Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools

reviewed by Camille A. Farrington - August 13, 2014

coverTitle: Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools
Author(s): Peter W. Cookson Jr.
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807754528, Pages: 160, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com

The United States in the early 21st century is marked by pervasive economic inequality in which wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few and the gap between rich and poor is widening (Bivens, 2014). Further, while racial/ethnic gaps in academic performance show signs of narrowing, we see growing gaps by socioeconomic status (Reardon, 2011). On one hand, there is irrefutable evidence that education is the best route out of poverty; even in today’s economy, students who earn a college degree have significantly lower rates of unemployment and greater earning power than those with less education (Goldin & Katz, 2009).

But to what extent does schooling overall address economic inequality? Or more to the point in Peter W. Cookson, Jr.’s book Class Rules: Exposing Inequality in American High Schools, “What is the role of schools in creating and maintaining class divisions?” (p. 1). Using a “grassroots ethnographic” approach to examining students’ schooling experiences and drawing on Lawrence-Lightfoot’s (1983) portraiture methodology, Cookson compares school life across five very different high schools: an elite, private New England boarding school and four public high schools: one in a very affluent suburb; another in a middle-class suburb outside New York City; one in a rural, working-class New England community; and one in an extremely poor urban neighborhood in the South Bronx. Through this comparison, Cookson attempts to shed light inside the “black box of schooling” to illustrate the mechanisms whereby adolescents become socialized into their respective social classes.

Cookson opens with reference to “substantial evidence” that “where and with whom a student goes to school significantly influences his or her life chances and lifestyles.” (p. 1).  He lays out his central argument in Chapter One—that schools “pass on class position through rites of passage that instill in students the values, dispositions, and beliefs of their class, and in doing so, solidify class divides and class consciousness” (p. 1)—and walks the reader through this process. He tries to make accessible the central tenets of his argument, despite his use of weighty sociological terms throughout (chartering and status rights; the formation of class consciousness; collective memory and school rites of passage; the process of class infusion; and cultural capital and deep curriculum). Cookson juxtaposes the “manifest curriculum” of course offerings and mission statements within a school with the “latent curriculum” of student culture that often runs in opposition to this official picture. But he is most interested in the “deep structure curriculum” underlying everything that “forms the structure of their intellectual and emotional framework for understanding the world around them” (p. 24) and “informs students of who has social power and who does not” (p. 31).

The next five chapters—the heart of the book—focus in turn on each of the five high schools, with Cookson providing detailed descriptions organized around five “key narratives” (Architectural/Ascetic, Authority, Pedagogical/Curriculum, Definition of Self, and Community) that shape each school’s deep curriculum. The academic language of the first chapter gives way to almost stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the five schools. On one hand, Cookson tells us nothing we don’t already know: there are stark differences in facilities, instructional resources, teacher qualifications, even cafeteria food between an elite boarding school, an inner-city urban high school, and the three levels of schools in between. But Cookson methodically takes us point by point through these five “narratives” within each school to show not only just how stark those differences are, but how the totality of a student’s high school experience forms an inescapable message about the destiny for which students within that school are being prepared.

It is not so much that students at elite Highridge Academy get to choose from “beef stroganoff, several pasta offerings, fresh fish [and] multiple salad bars” for lunch (p. 46) while students at the working-class Patrick Henry High School a few miles away are eating chicken nuggets every day. It is that Highridge Academy students eat that lunch before walking on gravel paths across sprawling, beautifully landscaped grounds on their way to the science building with the electron microscope or one of five art studios for a wide range of courses taught by teachers with advanced degrees, before working off some steam in the ice hockey facility after class (pp. 45–50). Meanwhile Patrick Henry students eat their chicken nuggets—for some, “their biggest meal of the day”—in a brick and cinder block school building where students might be stopped and searched for contraband en route to generic courses taught by teachers with middling academic credentials (pp. 82–87). Where Cookson writes that elite Highridge students learn from their school experience that “they are part of an international set that lives well and has access to the best things in life” (p. 46), working-class Patrick Henry High, in contrast, “sends a powerful message to its students [that] success in the world of work means not asking too many questions, accepting authority, and not questioning the current social order” (p. 89). To the extent that students rebel against this destiny, they do so “by shutting down, by talking back, by taking drugs and drinking, and by creating a student culture where intellectual excellence is seen as acting snooty” (p. 89). In so doing, much as in Paul Willis’ Learning to Labor, they seal their own fate.

Cookson paints equally compelling pictures of the way affluent Meadowbrook High, with its modern facilities on a 50-acre campus, creates students who “learn how to market the self and successfully pursue prosperity” and “see no harm in accumulating capital and living well” (p. 58), just as the chaos and lack of resources at Roosevelt High in the South Bronx convinces students that “they are powerless” and “live at the margins of the American Dream” (p. 102). In contrast to the other four schools, middle-class Riverside High “is not a status maker that provides a deeply transformative experience for students.” Instead, it seems to be preparing youth “for a future that most likely will not exist in coming years” or that “belongs to someone else” (p. 77).

Cookson’s book is both compelling and somewhat frustrating. He paints portraits of each school without tying them directly to evidence, and the reader is left to accept the validity of his conclusions. I take him at his word regarding the physical descriptions of schools and students and the curricular offerings at each institution, but I found myself wondering about the line between fact and opinion in statements such as: “It is not uncommon for working-class high schools to hire coaches as principals for three reasons: Coaches work well with students, coaches are natural disciplinarians, and coaches fit well into working-class cultures” (p. 85), or “Prep schools do not play public schools in sports for two reasons: One, class mixing can lead to trouble, and two, they most certainly would lose, and thus, the bubble of prowess and excellence could be broken” (p. 50). Insofar as class-based stereotypes are pervasive in our society and preconceptions powerfully shape perceptions, statements such as these made me aware that I did not know what standards of evidence Cookson had used in the process of turning his ethnographic observations into statements of fact.

In all, however, Cookson presents powerful and convincing evidence that high schools socialize young people into their respective class positions. As Cookson’s focus is on schools themselves, the reader is left to wonder about the interplay among schools, families, and neighborhoods in the process of social reproduction. Adolescents’ modes of dress, transportation, language, and the role models they emulate—these are class markers they bring with them to high school from families and neighborhoods that are equally steeped in socio-economic class. Still, Cookson convinces that schools are far from neutral institutions in immersing young people into their assigned social class. I strongly recommend his book to anyone concerned with the role of schools in reproducing economic inequality.


Bivens, J. (2014, April 23). The top 1 percent’s share of income from wealth has been rising for decades. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute.

Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (2009). The future of inequality: The other reason education matters so much. Milken Institute Review, 26-33.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983). The good high school: Portraits of character and culture. New York: Basic Books.

Reardon, S. F. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations. In G. J. Duncan and R. J. Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances (pp. 91–116). New York: Russell Sage Foundation Press.

Willis, Paul. (1977). Learning to labor: How working class kids get working class jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 13, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17642, Date Accessed: 5/24/2022 5:13:30 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Camille Farrington
    University of Chicago
    E-mail Author
    CAMILLE A. FARRINGTON is a Research Associate (Assistant Professor) at the University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration (SSA) and the Consortium on Chicago School Research (UChicago CCSR). Her research focuses on policy and practice in urban high school reform, particularly classroom instruction and assessment, academic rigor, academic failure, and the role of noncognitive factors in academic performance. Dr. Farrington's new book, Failing at School: Lessons for Redesigning Urban High Schools (2014, Teachers College Press), documents how high schools systematically construct widespread student failure and provides practical recommendations for restructuring secondary education to serve goals of equity and excellence rather than selection and stratification. Dr. Farrington is also the lead author of Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance (2012), a comprehensive research review that illustrates how noncognitive factors interact with school and classroom contexts to affect students' academic achievement. Throughout her work, Dr. Farrington draws on her fifteen years' experience as a public high school teacher and National Board Certified Teacher Mentor. She received a BA from the University of California at Santa Cruz, teacher certification from Mills College, and a PhD in Policy Studies in Urban Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue