USA Education Research Paper

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The most universally recognized function of schools is to impart knowledge and skills that will enable the learner to participate successfully in a society’s institution (Epps 1995). As early as the 1920s, social policy became directed toward using elementary education to further children’s social and emotional adjustment outside of the home. Recognizing that educational training in the early years of human development was essential for enhancing cognitive skills, reinforcing social norms, and preparing youth for participation in the labor market as adults, educational policy in general, and the public school system in particular, aimed to train youth to become productive citizens.

During the early part of the twentieth century, various administrative progressives, philanthropic associations, and civil rights organizations (to a lesser degree) played an integral role in shaping educational opportunities. The chief architects of educational policy were an elite group of white men that consisted of city superintendents, education professors, state and federal officers, leaders in professional organizations (i.e., the National Education Association), and foundation officials (Tyack and Cuban 1995). These men provided the blueprint for an educational institution mandating criteria for schooling, differentiating curricula according to students’ career paths, standardizing the structure of schools in order to provide uniform staffing and social and health services, and overseeing the regulation of educational practices. Moreover, the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations, the General Education Board (which helped to develop black education in the Jim Crow South), and various civil rights organizations (i.e., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) provided financial support, developed curriculum, and trained educators with the hopes of creating an equitable educational system. Although the institution of education aimed to provide youth with a solid foundation for the future, the separation of blacks and whites into different and inherently unequal educational institutions created a system that reflected economic and social inequalities.

To the creators of these institutions, educational attainment was considered the panacea for social inequality. However, due to the racial order and quality of schools, blacks lagged behind whites on all indicators of performance. Research providing explanations for these differences was biologically deterministic. Critical studies that addressed educational inequalities and the problem of race/ethnicity coincided with the racial order; variations in performance were attributed to innate differences in cognitive ability.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, the educational opportunities of blacks were shaped by popular discourse characterizing blacks as intellectually inferior. The genetic interpretation of race and research on the inheritability of intelligence influenced the types of learning materials afforded to segregated schools and shaped conclusions about black youth (Anderson 1988). Moreover, Jim Crow education was designed, implemented, and upheld by the state. As a result, for over thirty years, the majority of blacks attended substandard schools, primarily in rural areas or in the South, which often lacked the most basic aids for learning such as textbooks, slates and chalk, desks, had relatively small classes, and were taught by instructors without postsecondary training (Tyack and Cuban 1995). Some early sociological studies argued that the various components of the educational system were disconnected and that the system could not cure the social ills of society as originally believed. Willard Waller (1932) conceptualized schools as unstable social systems in which different components—administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community groups—all with competing interests, vie for power and authority. Scholars did not address the question of how the convoluted structures of segregated schools further increased social inequality for black students or attempted to understand why a significant proportion of this population remained poor and socially immobile. The first sociologist to conceptualize a theoretical framework that attempted to solve the “race problem” was Robert Park (1950), who examined how ethnic groups acculturate into American society through contact, competition, accommodation, and eventual assimilation. Park’s work, however, focused solely on white ethnic groups (i.e., Irish or German immigrants), and the assimilation of blacks and the racial problems that thwarted their progress were not addressed. At the same time, various contemporary empirical studies of educational achievement and motivation reinforced the notion that better performers had higher drives, and implied that racial variations in performance resulted from a lack of motivation on the part of black students.

Not until school segregation was challenged by the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) was attention given to the detrimental effects of separate and unequal educational institutions on the academic achievement of black students. This case, which desegregated K–12 education, forced empirical studies to look toward structural inequalities as the culprit for disparities in performance, as opposed to lack of motivation or biologically deterministic explanations. Empirical studies provided evidence that racial/ethnic differences in achievement were associated with differences in socioeconomic status (Rosen 1959).

During the 1960s civil unrest, government emphasis on alleviating poverty, and black political mobilization brought new attention to the ways in which inequality undermined educational attainment for blacks. As part of national efforts to alleviate poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson created Title I programs targeting funds to students from low-income families to prevent poverty from restricting school opportunities and academic achievement. Also, the 1965 civil rights act, executive order 11246, called for vigorous, proactive steps, later termed affirmative action, to broaden and increase access to higher education for previously excluded and underrepresented groups (Allen et al. 2002).

In addition to policies mandated to improve educational access and quality, research studies examining racial differences in academic performance received much funding. Among several empirical studies investigating the relationship between inequality and educational attainment, a 1966 report by James S. Coleman was the most influential. It demonstrated that family background had a significant effect on academic achievement and that schools played a role in creating and sustaining student differences in achievement. Moreover, the Moynahan Report (1965) presented a cultural argument for educational inequality that did not rest on IQ differences but on the attitudes, time perspectives, family patterns, and values of the poor. Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis (1976) provided further evidence that poor school quality was a predictor of limited economic success and viewed schools as an instrument used by the dominant class to maintain the status quo.

Contrary to earlier studies of educational attainment that emphasized biologically deterministic explanations for performance, educational research in the 1970s and 1980s took a more holistic and liberal approach. Scholars consistently showed that race and ethnicity, along with socioeconomic status, were significant determinants of educational and occupational success; that stratification processes worked differently for students from various backgrounds; and that schools could depress the relationship between background and occupational attainment by providing more equal access to educational resources and training (Hallinan 2000). Much educational research since the 1980s has sought to identify the problems associated with educational inequality and outcomes and has focused on implementing strategies to decrease racial gaps in academic achievement. However, some argue that the approaches employed have actually increased educational disparities rather than alleviating them.

Present-Day Problems and Prospects

Despite various policies aimed at reducing educational inequality, such as the Brown decision of 1954, educational opportunity programs created in 1965, and Affirmative Action of 1964, the educational system at the start of the twenty-first century—more than forty years after the civil rights movement began—still remains segregated by socioeconomic status (SES) and race/ethnicity. For students that come from more affluent families with high levels of social capital, the educational system serves to adequately prepare them for competitive jobs in the labor market. Conversely, for students with low SES and limited resources, the educational system has failed to provide the needed foundation and skills to sustain an adequate lifestyle. Most importantly, minority students— namely, blacks and Hispanics—are overwhelmingly overrepresented in the lower SES category and attending schools that are substandard in terms of instruction, curricula, socialization practices, preparation for the job market, and providing equal access to higher education opportunities.

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Disparities in educational achievement are evident in the early years of primary school, where blacks and Hispanics lag behind whites and Asians on several indicators of educational achievement. Table 1 illustrates the percent distribution by race and ethnicity of mathematics achievement levels for a representative sample of students taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam in 2003. As can be seen, 46 percent of black and 38 percent of Hispanics performed below the basic levels of achievement for fourth graders. Moreover, differences in achievement levels worsen as students advance to higher grades (as measured by the performance of eighth graders).

Table 2 illustrates the percent distribution by race and ethnicity of achievement levels on reading comprehension tests for a representative sample of students taking the NAEP in 2003. Results show that 60 percent of blacks and 56 percent of Hispanics are below basic fourthgrade reading levels compared to 25 percent of whites. Although performance in reading improves for blacks and Hispanics by the eighth grade, disparities in performance between racial groups remain constant. Contemporary research examining racial differences in educational achievement in primary and secondary education indicates that the gap continues to widen as students advance to higher educational levels (Steele 1997).

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The next section examines some of the structural obstacles that limit educational attainment for minority students (i.e., blacks and Hispanics) and may account for racial/ethnic variations in academic performance.

Residential Segregation, Institutional Inequality, and Educational Opportunities

Due to the history of racial stratification in the United States, blacks and whites reside in neighborhoods that are economically, socially, and racially distinct from one another (Jargowsky 1996; Massey and Denton 1996; Massey 2004). Although structural barriers that prohibited residential mobility for minorities have been removed in the post–civil rights era, the historical vestiges of exclusionary practices that were and continue to be pervasive have implications for the racial formation of more recent residential patterns. As a result, minority integration into diverse neighborhoods has been slow to non-existent. Research has shown that blacks remain the most segregated racial group (Massey and Denton 1992), even when factors such as neighborhood preferences (Farley et al 1978; Zubrinsky and Bobo 1996), racial attitudes and stereotyping, and preferred educational level of neighbors (Benabou 1992; Cutler and Glaeser 1997) are taken into account. Residential patterns for Hispanic families are very similar to those of blacks.

Residential segregation is a mechanism that has historically perpetuated systemic inequality and is mainly responsible for inequality in primary and secondary education. Two-thirds of urban blacks live under conditions of high segregation and two-thirds attend minority-dominant public schools (Massey 2006). Considerable research documents the disadvantaged conditions experienced by blacks in segregated schools, such as limited spending on students and curricula, and a lack of qualified teachers (Anderson and Byrne 2004). Since American schools are funded by local property taxes, the wealthiest districts spend as much as three times per-pupil compared to the most economically disadvantaged districts (Condron and Roscigno 2003). Although schools that are located in lower-SES communities may receive additional funds from federal Title I programs, these schools normally spend a sizeable majority of their budgets on repairs, maintenance, and structural improvement of school buildings. Compared to low-SES segregated schools that primarily educate black and Hispanic students, high-SES schools that are predominantly white spend more on instructional materials and provide higher pay for teachers. As a result, low performing students are less likely to get placed into vocational tracks, are better prepared for postsecondary education, and receive the skills necessary to acquire competitive jobs. Consequently, for minority students that attend public schools in residentially segregated neighborhoods, institutional quality has negative implications for educational outcomes. Teachers’ expectations are lower, and minority students are more likely to be placed in lower tracks (vocational vs. honors/college preparatory) by their instructors, more likely to have lower reading and math scores compared to the national average, and are less likely to attend four-year colleges and universities (Oaks and Guiton 1995; Allen et al. 2001; Dinwiddie and Allen 2003). Recent sociological research has shown that improved education (as a result of money spent on curricula, the hiring of qualified teachers, and providing access to resources) is a strong predictor of academic achievement, which contradicts culturally deterministic theories that claim minorities do not value education (e.g., the popular “acting white assumption”).

School districts and the federal government have recognized that public schools provide different levels of educational preparation for their students. Therefore, in an effort to provide options, various voucher systems and school-choice policies have given parents the opportunity to take advantage of schools that are known to better educate children (i.e., magnet and charter schools). Magnetschool programs allow public school students to leave their neighborhood schools to attend specialized institutions that offer unique curriculums. Thirty-four percent of the nation’s school districts have magnet-school programs, making magnet-school choice one of the most widely used forms of school choice in the country (Saporito 2003). However, students must qualify based on test scores, grades, behavior, and other criteria that are evaluated by teachers from their neighborhood schools. A problem with magnet schools and the voucher system is that there are many more applicants than openings and school districts are prohibited from taking race or ethnicity into account when deciding which students to admit.

Current Policy Addressing Educational Inequality

Educational reforms have been the preferred methods of addressing educational inequalities (Tyack and Cuban 1995). One contemporary approach that has received much criticism is No Child Left Behind (NCLB), President George W. Bush’s effort to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The NCLB law requires yearly standardized testing of students from kindergarten to eighth grade in reading, language, and math and holds schools accountable for meeting state and district goals. It also requires schools that have historically underperformed and receive federal Title I funds to submit progress reports yearly. In addition, NCLB provides students who attend low-performing schools the choice of transferring to a different public school in their district or a charter school if their public school fails to meet district or federal educational mandates.

Although the main objective of NCLB is to improve educational quality through test-based accountability and to provide students flexibility in terms of educational choice, it has presented more problems than solutions. For example, NCLB does not address the issue of institutional inequality that contributes to student underperformance. Moreover, as a result of the pressure to improve student test scores, curricula have become centered around enhancing test-taking skills instead of learning acquisition. Another problem with a system of accountability based on test score performance is that questions asked on standardized tests are racially and culturally biased. This places an already vulnerable student population at risk of underperforming, because the educational experiences of black and Hispanic students vastly differ from those of white and Asian students from more affluent schools (Steele 1992; Horn 2005). Standardized tests are good measures of the skills obtained from schooling, so if lowerSES students are less likely to receive adequate levels of instruction compared to their more privileged peers, it should come as no surprise that the majority of low-SES students have trouble meeting federal, state, and district expectations.

Achievement on standardized tests is used to determine advancement to the next grade, high school graduation, and admission to college. In most states, students attending public schools are required to take high school exit exams in order to receive their diplomas. For example, the California High School Exit Examination, enacted as state law in 2006, was designed to ensure that all high school graduates have received an adequate foundation in English-language arts and mathematics, based on state standards. According to the California Department of Education (2006), by the end of eleventh grade white students had the highest pass rate on the English-language arts portion of the exam at 96 percent, and Hispanic and black students had the lowest at 83 percent. Also, by the end of eleventh grade Asian students had the highest passing rate in mathematics at 97 percent and African American students had the lowest at 76 percent. Test outcomes from this diverse state suggest that exit exams can increase the drop-out rate and limit degree attainment for minority students. Results also provide an indication of how marginalized students will perform nationally once other states implement exit exams as a main criteria for graduation.

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Preparation for high school exit exams and earned grades are directly associated with performance on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) used for postsecondary admission. National mean SAT scores disaggregated by race and ethnicity show disparities in verbal and math scores. Most recent data from 2002 show that white and Asian students had the top scores at 1060 and 1070, respectively, whereas Hispanics averaged 903 and blacks were at the bottom at 857 (College Board 2002). Racial and ethnic variation in grades parallels that of test scores. Most recent national data reporting mean grade-point averages (GPA) for high school twelfth graders indicates that blacks are the lowest at 2.63 compared to 2.80 for Hispanics, 3.01 for whites, and 3.20 for Asian/Pacific Islanders (U.S. Department of Education 2000). Many contend the underrepresentation of minorities in colleges and universities is a direct result of low GPA and SAT scores, poor preparation for college-level work, and limited access to postsecondary education.

The Spill-Over Effect:

Disparities in Higher Education and Labor Market Participation

The differing school environments that condition disparities in educational attainment for minorities have implications for the persistence of inequality that has consequential and enduring effects on higher education and labor market participation. Individuals with higher education degrees are more likely to have better paying positions, job security, and wealth compared to individuals with low levels of schooling (Mare 1995). Table 3 shows the percent distribution of white, black, and Hispanic students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four who completed high school between 1993 and 2004. As can be seen, the distribution of high school diplomas varies: Whites had the highest graduation rate at 82 percent, Hispanics had substantially the lowest at 71 percent, and blacks were in between at 81 percent. Although the data is not disaggregated by geographic region, gross disparities in high school degree attainment are apparent. To show the negative effects of differentials in high school completion for postsecondary education, Table 4 illustrates the percent distribution by race of high school graduates between the ages of eighteen and twentyfour who enrolled in colleges and universities between 1993 and 2004. Comparing enrollment rates for 2004, for example, the table illustrates that 41 percent of whites, 31 percent of blacks, and 24 percent of Hispanics were enrolled at postsecondary institutions. What is most astonishing about these results is that the majority of blacks (69 percent) and Hispanics (76 percent) did not persist to college directly after high school. This finding is significant considering that blacks are 12.3 and Hispanics are 12.5 percent of the U.S. population, respectively (U.S. Census 2002).

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For minority students who do pursue university degrees, their educational experiences, grades and graduation rates are much lower compared to white and Asian students. In fact, once in college minority students receive grades that are on average half a letter below those of their white classmates (Steele 1992). Racism, financial constraints, lack of preparation for college-level work, few opportunity programs on campus that would help facilitate the adjustment to rigorous academic work for minority students, and slower time to degree rates are among the factors that explain college outcomes for minority students. Research has shown that minority students experience additional constraints that can negatively affect academic achievement.

For example, in a study of college students attending selective colleges and universities, Camille Charles, Gniesha Dinwiddie, and Douglas Massey (2004) found that for high-achieving black and Hispanic students from residentially segregated neighborhoods, college-related, economic and family social stress negatively produced a drop in academic performance and levels of satisfaction with college. Although minority students work hard academically to attend and succeed in college, there are additional stressors and constraints that substantially and negatively impede their educational progression.

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Failure to obtain a high school diploma or college degree has direct implications on earning potential for minority youth who go directly into the labor market. Table 5 illustrates mean yearly earnings of workers eighteen years and older between the years of 1993 and 2003, differentiated by level of educational attainment. The data illustrate that in 1993 mean earnings for blacks and Hispanics were similar for individuals without a high school diploma. It is not until 2003 that blacks without a high school diploma have the lowest mean earnings per year, compared to Hispanics and whites without a diploma. If we look at earnings for individuals with high school diplomas in 1993, blacks and Hispanics have similar earnings; blacks and Hispanics, however, made roughly $3,000 less than whites with the same level of educational attainment. On the other side, for those with college degrees, whites made $5,000 more on average compared to minorities in 1993. Moreover, in 2003 disparities in mean earnings by level of educational attainment are more pervasive. Whites with bachelor degrees, on average, made $10,000 more than minorities with bachelor degrees. Although minorities on average earn less than whites with similar working experience and degree attainment, having a college degree substantially increases earning potential for everyone, particularly blacks and Hispanics.


The adverse effects of inequality have long-term implications for educational opportunities and earning potential, particularly for racial/ethnic minorities. Returning to the original question of whether education improves life chances or reinforces social inequality, from the evidence provided it is apparent that educational disadvantages experienced by racial/ethnic groups have snowball effects. Most importantly, laws such as NCLB, school voucher policies, the increase in the use of standardized testing as indictors of determinants for persistence, and various school accountability mechanisms are very limited in scope. For example, NCLB is not intended to produce equal segregated schools, but to fix a macro problem with micro methodologies. Moreover, the impact of residential segregation on primary, secondary, and postsecondary educational outcomes speaks volumes about the strong negative influence of systemic racism, which has effects that endure long after minority students have left the educational system.

As the demographics of the United States change, educational policy will need to take a more progressive approach to alleviating racial/ethnic disparities in educational outcomes. At the present time, the Hispanic population is growing and is fast becoming more segregated compared to blacks. Moreover, due to the failure of social policy in taking an active role in desegregating the public educational system, public schools are becoming “resegregated” (Orfield 1999), where gaps in achievement are once again widening, and classrooms are still overwhelmingly racially homogenous. Overall, the institutional inequalities that condition racial/ethnic variations in educational outcomes must first receive more attention if the federal government and policymakers are to deliver what they promise.


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