School Reform, Care Work, and Social Reproduction in Two Public Elementary Schools

Kathleen Kerstetter

Advisor: Amy L Best, PhD, Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Committee Members: Karen Rosenblum, Diana D'Amico, Hava Gordon

April 01, 2016, 12:00 PM to 08:30 AM


Mastering academic skills and content is only a part of the learning that students engage in within schools. Bowles and Gintis (1976) argued that schools play a key role in the perpetuation of social class status across generations by teaching students behavioral skills that correspond to their family’s social class status, namely compliance for working-class students and creativity for middle-class students. This dissertation contributes to our understanding of processes of social mobility and social reproduction in schools serving low-income students by examining the relationship between school reform policies, teachers’ non-instructional work, and noncognitive skills at two public elementary schools. In an era of “high-stakes” accountability in education, how do school reform policies influence the types of noncognitive skills that are emphasized in schools? This study answers this question by employing a qualitative approach that draws on 245 hours of observations and 19 interviews with teachers and other school staff members completed from spring 2013 to winter 2014 at a traditional public school and a public charter school. A qualitative analysis of this data finds that, in the case of the public charter school, school reform policies may contribute to processes of social mobility by opening up new institutional spaces where an explicit focus on social and emotional learning contributes to the transmission of noncognitive skills that can help low-income students navigate middle-class institutions with more ease. However, this study also finds in the case of the traditional public school that school reform policies can contribute to processes of social reproduction, particularly in a school under pressure to meet school reform mandates. In this school, the skills of compliance and deference are emphasized, allowing the school to promote orderly test-taking behaviors but not the creativity and initiative that would help students more easily navigate middle-class institutions. These findings have implications for how we conceive of the mobility trajectories of low-income students and how we organize schools and prepare teachers for the work of educating students.