More Skills Won’t Help Kids Succeed

Is school the ‘great equalizer’? This is a central question education researchers try to answer, and Mr. Edsall recently reflected on some scholarship pointing to the importance of kids’ skills in this discussion. But focusing on skills ignores a real issue — that schools differently treat kids’ skills depending on their student demographic.

To summarize, the “skills gap” refers to the idea that kids’ unequal development of skills is a source of educational inequality. As the story goes, kids from poorer families learn fewer skills than those from wealthier families. Wealthier parents raise their children in ways that help them develop skills needed in our technologically advancing economy, and poorer parents do not.

But blaming either parents or kids’ lack of skills is a tired logic, misdirecting us away from how schools operate to create divides among students.

Photo by Sam Bayle

In 2013–14, I conducted a comparative evaluation of how three middle schools serving demographically different, but similarly skilled, students were treated by teachers. Consistent with over a decade of research about young folks’ digital technology use, the young people in this study — regardless of their demographic background — loved playing around with friends online. Even low-income students had basic technology access to play around online. And as learning scientists have found, playing online led to the development of basic digital skills, like facility with devices, how to communicate with others online, and creating and sharing new media. These are skills increasingly taught by educators as valuable to our ever-changing economy.

What happened when students brought their skills with technology to school? Even though the schools in this study were best case scenarios to teach digital skills — each school was equipped with the latest in digital technology, teachers and administrators were committed to using them to teach digital skills, and most students already knew digital basics from play online with friends — students’ digital skills were treated differently depending on the school demographic.

At a school with mostly wealthy, White students, the digital pursuits where they learned these digital skills, including social media use, video games, and online communications, were seen by teachers as essential to learning. At a school with mostly middle class, Asian-American youth, these exact same digital pursuits were seen by teachers as threatening to learning. And at a school with mostly working class, Latinx children, these same digital pursuits were seen by teachers as irrelevant to learning.

Teachers’ perceptions of students’ digital skills mattered because they shaped day-to-day teaching, including whether and how students were expected to use technology at school to further develop the 21st century digital skills cited as important by contemporary education reforms. Whereas the majority White, wealthy school permitted digital skill development, the schools serving less wealthy students of color did not. This suggests that the path to students’ success in schools is not just about developing skills — these students all showed up at school with some digital proficiencies. Instead, teachers operated as gatekeepers who determined whether students’ digital skills were permissible and could be nurtured in the classroom.

So focusing just on the “skills gap,” and to argue that parents are driving it, is to dismiss the role that schools serve in reinforcing educational inequities. But wait — there’s more. Why do schools do this? What drives teachers’ different perceptions of students’ knowledge? This is where things get interesting, and lead to a few new avenues for us to explore in making educational practice more equal.

Early scholarship suggests that the predominately White, middle class population of school teachers in the U.S. exhibit biases (racial or classed stereotypes) that shape their beliefs about their particular student demographic. This work argues that these beliefs, then, would lead to different teaching approaches with their students. But a couple things stood out to me in the field that were eyebrow-raisers. Teachers at each of the schools indeed shared racialized and classed beliefs about their students with striking color and consistency. But stereotypes varied, even when coming from the same teachers. Teachers all had multiple stereotypes about Asian-American students; variably as either “model minorities” or “Tiger Mom-raised hackers.” They also had multiple stereotypes about Latinx students; variably as “hard-working immigrants” or “future gang members.” But in describing the students at their present school, teachers believed that only one of the two stereotypes for each racial-ethnic group was applicable — and had a hard time explaining why.

Teachers ultimately helped me figure out this puzzle. As they discussed these beliefs about their students, they also simultaneously unloaded what life was like for them on the job as a teacher. What I learned really opened my eyes to a considerable gap in research: teachers have their own workplace cultures, and these workplaces shape how teachers perceive their students. Teachers at the school serving mostly middle-class, Asian-American students described their faculty workplace as “every man for himself.” It was hostile. Teachers would publicly humiliate and bully one another. They saw each other as threats. In turn, I found that teachers carried this day-to-day “threat” orientation into the classroom. Rather than see their Asian-American students as “model minorities,” they saw them as “Tiger Mom-raised hackers” who would do anything to get ahead. I unpack a similar interaction between teachers’ workplaces and student perceptions at the other two schools. But interestingly, since White students had no available stereotype for teachers to draw on, they mostly skirted by without enduring the effects of stereotyping. Their achievements and failures were seen as individual, and did not carry the additional weight of a collective assumption about their entire racial-ethnic group.

So what to make of all of this? First, solely focusing on the skills gap will not solve educational inequities. Rather, we, as educators, need to reflect on what counts as valuable to learning. We need to embrace kids’ interests and passions and take a value-added stance that kids’ interests and passions need to be at the center of how they learn and grow. Embracing this framework would be an important step away from making different assumptions about the value of these activities depending on the race or class of their student body.

Second, it may be hard for some people to accept — but racism and classism are quite alive in our schools. Teachers and administrators truly are trying to do the best for their students. Yet I don’t think they quite realize how living in a society that circulates such horrible stereotypes about students of color and students from lower socioeconomic contexts can trickle into the classroom and into their teaching. Teacher training and school workplaces need to provide more support structures for teachers, including professional development opportunities for teachers to safely reflect on these topics. And teachers need to do the work to confront hard truths about their own biases and overcome them to better serve their students. It would likely help, too, if teacher populations were more demographically diverse.