Schools & Social Inequality: Crash Course Sociology #41

Schools & Social Inequality: Crash Course Sociology #41

September 2, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


We’ve all complained about having to go
to school at some point, right? I mean, who decided that teenagers need to
get to school at the ungodly hour of 7 am? That right there seems like a big drawback
that we didn’t consider when we talked about
the positive functions of schools. Last week, we discussed all the good
things about schooling – how it helps people learn about the world,
how it helps kids meet other kids their own age, and how there are countless other ways
it helps society function better. But there are many not-so-good components
of our educational system – and I’m not just
talking about having to get up at dawn. Social-conflict theory can help us
understand how the US educational system
can disadvantage some people, while giving advantages to others, so that schools
ultimately play a role in reinforcing inequalities. [Theme Music] Education is supposed to be the great
equalizer, right? We’re all told that if you work hard and
do well in school, you can be whatever you
want to be when you grow up. In this understanding of school, society creates
a meritocracy, or a system in which hard work and
talent is recognized and rewarded. In a pure meritocracy, two kids who work
equally hard and have the same raw talent should
do equally well – no matter what neighborhood they grew up in,
no matter their race or gender, and no matter
their class standing. On the surface, it might seem like the US
has a meritocratic school system. But educational measures of merit, like
grades or SAT scores, don’t always measure
everyone’s talents consistently. Grades don’t just measure an individual
student’s effort or ability – they’re also influenced by many factors outside of
the student’s control, like the quality of their school
or their access to resources like books or computers. This is where social-conflict theory comes
into the story. Social-conflict theory helps explain how
our educational system can both cause and
perpetuate class differences. In the United States, there are large class
gaps in educational attainment. While 83% of students from high income
families enroll in college after high school,
only 63% of low income students do. So, why the disparity? One reason is that wealthier kids tend to
live in higher income neighborhoods, which in
turn fund better quality schools. This makes it easier to get into college. In the US, school funding is determined
at the local level – and when I say local,
I mean very local. The city or town that a person lives in determines
the funding of their school system. While federal and state governments provide
some support to school districts, most of the
money comes from local property taxes – meaning that schools in towns with more
expensive houses and higher earning residents
have more resources. For example, Fairfax County, Virginia, one
of the richest counties in the US, spent $13,700
per student in 2016. Compare that to what some of the poorest
counties in the country spend – for example, Scott County in Mississippi
spends a little more than half that amount,
at $7,900 per student. Unsurprisingly, schools in more affluent
communities on average provide a better education
than schools in poorer communities. Having more funding for a school allows schools
to hire better teachers, buy more and better supplies,
offer a wider variety of classes, and provide
extracurricular activities. And these differences in school quality translate
to differences in outcomes for students. We know this because of research like a
recent study done by American economists Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson, and Claudia
Persico which used a natural experiment – court
mandated school finance reform – to show this. They found that increasing school funding
levels by 10% was associated with students
earning 7% higher incomes as adults. And this is only one of many studies that
show that access to better quality, better funded
schools makes kids more likely to go to college. So is money the answer? If we just give schools more money, will
that be enough to fix the class differences
in educational attainment? Well, yes and no. School funding – or the lack of it – is
part of the social inequality we see in the
US education system. But there are plenty of school districts that are
already spending a lot of money per student and
still struggle to improve their student’s outcomes. So why is that? You might remember French sociologist
Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital from
our episode a few months ago on socialization. Cultural capital is valuable cultural knowledge
and experience that can be translated to forms
of economic and social capital. Even if school funding was the same
everywhere, students whose parents have
the time, money, and knowledge to support education in the home will have
a step up on students whose parents don’t have
the time or resources to pass on cultural capital. For example, higher income parents are more likely
to read to their kids and spend more time interacting
with their children, even at very young ages – which leads to kids entering school with a
more robust vocabulary and better literacy skills
than their less affluent peers. By the age of three, children of professionals
have vocabularies that are 50% larger than those
of children from working-class families. Children from different class backgrounds
are also exposed to different expectations
about the path that their lives will take. If you grow up in an upper middle class
neighborhood where your parents and all your
friends’ parents have college degrees, you’re much more likely to expect that you’ll go
to college, too – and you’ll prepare accordingly. Recall the self-fulfilling prophecy from last
episode? This is one way that works. But for people whose parents didn’t go to
college, expectations for attending college
may be lower. It may also be much harder to navigate applications
for college, understand how the financial aid system
works, or register for courses, all distinct barriers
to attending college. This specialized knowledge is a form of cultural
capital. So, schools and families unfortunately often
work together to reproduce social inequality – kids with parents who have more time or money
to devote to education in the home are also the kids
most likely to be in well funded, high quality schools. And the US education system doesn’t just
contribute to class gaps in educational achievement. We also see persistent achievement gaps by race
in the US, and they’re made worse by elements of our
education system that advantage white students. We’ve talked before about the role that historical
patterns of segregation have played in shaping the
neighborhoods that minority kids grow up in. For example, Black children are more likely
to be living in lower income neighborhoods, which tend to have worse schools because of
how schools are supported by local tax dollars. That’s a real structural disadvantage. But social-conflict theorists point out other,
lesser known ways that our education system
privileges White students over minority students,
particularly Black and Hispanic students. First, most teachers and school
administrators are white – which has important implications both for the
curriculum that students are taught in schools
and how students are evaluated. A recent study of a nationally representative
sample of American students found that black students with the same
standardized test scores as their white classmates
were less likely to be nominated for gifted programs
if they had a non-black teacher. But this bias didn’t exist for students
who had a Black teacher. This is an example of tracking, in which
schools assign students to different types
of educational programs. While tracking is supposed to help teachers
meet different students’ needs, it often ends
up enhancing existing inequalities. White and Asian students are more likely to
chosen to be in honors or AP classes than
Black and Hispanic students – which then contributes to racial gaps
in college attendance. Who gets chosen for college prep classes
and who’s put in vocational classes often has to do with not just academic ability,
but teacher’s perception of a student’s behavior. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble to talk about
how classroom discipline has especially negative
implications for minority students. In the classroom, certain behaviors are expected
of students. Sit at your desk.
Raise your hand. Finish your assignments quickly and quietly. While these may seem simple once you’re an
adult, these tasks are often difficult for young kids,
but breaking these rules can have huge consequences. Minority students, particularly Black and
Latino boys, are much more likely to be disciplined
for minor classroom infractions like these, often resulting in suspension of expulsion
from school. Black students are suspended at rates three
times higher than their white classmates. And if you’re suspended or expelled, you’re
not in the classroom learning. Higher risk of suspension and expulsion also puts
minority students at a higher risk of doing poorly in
school and contributes to higher dropout rates. This ultimately affects their job prospects,
and therefore their class standing. But being in school also keeps kids off the
street. Kids who are suspended or expelled are more
likely to engage in risky behaviors like drug
use or other criminal behavior. This contributes to what’s known as the
school to prison pipeline. This is an informal ‘tracking’ for students
that criminalizes deviant behavior in schools, even minor disciplinary issues, like talking
back to teachers. For minority students, schools are more
likely to escalate disciplinary issues to the
juvenile justice system, putting students in contact with the
criminal justice system at an early age. Thanks Thought Bubble. Another way that minority students end up
being sorted into lower academic tracks are
through standardized test scores. Standardized tests are a topic of great contention,
due to concerns about teachers ‘teaching to the
test’ and not teaching a full, broad curriculum. And most standardized tests are made and tested on
the dominant group in society – the white middle class. Critics of standardized testing often cite
cultural bias as part of the reason that we see gaps
in test scores across race and class lines. The federal school funding requirements put
in place by the No Child Left Behind act in 2001 also can create some perverse incentives for
how schools classify their students. To keep getting federal funding, schools have
to have a certain percentage of their students
pass the national assessments. But students can be made exempt from these
tests if they’re classified as disabled – which can lead to schools labeling marginal
students as learning disabled to maintain the pass
rate that they need to get funding. This is important, because, as we discussed
last week, the labels that schools give students
often turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. A marginal student who’s kept in the regular
testing pool may be more likely to have teacher time
and resources devoted to their improvement than
one who’s labelled as learning disabled. And, this type of tracking is more common
for minority students, which can contribute
to racial gaps in educational achievement. More broadly, tracking can have long term
consequences for what kinds of opportunities
are available to students or the choices that
they make later in life. For example, boys are more likely to be tracked
in higher level math classes than girls are. This contributes to fewer women pursuing math-heavy
careers, like economics or engineering – which happen to be some of the more highly paid
careers, meaning that tracking is one contributor
to the gender pay gap. Ultimately, educational systems are grounded in
the biases of the society that they’re built within – and while our schooling system does a lot
of good, social conflict theorists point out that
its structural features – everything from taxes, to cultural capital,
to standardized testing – can disadvantage minorities in ways that
can perpetuate patterns of social inequality. Today, we discussed a few of those social
inequalities in the US education system, using social conflict theory to explore how our
system deviates from a meritocracy. We discussed how school funding and school
quality varies by income. Then, we looked at how cultural capital
and the family you grow up in impacts your
educational experiences. Finally, we used racial conflict theory to
understand how the American school system
disadvantages minority students through practices such as tracking,
disciplinary biases, and standardized testing. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr.
Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and
it’s made with the help of all of these
nice people. Our animation team is Thought Cafe and Crash
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