Children’s Cultural Capital and Teachers’ Assessments of Effort and Ability: The Influence of School Sector

Author(s): Susan A. Dumais

Source: Dumais, Susan A. 2005. “Children’s Cultural Capital and Teachers’ Assessments of Effort and Ability: The Influence of School Sector.” Journal of Catholic Education 8(4):418-439.


While Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital has been a common facet in educational research since the 1980s, Dumais argues that current research is limited by its exclusion of the possible interaction between cultural capital and sector effects, specifically in relation to the difference between public and Catholic elementary schools. Thinking about cultural capital within the broader context of Bourdieu’s work, Dumais attempts to fill this gap in the literature by comparing public school kindergarteners and Catholic school kindergarteners in terms of how cultural capital and families’ orientations toward schooling influence teachers’ perceptions of ability and effort. 

Background and Research Questions
Catholic school students have consistently performed higher than public school students in terms of test scores, graduation rates, and postsecondary attendance. James Coleman and others argue that this disparity is a result of a higher level of social capital which is inherent to the more tightly-knit nature of Catholic school communities. Within an educational context, Bourdieu argued that cultural capital, measured by students’ involvement in middle-class cultural activities is a greater predictor than students’ effort and grades of long-term academic success.  This is due to the fact that an educational system created and perpetuated by the upper-middle class is inherently disposed to privilege students who possess the type of cultural capital usually found in members of that group. 

This difference in social capital may lead to differences in teacher expectations of parental involvement, student motivation, and students’ cultural resources. Students also internalize their parents’ orientations toward educational environments – that is, how comfortable the parents are in operating in an educational setting –  and working class students likewise inherit their parents dislike of educational settings and, consequently, having a less positive orientation toward schooling than their middle- and upper-class peers. 

Previous research demonstrates that cultural capital and positive orientations toward education have positive effects on student academic outcomes, although no prior studies examine how educational orientation factors into academic success. Qualitative work on this topic has focused more on the relationship between families and the educational system, generally finding that there are indeed class differences in how parents interact with teachers and school officials, and that middle-class children usually experience forms of socialization at home that make them more prepared for a formal school environment than their working-class peers. However, these studies have not examined these findings with consideration of possible sector effects. 

In light of these and other gaps in the literature, Dumais hopes to answer three questions: (1) Do public school kindergarteners and Catholic school kindergarteners differ in terms of how much cultural capital they have and how their parents are oriented toward schooling? (2) How do children’s cultural capital and parents’ orientation toward schooling affect teachers’ perceptions of kindergarten students’ effort and ability? and (3) Do the effects of children’s cultural capital and parents’ orientation vary by school sector?

Data and Analysis
Dumais uses the 1998 kindergarten cohort of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), a nationally representative sample of American students. For purposes of analysis, Dumais limits the sample to students who attended a public or Catholic school for kindergarten. Teacher perceptions of student effort and ability serve as the dependent variables. The independent variables of interest measure students’ cultural capital through one-time events, such as museum visits, and ongoing events, such as music lessons. Further, parental orientation toward schooling is measured through a variety of questions about parents’ participation at the school and their attitudes toward the school. Gender, minority status, and family socioeconomic status operate as controls, as well as a variable capturing a direct assessment of students’ reading abilities. 

Dumais finds that Catholic school students have a significantly higher rate of participation in cultural activities compared to their public school peers. The average number of activities is about the same for both groups, but there are many more public school students who don’t participate in any cultural activities (38% vs. 25%), and, conversely, there are many more Catholic school students who participate in three or more cultural activities (21% vs. 15%). These differences exist net of socioeconomic status.   However, Dumais finds that at the kindergarten level, students’ cultural capital is unrelated to teacher perceptions of student effort in both sectors.

Parental engagement with the school is higher on all factors in Catholic schools, while parental attitudes toward involvement are more negative in public schools. The majority of parents in both sectors engage with the school through structured activities like open houses, parent-teacher conferences, and school events, and in both sectors parents with negative attitudes toward interactions are small minority. Catholic school parents are more involved at all SES levels.  Dumais’s analysis reveals that parental participation was positively associated with higher evaluations of students’ effort in both sectors, although more strongly among Catholic school teachers.  

Dumais’ findings contradict previous work on cultural capital among middle and high school aged students, possibly showing that the effects of cultural capital and parental orientation toward education become stronger over the course of the student’s educational career.  As such, Dumais calls for continued longitudinal work on this topic as the data becomes available. 

Dumais’ work on the intersection of cultural capital and sector effects is indeed novel and an important contribution to the wider field of the sociology of education. Her findings, although contrary to the general consensus of the subfield on this topic, are interesting, and her research plan for more longitudinal work on this topic seems promising. However, the project is not without flaw. First, her extensive research on the role of cultural capital in the educational lives of students and parents unfortunately neglects teachers, an important omission in a study where teachers’ perceptions of students’ effort and ability serve as the dependent variables. Dumais postulates about teachers at a few points in the paper – “[w]ithin Catholic schools, teachers may have expectations for both students and parents that are different than the expectations at public schools” (420) and “one possible explanation is that kindergarten teachers, on average, have lower levels of cultural capital themselves” (435) – but these theorizations lack evidence from the literature or the study itself. A more careful handling of cultural capital among teachers – how much they have, what type they value, etc. – would improve the study’s theoretical basis. Similarly, the selection effects at work among families who opt in to a Catholic school education go unaddressed. 

Keywords: cultural capital, parental involvement, teacher evaluations, kindergarten

Sector: Catholic,  Public

Outcomes: Academic,  School Choice

Date Posted: 2016-04-18