Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools by Peter W. Cookson Jr.

Cover from Goodreads

Rating: 4/5

A very eye-opening read on the disparity between high schools around the nation. Cookson argues that the high school a student attends is the best indicator of the social status they will have as an adult, using examples from 5 different high schools, from an elite boarding school with some of the most privileged children in the country, to an urban school in the Bronx where 100% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

For each school, Cookson provides a breakdown of the factors that give the students their class consciousness, including family backgrounds, the perception of authority, the curriculum offered, self-identity of individuals within the school, even the physical building itself. Despite all being public schools except the boarding school, a different culture became deeply rooted within each school, associated with either the upper class, upper-middle class, middle-class, working class, or the lower class. The subconscious assumptions each student left with about their role in society  would essentially dictate their lives as an adult.

Public education, “The Great Equalizer” according to Horace Mann in 1848, was intended to allow the intelligent and hard-working to move up in social class, regardless of their social background, creating a meritocracy of sorts. However, with schools strongly replicating the class system, the current education system is doing the complete opposite, strengthening the barriers between social classes and allocating the best resources to whoever wins the birth lottery. Cook details his plan for overcoming this inequality in the last chapter, which involves bottom up involvement from teachers and other community members, rather than relying on the actions of policy makers who often don’t understand the whole picture.

As a high schooler student myself, Class Rules gave me a new perspective on the education reform debate and American society. Most of us will only have one high school experience, making us unaware of other environments. but Cookson’s book provides insight into the education and lives of other social classes.

[Cross-posted on Goodreads.]

5 thoughts on “Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools by Peter W. Cookson Jr.

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