April 15, 2013

Thinking Sociologically About Education

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Ask just about anyone about how to improve public education and they’ll likely give you an answer: Hire better teachers. Fire bad teachers. Instill more discipline. Include more art and music in the curriculum. Go back to the basics. Involve multicultural lesson plans. Allow students to use vouchers to attend private schools. Create more public charter schools.

All of these ideas have been implemented somewhere, each with fans and critics. None has been proven to be a cure-all, but for supporters, they seem like simple solutions that should be put in place as soon as possible.

Education is a great example of the multifaceted nature of social issues. And while single solutions are easy for us to understand and form an opinion about, they are not necessarily helpful in the long run. Applying core concepts can help us understand why and move us towards a more complete understanding of education as a social institution.

Sociological lesson #1: Understand the role of social structure

Social structure is a pattern of arrangements—often hidden from view—that shape and guide the way that social institutions (like education and government, for example) operate. Thinking about how education is rooted in social structure requires us to take a step back and consider how and why these institutions are organized.

Public schools in the United States have traditionally been locally operated, with students assigned to a particular school based on their neighborhood (although in times of segregation, some children could not attend their neighborhood school, another element of social structure). These schools were historically funded by property tax revenues, so children living in higher income areas traditionally attended better funded schools.

Court cases in several states have challenged this arrangement as limited opportunities to students based on their income (for instance, Serrano v. Priest in California, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez in Texas, and DeRolph v. State in Ohio for instance). Despite some court decisions that the funding system is unconstitutional, income disparities persist in terms of public educational outcomes and school quality.

Because of these systemic inequalities, it is likely that children in lower-income neighborhoods attend schools with higher drop-out rates, lower teacher quality, and have parents who attended similar schools as well.

Sociological lesson #2: Understand the importance of everyday interactions

Symbolic Interactionism, a subfield within sociology, posits that meanings about social life are created through our relationships with others. As sociologist Annette Lareau found in her research on families across income lines, more affluent parents felt very comfortable engaging with their children’s teachers, sometimes challenging them when they believed that their children weren’t getting the resources needed.

By contrast, lower income parents sometimes felt intimidated by teachers—who had more education than they did—and by the educational institution itself, which might have felt more alien to them. She found that one of the poorer children in particular might have benefitted from more support for a learning disability, but the child’s mother did not know this. The parents’ feelings of alienation from school—possibly a remnant of their own bad experiences as students—meant that children might experience their education in a similar way.

On the most basic level, parents with more education can also provide a more intellectually enriching home environment and help with homework assignments. They can afford tutors when necessary, SAT prep classes before college admissions, and pay for extracurricular activities that might provide other forms of enrichment.

Because of these privileges and their parents’ familiarity with how school systems and the college admissions process works, their kids can get a better understanding of these institutions and their importance. For parents who haven’t attended college, they may very much want their children to do so but not know the process of how you go about getting started.

Friends matter too. As a recent study reported, students’ GPAs are related to those of their friends. According to the researchers, a student’s GPA tended to shift to be more like their peers’ over the course of a year. It’s not just that good students pick friends who are also good students, but that they actively influence their academic performance over time. The study reported that students with higher GPAs than their friends saw declines in their GPA at the end of the year.

Peers form part of our basis for making sense of an institution. If we have peers that are committed to the goals of the institution, we might as well. On a practical level, these might be the people we study with—or those who keep us from studying.

Sociological lesson #3: Simple answers rarely help solve complex issues

If you peruse the common solutions offered to address problems within public education, you can see that few if any of them address social structure or our everyday interactions. Thinking sociologically means going beyond what seem like easy answers. How can both social structure and everyday interactions help us create improvements in public education?


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The most important factor to make the education system on the right path is to cut down the double standard system.

I have learned so much from this article thanks.

You have given two fine examples of how it is possible to use social structure and social interaction to address problems with public education. By examining the flaws in the norms, values, and beliefs important to the effect. Inequality in education as well as the social institutions responsible to educating and ensuring equality of rights is more than limited to a few,requires the sociological imagination to also see the cause(s) and flaws in social structure, institutions and, the organization of society.

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