Intellectual ability – the measure of one’s capacity for thought and understanding – appears across a wide demographic. With the right tools of evaluation, it is possible to find very intelligent children in every racial, cultural, and socioeconomic group. But it is possible to be intellectually gifted and still not be successful in the long term. It is also possible to be fairly average intellectually and still be successful in socioeconomic terms (in fact, history is littered with sub-par thinkers who were wealthy or famous beyond anything their intellect might reasonably support).
Intelligence actually falls into two distinct camps: native intelligence, which is largely genetic; and practical intelligence, which is entirely learned. You can be intellectually gifted but lacking in the skills necessary to negotiate your circumstances and you can be not so great intellectually but capable of evaluating and navigating situations in such a way that you maximize whatever opportunities come your way. If you’re especially lucky, you are both.
“Skills necessary to evaluate and negotiate situations.” So much falls into those words. For students to be successful in modern American culture, it’s interacting with adults, advocating for yourself, being persuasive, communicating needs and desires, persisting in the face of refusal, knowing when to stop persisting because you’re starting to irritate, selling yourself, reading circumstances and situations to extrapolate their effects on you, and so on. Students may have all kinds of situational intelligence: knowing how to make food pantry food last longer, knowing how to avoid interaction with adults who might pose a threat, knowing how to entertain themselves while a parent is at work all day or all night. But those skills are hard to translate into the world of academia.
As it turns out, practical intelligence for success in American higher education is most prevalent where there are abundant financial resources. At CMSi we call this Cultural Capital, because there is a direct relationship between the financial resources a family has and the practical intelligence their children possess that allows them to better navigate the mainstream cultural environment. Wealthy parents are many times more likely to instruct their children in self-advocation, self-promotion, needs-communication, persistence, and just enough chutzpah to allow them to interact with adults in ways that might be almost impolite in some contexts but allow the child to focus attention on getting his or her needs met. What they teach their children is that they have certain rights and they need to be ready to protect and defend those rights. The parents then model that defense when they intervene with teachers and coaches. They tend to put the burden of learning at least as much on the teacher as on the child. Additionally, wealthy parents provide rich experiences outside of school: lots of books in the home, trips to museums and cultural sites, summer programs in areas of interest to help focus their child’s abilities. All this is called Concerted Cultivation.
Children from poor families, by contrast, do not learn to confront authority figures to get their needs met. They don’t learn how to express those needs, or advocate for themselves. Their parents don’t intervene when the child has an incompetent teacher; it may not even occur to them that a teacher can be incompetent. Children from economically disadvantaged families tend not to persist in the face of refusal, and they tend not to interact with adults as equals. They don’t self-promote much or at all, so teachers and other authority figures might never really know what their abilities are. They are many times less likely to confront a teacher over a mistake in grading or a misunderstanding, and they often don’t ask for extensions on assignments or other supports. Instead, they tend to be more fatalistic about grades, mainly because their families are fatalistic: it just is what it is. The burden of learning is entirely on the child. Summers and non-school time are a period of unstructured activity.
When these two groups enter the “real world” after formal schooling, the gap grows wider still. Kids from poor families are less likely to go to college, not necessarily because of a lack of ability but because they can’t navigate the application process or the financial aid paperwork or some other facet of college enrollment and they have no one to walk them through it. Poor kids are more likely not to finish college for similar reasons: staying on top of financial aid packages, the need to work while in college, even homelessness. If they do complete college, some will still never experience the same level of success as their wealthier peers.
How do we level the playing field? How do we remediate a whole philosophy of resource allocation when the resources aren’t there, either for the parents or, increasingly, for the schools?
- We stop making wealth a predictor of success in testing by Deeply Aligning the curriculum.
- We intervene earlier and more aggressively to get kids up to grade level while the gaps are small.
- We increase intellectual demand in the classrooms.
- We utilize as much hands-on, real-world activity as possible.
- We educate ourselves better on how culture affects learning and apply that knowledge in instruction.
- We teach students, directly, the skills necessary to interact with adults, advocate for their own needs, and self-promote.
- We put programs in place to help kids transition from high school to college and track the effectiveness of those programs.
It’s a tall order, but a critical one. CMSi has several trainings and programs to get districts on the path toward these goals. Deep Alignment will show you how to look at high-stakes tests and backload your curriculum to improve student achievement; Cognitively Complex Instruction helps teachers design better, more engaging and rigorous lessons to improve learning and retention; Student Artifact Analysis shows districts what the actual work of their classrooms looks like, its rigor and engagement, and whether it’s aligned to high stakes assessments so students have the practice they need to be successful; ELL/Dual Language: Strategies for Success helps districts and teachers better understand the true purpose of culturally relevant instruction; and the Curriculum Management Audit ™ looks at all the systems of the district to help align them all toward the goal of improved student learning. Contact us today to schedule a training or service for your district.