Developmental Stage

Publication Type

Previous research has documented that people from working-class contexts have fewer skills linked to academic success than their middle-class counterparts (e.g., worse problem-solving skills). Challenging this idea, we propose that one reason why people from working-class contexts underperform is because U.S. measures of achievement tend to assess people individually. We theorize that working together on measures of achievement will create a cultural match with the interdependent selves common among people from working-class contexts, therefore improving their sense of fit and performance. We further theorize that effective group processes will serve as a mechanism that helps to explain when and why working together affords these benefits. Four studies utilizing diverse methods support our theorizing. Using archival data on college student grades, Study 1 finds that groups with higher proportions of students from working-class contexts perform better. Utilizing a nationally representative sample of collegiate student-athletes, Study 2 suggests that the benefits of working together for people from working-class contexts are moderated by whether groups engage in effective group processes. Studies 3 and 4 demonstrate that working together (vs. individually) causally improves the fit and performance of people from working-class contexts. Study 4 identifies effective group processes as a mediator: People from working-class (vs. middle-class) contexts more frequently engage in effective group processes, thus improving their performance. Our findings suggest that assessing achievement individually is not class-neutral. Instead, assessing achievement in a way that is congruent with interdependent models of self—as people work together— can help realize the full potential of people from working-class contexts.

Differences in structural resources and individual skills contribute to social-class disparities in both U.S. gateway institutions of higher education and professional workplaces. People from working-class contexts also experience cultural barriers that maintain these disparities. In this article, we focus on one critical cultural barrier—the cultural mismatch between (a) the independent cultural norms prevalent in middle-class contexts and U.S. institutions and (b) the interdependent norms common in working-class contexts. In particular, we explain how cultural mismatch can fuel social-class disparities in higher education and professional workplaces. First, we explain how different social-class contexts tend to reflect and foster different cultural models of self. Second, we outline how higher education and professional workplaces often prioritize independence as the cultural ideal. Finally, we describe two key sites of cultural mismatch—norms for understanding the self and interacting with others—and explain their consequences for working-class people’s access to and performance in gateway institutions.

Understanding the sources of the social class achievement gap in education is an important step toward ensuring that education serves its purpose as an engine of social mobility. This article provides a brief overview of the sources of the social class achievement gap as well as interventions aimed at closing this gap. The researchers outline three major sources of the social class achievement gap — individual skills, structural conditions, and people’s processes of meaning-making, or construals — and the interventions that target them. While all of these interventions can effect change, we propose that interventions will be most effective when tailored to fit the specific needs of students and the context in which they are delivered.