unequal starts

Last week, we joined about 250 other parents in the bleachers of the Belmont (MA) High School gym. Spread across the floor were musical bands ranging from elementary school beginners to the high school’s wind ensemble. The bands took turns playing for more than two hours. While they waited, the 5th- and 6th-grade musicians near me were all reading books–flopping around in their chairs but quiet and intent on their fiction. A little further away, the 7th- and 8th-graders mostly had big textbooks out and were doing homework. Even though there were about 500 people in the room, the only significant background noise was an occasional infant’s cry.

These hundreds of children and parents were all focused all evening on the reading and performance of music and other texts. The whole event was intentionally “developmental”–the 9-year-olds could hear the expertise and success of the high school seniors, who were asked to help the younger kids with their instruments and stands. It was a community-wide function, combining kids from three levels of public school and a significant local nonprofit organization. We were witnessing only about one third of the whole enterprise, because there are equally large events for string ensembles and choruses, not to mention a parent/teacher band.

I suppose one could criticize the program. It takes a lot of parents’ time. Scheduling lessons can produce family stress. These kids are not learning how to organize their own activities because so much of what they do is organized for them. (I write this not at all as a personal complaint but because of the work of the sociologist Annette Lareau.) One could also criticize the music, most of which is written by very minor band composers.

But overall, surely, Belmont Bandarama Night is a model of success and achievement. Kids are receiving massive investments–not only from their well-funded schools, but also from their own parents and other volunteer adults. The investments take the form of time, attention, skill, and awareness of prevailing status markers–each as important as cash. The kids respond with intellectual discipline. Even the teenagers are willing to act publicly in ways that please adults. For instance, the high school chorus recently dressed in medieval costumes to sing downtown. In some communities I can think of, you’d be beaten up for wearing doublet and hose and singing “Greensleeves.” These youth will win prizes, pass tests, attend colleges, and enter the middle class, replicating their parents’ social position. Cultural capital will appreciate and be inherited.

At our child’s old school in Washington, DC, there were some highly privileged families. Wealth in DC comes from office work (not, for instance, directly from extractive industries), so the upper-middle-class parents mostly have advanced degrees. As in Belmont, they transmit skills and culture to their children. But their methods are usually private–individual piano lessons, for instance, or family vacations overseas. The parents who can invest lots of cultural capital are a minority. There is a huge class gradient. No one would be able to pull off a 2-hour band concert for 250 kids and expect the ones who were waiting to read quietly. Such an event would be cheerful, enthusiastic, but also noisy and chaotic. Some of the kids who were disengaged would be mocking the ones who were trying hardest to comply. There would be enormous differences in musical proficiency, discipline, engagement, and attentiveness.

Within a city like DC, there are certainly institutions (for instance, churches, mosques, small charter schools, and successful sports teams) where all the kids are on task. But these are not community-wide places. They succeed in part by setting high barriers to entry.

I like Belmont, but I honestly prefer the culture of a big-city school system. I appreciate the diversity–not only of race and ethnicity but also of trajectories through life. I admire the way kids improvise their own activities and status markers. Still, Belmont’s children have enormous advantages for the 21st-century work world. They benefit not only from smoothly functioning, well-funded schools but also simply from growing up in a jurisdiction that consists of middle-class, education-obsessed families. I’d love to mix the Belmont families with others, but I think we’ve learned from 50 years of experience that parents will sort themselves by social class. We can’t tell Belmont to stop providing a rich, challenging, developmental structure for all its children–that would be tyrannical and also counterproductive. We can’t purchase the Belmont band program for a poorer district, because most of what sustains it is parental involvement.

Finally, we shouldn’t simply export Belmont’s norms. Some forms of culture are objectively excellent–like Mozart and Ellington. And some general approaches to education are always wise–such as providing a coherent developmental pathway from childhood through adolescence. But there were many aspects of the Belmont Bandarama (not only the music played, but also the way it was advertised, presented, and taught) that are arbitrary. They fit in a certain cultural context–suburban, middle-class, secular, and predominantly European- and Asian-American. They need not fit elsewhere.

The problem of unequal cultural capital strikes me as profound. I don’t have a solution, but I would advocate:

  • More equal financial resources so that at least poor communities are not knocked out of the game by lack of cash.
  • Culturally sensitive efforts to spread the word that organized educational opportunities pay off for all kids, everywhere.
  • Changes in federal and state policy to support the arts and other “extracurricular” activities.
  • Attention to the civic and organizational skills that it takes to pull together coherent educational programs that reflect the local culture