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In the social sciences, education is recognized as playing a central role in maintaining and reproducing modern systems of inequality. Hierarchies of race, class, and gender are understood to be reflected in both the content of educational offerings and in the context in which schooling is provided. As such, attempts to address patterns of social inequality have focused on improving educational access and conditions for various populations. In the case of the twentieth-century United States, efforts to equalize access to schooling along lines of race and class have drawn heavily upon the insights of American social scientists, while responding to the demands of both liberal and conservative political constituencies.
Despite residing in communities where they often represented significant parts of the population, blacks and other racialized minorities often possessed little or no ability to control their educational destinies—not in choice of curricula, the hiring and firing of teachers, nor the availability of school facilities or the length of the school term. Long practiced by custom in many localities and written into state constitutions in the decades following the American Civil War, racial segregation in schools was given legal mandate in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), out of which came the doctrine “separate but equal,” which allowed states effectively to separate access to educational resources on the basis of race as long as those provided to each racial group were equal. After some sixty years of state-mandated racial segregation in education, during which blacks and other minority populations lagged behind whites on most indicators of educational progress, the U.S. Supreme Court, heavily influenced by the findings of social scientists, decided unanimously in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954) that the practice of segregated schooling was not only unconstitutional but also inherently damaging to children, with dire effects for society as a whole. While the Brown decision has generally been viewed as a landmark development in the struggle to dismantle racial inequality in American education and society at large, it was in many ways limited. The court’s rulings were unendorsed, loosely defined, and, by some accounts, underfunded as a federal mandate for public schools. Institutionalized resistance by southern states prevented full implementation of the court’s rulings until 1968, when schools in the rural South were given a mandate that they must desegregate in order to be in compliance with federal law. Additionally, because of the Court’s focus on de jure segregation common in the South, the de facto segregation that had been practiced in the northeastern and midwestern states remained largely intact until the 1970s, when concerns were expressed about the education of minority schoolchildren in such cities as Pasadena, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston.
The Brown ruling and the subsequent reexaminations of the American educational system it inspired called attention to the complex intersections of race and class in American education and their effects on academic achievement. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provided additional federal monies to schools with a significant proportion of poor or disadvantaged students, grew out of the concerns expressed in Brown. Perhaps one of the most influential works of social science research in the immediate post-Brown era was James Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and commonly referred to as the Coleman Report. The study’s specific purpose was to evaluate indicators of educational opportunity among white and minority students (blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans) by assessing educational quality in terms of the availability of curricula, school facilities, academic practices, and the academic characteristics of teachers and student bodies in schools. Among Coleman’s chief findings were that while persistent and unequal separation by race was found to be detrimental as per the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown, it was the combination of the socioeconomic composition of the school, the familial and socioeconomic background of the students, and the nature of their peer groups that accounted for the majority of the differences observed in academic achievement between white and minority schoolchildren. Racial integration alone, Coleman and his associates concluded, could not improve the academic performance of poor minority children.
In a context where explanations for patterns of social inequality favored concepts of “cultural deprivation” among poor and minority communities, the report’s widely cited findings proved to be controversial. Commentators recognized that schools in and of themselves were limited in their power to change society at large. Conservative critics of educational reform argued that social science research had justified their resistance to increased educational spending for underachieving populations. They argued that this underachievement was the result of a “cultural mismatch” between schools and targeted populations. Others, such as Jencks et al. (1972), noted that only by addressing the underlying economic causes of race and class inequality could patterns in education be remedied. Ultimately, federal educational policies continued to favor funding compensatory programs such as Head Start and remedies such as busing under the assumption that they would address the twin problems of differentials in academic performance and differential access to educational resources among minority and poor schoolchildren. In addition to encountering resistance from various segments of the population, these programs received mixed reviews of their long-term effectiveness, and the persistence of the gap in educational achievement for much of the 1970s continued to trouble reformers and policymakers. This period witnessed a resurgence of Marxian analyses of education, which focused on the role of schools in maintaining the class structure of capitalist societies. Neo-Marxist works contend that educational systems not only expand in response to economic shifts but also chiefly serve to reproduce a large class of workers by stressing obedience to authority and contentment with one’s place in the system. Critiquing this view as a “black box” perspective in which class is assumed to be reproduced through schooling, cultural sociologists such as Willis, Bourdieu, McLeod, and Oakes further elaborated on this work by examining strategies of social reproduction as they take place in everyday school interactions. These include academic sorting, interactions between students and school personnel, interactions among peers, and the general culture of the school.
The 1980s marked what some consider the end of “liberal hegemony” in American education and ushered in the neoconservative turn in educational reform. The publication of A Nation at Risk, which cited generally lower rates of performance among American schoolchildren and a persistent achievement gap by race and class as proof the failure of liberal reform, served as a manifesto for conservative reformers. Influenced by the findings of the Coleman Report and other studies that took a dim view of compensatory education, neoconservative reformers sought to remedy race and class achievement gaps through what they described as a focus on “standards and accountability” and an application of market forces to education. Under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, federal support for compensatory educational reforms diminished drastically and school districts were released from court-imposed plans for achieving racial balance without, as Orfield notes, having done so. Rather than continuing to search for solutions for failing schools through expensive government programs, the parents of poor and minority schoolchildren were encouraged to exercise their rights as consumers of public education and to improve their educational prospects by leaving failing schools and choosing those schools (whether public, private, or charter) with demonstrated levels of achievement.
The neoconservative influence in educational reform continued under the Clinton administration, during which the Improving America’s Schools Act (Public Law 89-10) was passed. While reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act of 1965, the 1994 act also endorsed the establishment of charter schools as a means of improving teaching and student performance. This pattern of reform greatly expanded under the presidency of George W. Bush in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act (Public Law 107-110). Signed into law by the Bush administration in 2002, NCLB’s expressed goal was to close the persistent race and class gap in educational achievement. While supporters of the act pointed to the implementation of much needed standards and timelines for schools to measure progress and make improvements and the ability of parents to choose better schools for their children, critics maintained that the act severely limited the means by which schools can effect those improvements. Rather than increasing the amount of federal support for public education, the act applies strict legislative guidelines for the use of Title I funds that limit curricular innovation in favor of an emphasis on “basic” subjects such as reading and mathematics, a mandate that schools meet state-determined measures of annual yearly progress, and, as a means of assessing student performance, the use of high-stakes standardized testing on which poor and minority students typically score lower. Many schools argue that by imposing a rigid framework and encouraging poor and minority parents to abandon neighborhood schools for better equipped, higher-scoring schools in affluent neighborhoods, the achievement gap will persist by encouraging individual rather than group mobility.
The American educational system’s foundations as an unequal system rooted in hierarchies of race and class have both inspired and limited attempts at reform that seek to remedy the long-term effects of these inequalities. Over the course of the twentieth century, social scientific considerations of educational inequality have shifted from a belief that schools are the sources of social difference with the capacity to fundamentally change society to the more critical understanding that schools have powerful effects in society but are limited in their ability to effect change through social engineering. The current body of social science literature on education focuses on the role that schools played in reinforcing and legitimizing hierarchies of race and class through a variety of means, including, but not limited to, curricular choices, school cultures, patterns of organization, and policies governing school funding.
- Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron. 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 1976. Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life. New York: Basic Books.
- Coleman, James, Ernest Q. Campbell, and Carol J. Hobson. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
- Jencks, Christopher, et al. 1972. Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America. New York: Basic Books.
- McLeod, Jay. 1987. Ain’t No Makin’ It: Leveled Aspirations in a Low-Income Neighborhood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Oakes, Jeannie. 2005. Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Orfield, Gary, and Susan Eaton. 1997. Dismantling Desegregation: The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education. New York: The New Press.
- Patterson, James T. 2001. Brown v. Board of Education: A Civil Rights Milestone and Its Troubled Legacy. New York and London: Oxford University Press.
- Peterson, Paul E., and Martin R. West, eds. 2003. No Child Left Behind? The Politics and Practice of School Accountability. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
- United States National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
- Willis, Paul E. 1981. Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. New York: Columbia University Press.
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