June 13, 2013

Educational Inequality: From Grade School to Graduation

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Inequality in education seems to be one of the more counter-intuitive things I can imagine: how can our education system exacerbate existing inequalities?

And yet, we should not be surprised. Last summer I visited Arkansas, stopping by Little Rock Central High School, the location of one of the most powerful moments in American history.

In 1957 and in accordance with a 1954 Supreme Court ruling to integrate schools (Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483), nine African-American teenagers marched through an angry mob to school, eventually having to be escorted by the 101st Airborne Division as per President Eisenhower’s order. 

The museum erected to commemorate this event stands across the street, and it powerfully evokes the events themselves, including audio and video clips of testimonials and news clips, adding an interactional scale to the micro-level events that occurred in the lunchroom (e.g., the ”Chili Incident”). The stuff brought me to tears. It’s also the stuff you bring back with you to class. To many students, this is ancient history.

When talking with students about education in the U.S., I start with John Dewey and his belief in the ideal of meritocracy. I ask my students: “Did your parents or friend’s parents move to a particular neighborhood because of the school district?” I then prod them further: “Why should that matter? Why are there good schools and bad schools?”

These are seemingly simple questions, but they unlock a set of assumptions about how we organize our public education system, and how it can undermine our shared belief in meritocracy. It is hard for students to reflect on being the beneficiaries of an unequal education system. (Here’s a news story on my high school. You can find your high school’s rank here.) 

For students fresh out of high school, who maybe heard of Little Rock Central in High School, we move to thinking about how property taxes link to educational resources.

Here is a nice chart on the sources of one state’s education funds from a study on this topic by a non-partisan think tank, Minnesota 2020:

 Source: Minnesota 2020 

Over the last few years, state funds are a lesser proportion of school funds, and local taxes are taking a greater proportion of the burden. Schools in poorer communities receive fewer resources. Funding for programs that attempt to directly address these inequalities are perpetually under funded: Title 1, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), Pell Grants, and Head Start. The New York Times reports that laws seeking to balance inequalities, like “No Child Left Behind,” have not closed achievement gaps.

The results? It is always a surprise when my students see a graph that shows SAT scores having a positive correlation with parental income. (Here’s a visualization of the data, along with a discussion at The Society Pages.) So much for merit. (A fantastic new book about how the other half learns, see Shamus Kahn’s Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School.)

Sociologists like to use Robert Merton’s manifest (i.e., obvious and intended) and latent (i.e., hidden and unintended) functions of particular social phenomena, and you should think about them as they apply to this scenario. If the obvious and intended purposes of education are to provide equal access to information, training for skills, and equal chances to succeed, the latent functions of tying education funds to property taxes might be the reproduction of inequality. 

Seemingly race-neutral, the policy of tethering education funds to property should be connected with decades of other social problems, including redlining (a term coined by a sociologist to describe how banks would systematically avoid investing in predominantly African American communities), steering (the practice of real estate agents directing African Americans to particular neighborhoods and hiding housing opportunities in from them), and other forms of discrimination.

Can you hypothesize why this system is constitutional? In a 1973 5-to-4 ruling (San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1) the U.S. Supreme Court found that funding for education based upon property taxes was not in violation of the 14th Amendment and the same Equal Protection Clause (affirming the commitment that “all men are created equal”) that allowed the Little Rock Nine to walk into their high school. Thurgood Marshall, in his dissent, wrote that “The Court concludes that public education is not constitutionally guaranteed [despite the fact that] no other state function is so uniformly recognized as an essential element of our society's well being.”

If you are interested in seeing how your high school ranks as related to those nearby, Propublica compiled data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, and created an online tool called "The Opportunity Gap."

And last, there are the revelations from recent reports on college admissions officers seeking out full paying students, seeking higher-income students (which is to say, students with parents who have higher incomes).

Meanwhile, student loans are an increasingly risky endeavor. Higher education loans became a one trillion dollar business, and a New York Times article provided detailed and personal accounts of the weight on "generation debt," and a devastating report Congressional report found private colleges can damage students’ long term financial stability, and another wherein 2013 graduates will, on average, be shackled with over $35,000 of debt, creating yet another layer of inequality.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Educational Inequality: From Grade School to Graduation:


Good Article

This blog was very interesting. I've heard many people move to different location, or transfer to my high school, because of the education system. I saw inequality all the time at the school though. People ask the same question, "why would a school have inequality?" It's actually very common.

This article really resonated with me because I am very aware of how important it is to have a quality education within this world. To get to a place of financial security, an educational background is almost a necessity. With that said, to live in a society where we make it near impossible for certain individuals to obtain an education is severely unjust. I agree with the argument that is made within this article that this inequality is something that is extremely prevalent within our society. The vicious cycle that ensues as a result of not receiving quality educational resources is one that is very evident and difficult to reverse. Social mobility is something that can happen within our society, but it is most certainly not something that is easily done. While I am glad to see that there have been attempts made in equaling out the education system with programs such as “No Child Left Behind”, there is still a surplus of obstacles present for those individuals who are in a lower socioeconomic status.

Where is the money to pay for these enrichment activities coming from. We have had 30 plus years of transferring this to parents who can afford to pay. Local councils are selling off pools leisure centres many do not see youth activities as part of their offer. If you struggle to pay rent. How do you pay for swimming, drama, or that camping trip with Cubs? It would be best talking who should pay or how parents get enough money to pay for the likes.
Raymond Bennet, https://okessay.co.uk/

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« Where do Poor People Live? | Main | Learning to be Human (From My Dog) »