YouTube video

Professor Karl Alexander discusses his nearly three decade study that exposes the structural barriers to escaping poverty in Baltimore

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

We have a special guest and today, Professor Karl Alexander. He’s just released a new book, The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood.

Talk about why you carried out this study, which spanned three decades and a large portion of your career.

KARL ALEXANDER, JOHN DEWEY PROF. OF SOCIOLOGY, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV.: Interestingly, it didn’t start out with the idea that it would be a 30-year project. My colleagues and I, we’re all sociologists at Hopkins, and we’re particularly interested in–and we’re sociologists, and we’re interested in issues of education. So we were particularly interested in understanding why some young children get off to a more successful start at the launch of their educational careers and others have a bumpier ride at the outset, and then to look, as we followed these youngsters on for a period of time, to see what the repercussions might be into second grade. So did the children who struggled initially recover, or did they continue to struggle? Did the kids who’ve had a successful adjustment continue to do better?

We call the project The Beginning School Study, because we’re interested in the initial experience of schooling, which for many young people is really a very abrupt transition. I think in some of our writings we call it the transition from home child to school child. And what children experience in the institutional setting of the school can be very different from what they experience at home. They’re being evaluated, their performance is being evaluated by a third party, a teacher. There are no strong bonds of affection or attachment to smooth over rough edges. And so it’s understood that this can be a difficult adjustment for many children. We were interested in trying to understand the repercussions of that.

So the plan initially–well, let me just step back and say we started the project in 1982, and it involves almost 800 children, Baltimore City public school children, who were starting first grade that here, in the fall of 1982 in, initially, 20 schools scattered throughout the city. And the sample was as diverse as the enrollment in the city public school system would allow at the time. And that was important to us, because we were interested in comparing differences of experience across social lines. So African-American children and white children, how do things work for them, and similarly in differently, perhaps? Children from higher-income families? And in the Baltimore public school system at the time, you didn’t have many very wealthy families, but you did have parents who had attended college, and 30 percent of our better-off parents completed college. And so we wanted to have the opportunity to compare middle-class family experience with working-class or low-income family experience. And then we were interested also in gender differences, boys and girls.

So the idea at the outset was to look carefully and closely at the first-grade experience, and then to track these children into second grade. That’s only two years. But along the way, once we got into it, we realized that most of the heavy lifting had already been done to launch a project of this sort. We had tremendous cooperation all along the way from the school superintendent’s office, school–city systems school superintendent’s office, to the principals of the schools that we selected at random for participation to 20 schools, down to the classroom teachers. Every single first-grade classroom teacher in these 20 schools allowed us to come in to their classes to speak with these study youngsters in the fall of first grade, and then again in the spring of first grade, two interviews during the school year, at the beginning of the school year and toward the end of the school year. And we obtained parental permission from 97 percent of the youngsters who were randomly sampled from kindergarten rosters from the previous school year.

So getting that all in place required an awful lot of work, but it’s was going quite nicely, we thought. And the children themselves were very cooperative in terms of being able to [be] responsive to our wanting to meet with them and talk with them. There’s wasn’t a lot of precedent at the time in the early ’80s for interviewing children in that age range, ’cause the Children were so young. But we developed our questionnaires, and they seemed to work well.

So at that point we stepped back and we said, well, why don’t we keep it going for a little while longer? Second grade will be interesting, but wouldn’t fifth grade be more interesting still, like, the end of elementary school? And then, when we got closer to fifth grade, we thought, well, why not go through the middle school years? And then through the high school years. And we just kept the thing going into a decade after high school graduation. And so for these youngsters it started first grade in the fall of 1982.

The spring of 1994 would have been there on-time high school graduation. We did two interview cycles with them now as young adults, the first after high school. The first was four years after high school, around the time when children who had graduated on-schedule and continued on to college would be expected to be finishing up college. And then the second after-high-school interview was at age 28, 29, roughly 10 years after high school (we called it our Mature Adult Survey). And in both of those after-high-school surveys, we managed to relocate and re-interview 80 percent of the original group.

So what started out to be a project that would be two years in the field turned out to be 25, 26 years in the field. And we found ourselves being able to pose questions about these youngsters’ life experience from early childhood through the middle grades and high school and into the years after high school. And having the opportunity to do that broadened out our agenda.

So we were still all curious about how children weather the first great experience. That never went away. And we’ve actually written quite a bit about that focused specifically on first grade.

But with this coverage of almost 25 years of their life experience, we decided to look more broadly at how the circumstances of their lives as young children, in terms of their conditions in their family life, neighborhood conditions in the schools where they lived and attended school, the characteristics of their elementary school years, and then eventually middle school and high school experiences, the characteristics of their schools, how those features of their life experience growing up influenced where they wound up later in life as young adults.

So the imagery of the long shadow (which is the main title of the book) is intended to convey the idea that family casts a long shadow on children’s lifelong opportunities and experiences. So this is the long shadow of family influence. But family influence extends beyond just mother or father or siblings and close relatives, because the family decides where to live, for example. And so, in point of fact, the neighborhood context of children’s experience and development is really–derives from family. And so too does the school experience, ’cause in deciding where families live, they are also deciding where their children are going to attend school.

And we have a perspective that we work from. It’s not original with us. A social scientist by the name of Richard Jessor coined the expression that we use. It’s the overlapping spheres of influence. So it’s well understood that children’s development, academic, personal, and otherwise, is fundamentally shaped by what they experience close-up in terms of their everyday realm of experience, and that would be experiences in the family environment, experiences in the surrounding neighborhood, and experiences in school. And so those are the central institutional settings that help shape children’s life trajectories. And the overlapping idea is that many children go to schools where the makeup of enrollment is very much like who they are themselves and live in neighborhoods that are in Baltimore [crosstalk]

NOOR: So you mean many students live in segregated neighborhoods.

ALEXANDER: In segregated neighborhoods. So if they’re African-American, the neighborhoods are predominantly African-American and the school enrollments are predominantly African-American. If they’re low-income, they will tend to live in low-income communities and attend schools with mainly other low-income children. So that’s the overlap of these spheres of influence. They tend to align. And when they align for disadvantaged children, the implication of that is that they’re triply disadvantaged: they’re disadvantaged in terms of the material conditions of their own family circumstances, in terms of the economic level of their neighborhood, and in terms of the economic level of their schools.

And so when you put all those pieces together in combination, they have the effect of moving children across different life paths. Advantaging children who happen to find themselves in advantaged circumstances and disadvantaging children who find themselves in disadvantaged circumstances. And so what you find when you look over the long haul–and this is what we observe in our book–is that as young adults, most children grown up very much find themselves in similar circumstances as young adults as they had experienced when they were children. So the conditions of family life reproduce themselves across generations would be one way of thinking about it. That–there are exceptions to every rule. There’s movement up and movement down. But the predominant tendency–and as sociologists, we focus on tendencies and patterns; we’re not scrutinizing each and every detailed individual experience, but we’re looking for general themes in general patterns–the general pattern is that children’s place in society as young adults tends to recapitulate or reproduce what they experienced when they were growing up. And one of our goals in the study is to try to understand how that unfolds over time.

So a two-year project became a 25-year project. And this book of ours, The Long Shadow, is really the culminating work of that project. And we’re very pleased to be able to put it together in the way we did. And I hope people will find it interesting.

NOOR: And so, for anyone that has driven through or maybe taken a train through Baltimore, you see that many neighborhoods are disinvested, falling apart in many cases. So it’s no surprise that if you grow up in that area and you go to schools with peers from that area, it’s no real surprise that there’s a good chance you’re going to be in that area, you’re going to be stuck there, in a sense.

ALEXANDER: Absolutely. No. It’s no–sadly, there aren’t many grand revelations here that people will read about or hear about and say, wow, I never would’ve imagined that, because it’s out there for you to see and for me to see. But what’s unusual is to see it unfold at the level of detail that we were able to develop with this project that has shadowed these children over 25 years.

NOOR: And so talk about what are the main important points that you think that people should take away from this study.

ALEXANDER: Yeah, I think there are a number of very interesting insights. So we started out to test the proposition that the way to get ahead in the modern era, the postindustrial society, is to do well in school and then realize the benefits of what a college degree will confer in terms of later life opportunities in the world of work. You know, it’s the ticket to getting into middle-class and professional employment, and then higher earnings as a result of that. So that success narrative is very widely held, including held by our study participants. So we wanted to see how that presented itself in the life experience of this group.

And what we find is a very striking pattern of middle-class family privilege, so to speak, so that the children of middle-class parentage and living in middle-class neighborhoods and attending schools with other children like themselves are much more successful in school.

NOOR: And it’s a dramatic rate you’re talking about.

ALEXANDER: Oh, very different, vastly different experiences across social lines. And to go to kind of the end of the story, in a sense, if you look at patterns of college completion, what we find is that at age 28, which is roughly the age of our last interview with these youngsters, at age 28, 45 percent of the children that we classify as being from more advantaged family conditions in the early elementary years have obtained a bachelor’s degree or beyond–some have master’s degrees, and even a handful have PhD degrees at age 28. That’s 45 percent.

Children who grew up in disadvantaged family circumstances, their parents didn’t finish high school. They had high levels of unemployment from year to year, their–both parents, fathers and mothers. Ninety-eight percent of them were classified as low-income in terms of school records for–qualified for reduced and free meals at school. So these are really quite disadvantaged children. At age 28, 4 percent had bachelor’s degrees. That’s a tenfold difference in baccalaureate degree completion.

And so the vast majority of these disadvantaged children, grown up, are not going to have the advantages that come with a college degree to help open doors for them. Now, there’s a very extensive here in the Baltimore area two year in community college system, and those schools are designed to be accessible to poor kids and the kids who will be commuting students who can’t afford to live on campus, kids who will be attending part-time because they need to work to cover tuition and to help their families. A lot of our kids started in two-year programs but don’t finish. And this is sadly the case here in Baltimore.

But it’s also reflected in national statistics. These young people face so many practical challenges in their lives outside of school that it’s very hard for them to stay the course. And it’s not for disinterested and it’s not for want of trying. They start and cobble together the tuition to cover a semester or so, and then they have to step out in order to raise the resources to continue, or because there’s a challenge, their daughter is ill and needs their attention, or they’ve got to–.

NOOR: And you’re talking about specific–the stories that you’ve heard.

ALEXANDER: Oh, yeah, we’ve heard these stories. Absolutely. There are real people behind the things that I say.

So we have a 40 percent high school dropout rate in this group overall, which seems extraordinarily high. And it is, but it’s not uncommon [crosstalk]

NOOR: It’s not high for–that’s Baltimore,–

ALEXANDER: That’s Baltimore.

NOOR: –and it’s many urban districts.

ALEXANDER: Yeah. It’s actually right about on the button with statistics citywide. So by design, this project was supposed to provide a window on conditions throughout the city, and it does a very good job of that. We have any number of points of comparison in the book that the characteristics of our schools, of our neighborhoods, and the particulars of our children against city-wide statistics, and they align very well.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Karl L. Alexander is Chair and John Dewey Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University. He has been at Hopkins since 1972. Alexander previously chaired the department from 1985 to 1993 and from 2006 to 2009, is past President of the Southern Sociological Society, past Chair of the Sociology of Education Section of the American Sociological Association, was editor of the journal Sociology of Education from 2003 - 2006, and he currently directs a federally funded Predoctoral Training Program in Education Research. Since 1982 he and colleague Doris Entwisle have been directing the Baltimore-based Beginning School Study (BSS). The BSS is a long-term study of youth development with a particular interest in the lasting imprint of early home and school experiences. It has been tracking the life progress of a panel of 800 Baltimore youngsters since first grade in 20 Baltimore city public schools.