The best habitus money can buy

pre schoolOne of the strengths of sociology (among its many, many other strengths) is to take the disparate pieces of the social puzzle – anecdotes and stories of all kinds – and put them together, in the proper context, composed of the social structure, historical processes and power dynamics (something I call SHiP, Structure, History, and Power). In doing so, it shows the inanity of common sense interpretations that often take the form of moral pronouncements.

For instance,

“A Manhattan woman has sued a $19,000-a-year preschool her daughter attended, arguing that the program failed to adequately prepare her daughter for the test required to enter New York City’s hypercompetitive private school system.

The suit, filed by Nicole Imprescia on Friday in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, said the York Avenue Preschool had not fulfilled its stated commitment to prepare her 4-year-old daughter, Lucia, for the intelligence test known as the E.R.B.

“The school proved to be not a school at all, but just one big playroom,” the suit claimed.

Many preschools boast that they can prepare students for the test, helping them score high enough to catch the attention of elite private schools. The preschools have become a component of a mini-industry that also includes costly consultants and test preparation materials.

The suit charges that preschool education is critical to a child’s success in life, quoting from various news articles. “It is no secret that getting a child into the Ivy League starts in nursery school,” says one. “Studies have shown entry into a good nursery school guarantees more income than entry into an average school,” says another.

Ms. Imprescia enrolled her daughter at York in 2009, when she was 3, but took her out one month into her second year when, rather than preparing for the E.R.B., her daughter was “dumped” into a class with 2-year-old children, talking about shapes and colors, according to the lawsuit. The suit said the school refused Ms. Imprescia’s demand to return that year’s tuition. It did not say whether Lucia had taken the test.”

Claude Fisher puts this in the context of increasing inequalities that goes beyond income and wealth differentials:

“Reardon collected data from 19 nationally representative studies of children’s cognitive achievement for ages ranging from 1 to 18. The studies were conducted from 1960 to 2007. He compared the average scores of children who came from high-income families (those at the 90th percentile, which is about $160,000 in today’s dollars) to those from low-income families (those at the 10th percentile, about $17,500 today). The first group always does a lot better on age-appropriate reading and math tests than the second. But the key finding is that the test gap has been widening for a generation; it is about 35% larger for kids born around 2000 than for kids born about 1975.

Strikingly, over the same period the gap in test scores between black and white children, about which much has been written, shrank. The rich-poor gap is now one-and-a-half times larger than the race gap; 50 years ago it was just about the reverse.”

In other words, the wealth and income gap has turned into a growing cognitive development gap where class matters more than race. Now, the topic of social reproduction in education is a topic that most sociology students encounter with Bourdieu’s work on the subject. Bourdieu emphasizes that cultural capital and differences in habitus (class-based dispositions that shape behavior) partly account for academic achievement differentials. One’s habitus is a product of socialization and contributes to reproduction of class differences.

And Bourdieu’s work showed that an upper-class habitus matches more closely behavioral and academic expectations in schools than a working-class habitus (Fisher mentions Annette Lareau’s now famous study of different socializing modes, where working class parents tend to let their children grow up more “naturally” whereas upper-class parents use a “concerted cultivation” model).

So, by putting toddlers in exclusive prep pre-schools, parents like the one mentioned in the article are trying to lock in their social privileges and pass them on to their children. This is what these exclusive prep pre-schools are selling: the earliest possible socialization into a given habitus that will set children on an elite path of education. This is a perfect example of using one’s economic capital to obtain extra cultural capital.

As Fisher notes, “In recent decades, the academic expectations for the well-cultivated child have risen. And the things you can buy to cultivate their academic skills have boomed: educational software for infants, early childhood educational programs, pre-school enrichment classes, after-school lessons, tutors, summer camps with intellectual themes, and so on. Reardon cites research suggesting that professional child-rearing advice articles and books more and more stress intellectual cultivation. Also, middle-class parents have been spending more time with their children and spending more money on their children. Even among parents with the same level of education, the ones with more income seem increasingly better able than those with less income to raise their children’s test scores.

While some enrichment activities are free (if a parent has time — which is another thing money can sometimes buy for you), many require purchases – books, software, special classes, coaches, travel, and the like. If these things actually make an intellectual difference, then their proliferation in recent years can explain Reardon’s findings.”

So, it is not just that the children of the upper classes are living behind the physical walls of gated communities, but they also live in a segregated cognitive and social world where their parents carefully cultivate each and every one of their experiences as a way of holding on to their privileges and making sure that no one outside of their class challenge them.

But, as Robert Frank also noted in his book, Richistan, the very wealthy are profoundly afraid of the slightest sign of very subtle downward mobility (from the multimillionaire class to the millionaire class, to be sure) and they feel the strain of intensifying competition between themselves and other members of Richistan (after all, they have the overall social system as they want it, with no more competition from the precarized middle class).

And so, poor Ms Imprescia wasted a whole MONTH of her three-year old daughter’s life and did not get the proper return on investment in terms of cultural capital.

Get Claude Fisher’s book!

  1. 1

    In Nederland: gewoon op de fiets naar school en dan afmaken; 20 km per dag, 100 km per week, 4 000 km per jaar, en 24 000 km voor een VWO diploma.

    Geen gelul over ‘using one’s economic capital to obtain extra cultural capital’.

    Wel een beetje aansporing en af en toe een ‘last minute drop’ van zoon-lief of dochter-lief’ op het schoolplein. Ook ’s avonds ophalen hoort daarbij. Maar kom op dat weten we toch wel met z’n allen.

    Dan komt het wel goed, zonder al die ingekochte ‘crap’ diensten, waar dit stukje over gaat.

    Mening van een ervaringsdeskundige.

  2. 2

    @1, Leo: Nou ja, hoor eens, hier in Amsterdam moet je vaak loten voor je naar een school mag… Leuk is dat, als je dan wordt uitgeloot! (En dan wordt jouw tweede pararaafje toch minder onwerkelijk)

  3. 3

    Hier in NY is het echt een enorm issue op wat voor school je terecht komt. Vrienden van ons zijn er onlangs voor verhuisd, van Harlem naar de Upper West Side en betalen nu ruim 1000 dollar per maand meer aan huur. Maar dat is nog altijd veel goedkoper dan 30.000 dollar per jaar neerlappen voor een private school.

    Het kwaliteitsverschil tussen scholen is enorm groot. Maar ouders worden hier ook helemaal gek gemaakt dat ze het beste voor hun kinderen moeten regelen. Dus dat betekent slimme nannies, veel preschool-activiteiten, veel ‘buitenschoolse activiteiten’ (voetballes voor 2-jarigen, echt.). Het is zielig voor die kids hoor…

  4. 4

    En een vak leren waarmee je iets van waarde kan produceren is er voor de working class in het westen ook niet meer bij, aangezien de financial services industry über-dominant zijn.

  5. 7

    @5 Daar moet je maar net de middelen voor hebben. Is deels publieke financiering, maar voor een flink deel ook privaat. Daarnaast moet de stad daar toestemming voor geven en die doet dat niet zomaar, al zijn er wel heel veel charter schools bijgekomen.

    Is een doorgaand gevecht in NY tussen gemeente en onderwijsvakbond en tussen gemeente en de staat New York. De staat ging over de scholen. Bloomberg heeft dat naar NY gehaald. Is dat weer kwijtgeraakt en is nu weer bezig om zeggenschap naar NY te halen. Ondertussen wisselen de superintendents elkaar in snel tempo op. De laatste heeft drie maanden gezeten. Werd binnengehaald als degene die de schools zou fixen, tja.

    Anders moet je eens waiting for superman kijken, goede docu (van de maker van an inconvenient truth).