Inequality at Age 5?

By Ken Wodtke

We often think of kindergarten as a moment in a child’s educational experience when that child is nurtured toward dramatic and rapid affective and intellectual growth. We picture it as a time of happy discovery in an environment which is warm, child-centered, and free of distinctions of race and class. Whatever educational inequalities might develop later on, kindergarten is presumably a positive introduction to school to which all have access.

Yet recent research suggests this may not be the case. Indeed, a recent study conducted by this author uncovered significant differences between urban kindergartens serving working class children of varying ethnicities and suburban kindergartens serving the primarily white children of parents in professional and managerial occupations. The differences are so substantial and consistent as to suggest that even at this level we may be creating cleavages that become overwhelmingly serious as children step through the grades.

The study was conducted in accordance with the strictest standards of academic research. Upon obtaining consent from the schools involved, ten representative classrooms from the working class or low income schools were selected and eight from schools serving children of professional and corporate managers. After being carefully trained and checked for the accuracy and reliability of their observations, researchers observed the 18 classrooms a total of 109 times or 300 hours. (One observation consisted of an entire half day kindergarten session.) Observers scored specific aspects of the environment, teacher behavior, and student behavior immediately following each observation.

Teaching styles: disturbing differences

The most disturbing data concerned not material differences in resources, but differences in the total classroom climate. The emotional climate in the high income schools was rated as more warm and accepting than in lower income schools. As a group, teachers were rated as more dictatorial in lower income schools. They were more rule-oriented, used unexplained rules more often, encouraged the free expression of feelings less, and showed less flexibility in meeting the needs and interests of the children. In the low income schools, teachers maintained significantly less relaxed relationships with the children.

Teachers in the lower income schools also were more punitive on the average than their colleagues in the higher income schools. The teachers in the wealthier schools punished the children less frequently, and demonstrated greater warmth and perceptiveness of children’s needs.

Structure: comfort or constraint

Some educators have argued that low-income or minority children need more “structured” learning environments. Yet while we think we’re offering such children the benign comforts of “structure,” the data suggest we may actually be creating an environment which is less flexible, less supportive, and less responsive to the individual needs of children — at the time in their educational lives when they are most vulnerable.

A strong orientation toward “structure” may also mean children are allowed fewer opportunities to develop their own initiative. In the higher income schools children were encouraged more frequently to take individual responsibility. They were freer to talk and move about the room and were more often observed spontaneously looking at and discussing each other’s work.

Nor did more rules translate into greater productivity in the working class schools. Working class kindergartens scored lower along the dimension, “Teacher promotes a purposeful atmosphere by expecting and enabling children to use time productively and to value their work and learning.” Similarly, working class kindergartners were less often observed to be “deeply involved” in what they were doing than their counterparts in the kindergartens serving wealthier communities.

One wonders if the skills of individual initiative, original thinking and personal responsibility will be cultivated later among working class children, or if the schools they attend as they grow older will continue to show a greater rule orientation. If the latter is the case, the children of professional or managerial parents will clearly enjoy one more substantial advantage as they approach college and jobs which, like their parents’ jobs, require initiative and independence of thought. Are we perhaps beginning as early as kindergarten, in subtle ways at least, to prepare working class children for working class jobs?

Material inequalities

In addition to the teachers’ instructional style, significant differences were obtained in a number of aspects of the classrooms’ physical environment. The classrooms of the working class children as compared to the higher income children provided fewer reference books and books of children’s literature,, less space for personal storage, fewer materials developed by the teacher, fewer materials developed or supplied by the children, and reduced accessibility of materials to the children. In addition, the childrens’ activities, products, and ideas were less likely to be displayed in the working class kindergartens.

Student behavior: a response to teaching style

There were also differences in student behavior. Students in the working class kindergartens scored significantly lower on cooperation, involvement, activity level, achievement level, helpfulness and cognitive sophistication. The lower income children also showed less reciprocal affection and interaction with their classmates, and more active and passive hostility toward the teacher than their counterparts in upper-income neighborhood schools.

Were the teachers of the lower income children forced to become more punitive and dictatorial than the teachers in the high income schools because they taught a greater percentage of disruptive children? Or did the more punitive and dictatorial style of the teachers of the working class children create resistance and hostility among the children? An examination of the exceptional teachers within each group suggests that the latter interpretation is more plausible.

Teachers A and B taught in the same working-class school, yet they present very different teaching styles. If we can assume the students were assigned to these classrooms in a relatively non-systematic manner, a comparison of the students’ behavior is quite revealing. Teacher B provided a more positive emotional climate, was more resourceful, gave the children more freedom, and was less dictatorial and punitive than teacher A. The students of teacher B were consistently more cooperative, involved, active, and helpful, and exhibited more sophisticated thinking. They also showed less hostility toward the teacher than the students of teacher A.

Conversely, in the higher income neighborhoods, one teacher exhibited much more dictatorial and punitive behavior than her group on the Average. A students exposed to this teaching style showed less involvement, cooperation, helpfulness, and cognitive sophistication, and more hostility toward the teacher.

Thus, regardless of parents’ income, in classes where teachers were less punitive and dictatorial and more flexible, children behaved better and achieved more.

It is clear that the children of lower income parents have a substantially different educational experience from children born into wealthier homes. There are exceptional classrooms in both settings, but the overwhelming tendency is for our schools to recreate the inequalities of wealth and status which exist in the larger society. And it starts from the moment our children step into school.

In the interest of subject confidentiality, the author does not identify the precise sites studied beyond the information that the research took place in a metropolitan area typical of many large industrial cities.

Ken Wodtke is a professor of educational psychology at UW-Milwaukee. Complete copies of his study can be obtained by writing to him at the Department of Educational Psychology, PO Box 413, UWM, Milw. WI 53201.