requested help more often. Since the teachers could only pay attention to a limited number of events at one time, they often turned their attention to the more vocal students – students that were often upper-middle-class. This not only gave the upper-middle-class students more attention, but gave the already more verbal children more opportunities to improve their conversational skills. Working-class children were not purposefully excluded, but their style of waiting for adults to come to them meant that they had fewer and shorter conversations with teachers.
The rules of the school also inadvertently favored upper-middle-class students’ linguistic styles. The rules required teachers to help children negotiate when there was a toy that two children wanted. Upper-middle-class children tended to get into more disputes over toys, giving them more opportunities to work with the teacher about how to negotiate. Additionally, upper-middle-class children tend to learn at home that negotiations are useful ways to resolve conflicts; working-class children are more likely to receive orders from their parents about what to do. Therefore, when a working-class and upper-middle-class student disagreed about who would next play with a toy, it was the more practiced upper-middle-class student who usually won. Not only did this create inequities in who played with the desired toys, but working-class children learned that they did not know how to get what they wanted at school while upper-middle-class children learned that they did.
The ways that four year olds interacted with each other and with teachers therefore created disadvantages for the already disadvantaged and privileges for those born into privilege. Well meaning people and organizations can produce unintended outcomes.