Social Inequality And Schooling Research Paper

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Do systems of education in modern societies help to break down the inheritance of privilege from one generation to the next, thereby providing opportunities for mobility for members of less privileged groups, or do schools largely reinforce and legitimate the inequalities among individuals evident in the larger society? This research paper shows that social background affects educational attainment; discusses mechanisms through which family privilege is translated into advantaged educational opportunities and achievement; identifies unequal school resources and opportunities as determinants of inequality in outcomes; and shows that egalitarian-based school reforms have generally failed to reduce social inequalities in education significantly. Unequal educational outcomes derive both from inequality in educational opportunities and inequalities in family environment and resources.

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1. Social Background And Educational Inequality

1.1 Basic Relationships

A relative constant about education in the modern world is that social background has a major impact on educational performance and on educational attainment, even net of ability: on average, students from more advantaged class and/or status backgrounds perform better in school and go further in the educational system, thereby obtaining higher-level educational credentials (Ishida et al. 1995). The association between family background and educational outcomes is even stronger in the developing world than in advanced industrial societies and is less strong in the USA than in the many European countries in which more explicit class and gender barriers in access to schooling (e.g., in the form of fees for secondary schooling and gender-segregated schools, respectively) have existed historically (see Brint 1998). Given that educational performance and credentials are important determinants of adult success, education thereby plays an important role in the reproduction of social inequality. Some theorists propose that education is a form of ‘social capital’ that has replaced property as a means of intergenerational status transmission (Bourdieu 1973). Whereas elite families once ensured their children’s future positions by passing on property, they now ensure their children’s futures by helping them obtain the ‘best’ educational credentials. Nonetheless, even the strongest proponents of class reproduction theory recognize that education does not perfectly reproduce the class /status structure of modern societies. It also provides opportunities for some talented individuals from less advantaged backgrounds to succeed.

Social scientists have for decades tried to determine why class and status inequalities in educational outcomes occur. Part of the explanation, as discussed more fully below, is or has been due to unequal educational opportunities. Further, the growth of mass education throughout the world has nominally equalized educational opportunities at some levels (primary education in the developing world, secondary education in the developed world) while displacing the level of education that has real consequence for adult success to a higher level—one to which elites retain privileged access (e.g., the university level in developed countries). School expansion, therefore, has not reduced the educational advantage that elite children enjoy (Walters 2000, pp. 254–7).

But even when educational access is formally equal, inequalities in outcomes still occur. Some of this is due to class or status segregation within schools or school systems: Disadvantaged children tend to go to schools with largely disadvantaged student bodies (i.e., there is between-school segregation), or be in streams or tracks within schools that are fairly socially homogeneous (i.e., there is within-school segregation). That is, the proximate schooling experience is class-and status segregated to a large extent in many societies, and this segregation has an adverse effect on disadvantaged children’s achievement (Oakes et al. 1992).

Some of the inequality in educational outcomes is also due to the direct effects that families and family background have on learning, achievement, and educational experiences, aside from wealthy parents’ ability to buy private schooling for their children or, in some developing countries at present, poor families’ dependence on child labor, which interferes with schooling. Children from more advantaged families, for example, are more likely to start school with strong academic skills, be helped in their school work by their parents, have parents who actively intervene in their schooling careers, exhibit linguistic patterns preferred by teachers, have resources to buy learning materials or supplemental help, and in general live in a family environment that supports learning and academic accomplishment (Brint 1998, pp. 208–14).

In many societies, educational programs have been established to help disadvantaged children make up for their family-based learning ‘deficits’ (one notable example is Project Head Start in the USA). With the exception of far-going educational reforms in some socialist states, however (see Sect. 2.3), reforms have not attempted to deprive children from advantaged families of most of their sources of educational advantage.

1.2 Bases Of Social Inequality

The particular social groups that are educationally ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ vary by places and times, depending on the stratification system in place in the larger society. Generally, those groups that are advantaged in society at large are advantaged with respect to educational opportunities and educational outcomes. In most societies in the modern world, social class position confers tremendous educational advantage or disadvantage. Children from advantaged social classes have better educational opportunities, have higher levels of ‘achievement’ as officially measured and recognized by the school, and receive on average ‘better’ educational credentials. In capitalist societies, upper-class and upper-middle-class children reap these educational class advantages. In socialist societies, children of party elites reaped educational class advantages, official policy notwithstanding (see Shavit and Blossfeld 1993). Class is arguably the most important source of educational advantage or disadvantage, and the source that has been most consistent in recent decades.

Another common social distinction that has important educational consequences is race and ethnicity. The degree of educational disadvantage associated with being a member of a disadvantaged racial or ethnic group has varied historically. The USA and South Africa, for example, historically had public educational systems that segregated blacks into separate schools and offered them far fewer educational opportunities; in both cases, changes in state policy eliminated the explicit racial barriers to school access although some forms of racial inequality in education persist. There is also significant cross-cultural variation in the racial or ethnic groups that are educationally disadvantaged: For example, Koreans and other Asians perform better than whites in American schools but are educationally disadvantaged in Japan (Brint 1998, p. 216).

The final major basis of social inequality in education is gender. Gender inequality in education— both in terms of access and outcomes—has decreased dramatically in recent decades in most advanced industrial countries. Whereas girls were once commonly barred from certain types or levels of education, gender barriers in access are insignificant in most industrial countries at present but remain in those less developed countries in which women are still largely restricted to the private (family) sphere. Similarly, in most industrial countries schools offer similar if not identical curricular opportunities at present to boys and girls, and girls outperform boys in some important respects (e.g., in the USA girls earn better grades on average than boys and have higher rates of graduation from high school and college). The significance of gender as a basis of social inequality in education has declined significantly, then, in many parts of the world but remained high in societies in which gender remains a significant basis of differentiation in the larger society.

2. Social Inequality In School Access And Resources

2.1 Translating Advantaged Family Background To Educational Advantage

The ways in which children from advantaged families gain access to advantaged schools or schooling experiences vary from society to society. Most European societies have long been known for their class-based systems of education (which are also often ethnic-based), characterized by a clear differentiation into educational streams at relatively early ages. Children from advantaged backgrounds were more likely to enter streams leading to university-level education at the ages of 10 or 12, whereas at the same time working-class children or racial and ethnic minorities were more likely to enter streams leading to earlier school exit and vocational training. At present, some European states retain a system of early branching (e.g., Germany and Austria), albeit in modified form from prior decades. Others, however (e.g., France, England, and Sweden), have eliminated early branching, have combined vocational and academic training in the same secondary school buildings, and allow easier movement among streams at the high-school level—in part because of the explicit recognition that early and relatively permanent branching maximizes the effect of family background on schooling outcomes (see Brint 1998, pp. 29–64).

But even in the USA—a society whose educational system is regarded as more open, in which most students attend comprehensive high schools, in which most students get second, third, or more chances for access to high-level education, and in which a private school secondary education is less important for access to the top universities—inequality in access to ‘good’ educational opportunities is still evident. In part this is due to the ability of advantaged parents to use their personal resources to send their children to expensive private schools if they so choose. But largely it is due to wide variation in the USA among states, within states, and among school districts in the quality of public schools. This variation favors those states and localities in which advantaged families predominate, because of the historic reliance in the USA on local property taxes to fund public education. Unlike the financing basis of state-supported schooling in many other industrialized countries, this system allows wide variation in per-student school funding.

This reliance on local taxes in the USA has produced a system where the ‘best’ schools—the ones with the most expensive facilities, the better-trained and most highly paid teachers, the most advanced curricular opportunities that ‘produce’ students with the highest standardized test scores, and send the highest proportion of their graduates to college—are located in those local areas with the highest concentrations of wealth, largely very wealthy suburbs of large metropolitan areas (Kozol 1987). This system produces sharp inequalities in educational access by class and race, the latter because African-Americans are concentrated in central cities, which have crumbling and fiscally strapped public-school systems.

2.2 The Importance Of School Resources

Starting with the publication called the Coleman Report in the United States (Coleman et al. 1966), numerous studies by social scientists have been interpreted to show that schools—or, more precisely, resources devoted to schools—do not matter. Coleman found that family socioeconomic background is a much more important determinant of educational achievement as measured by standardized test scores than spending on schools. One implication of this finding is that any observed differences in public moneys spent on schools attended by the elite versus schools attended by the disadvantaged is irrelevant with respect to class or status differences in educational outcomes. In other words, families are implicated in the creation of inequality in educational outcomes, but schools are not.

As politically popular as this argument has proven to be, at least in the USA, a number of recent metaanalyses show that the existing studies offer stronger proof of a positive effect of resources on student test scores than an absence of an effect (e.g., Hedges et al. 1994; but for a counter interpretation see Hanushek 1994). Further, an important longitudinal experimental study in Tennessee, in which students were randomly assigned to different-sized classes, demonstrated that placement in relatively small classes, an important type of school resource, had a significant effect on students’ performance on standardized tests in the first and subsequent years of the study (Krueger 1999).

There are other problems with the argument that inequality in school resources is inconsequential with respect to educational outcomes. One, Coleman’s (and many others’) measure of educational outcome was ability, not achievement, years of schooling completed, entry to college, or the like, all of which are far more consequential for adult success than one’s score on an ability test. A number of studies have found positive effects of school resources on educational attainment and on adult earnings (see review in Card and Krueger 1996). Two, aggregate school-level family social economic status and school funding co-vary, making it hard to disentangle the effects of family background and school spending. Three, what families ‘know’ themselves about the importance of going to a well-funded school belies the argument that school spending doesn’t matter: when given the opportunity, families go to extraordinary lengths to get their own children placed in resource-rich schools.

2.3 Egalitarian School Reforms

Although it is doubtful that eliminating class, race, gender, and other bases of inequality in access to schooling or the quality of schooling would result in equality in educational outcomes (because of the strong effects family background have on school performance and persistence), it is clear that the presence of class, race, gender or other barriers to access to school or to particular levels of school promotes social inequality in education and in adult life. Thus, in the past several decades many countries have instituted school reforms intended to eliminate historic patterns of unequal access to education. In those places where racial minorities were allowed only separate—and unequal—educations, desegregation was an important step toward equalization of opportunity. In societies in which class barriers to secondary education existed in the form of school fees and the like, such as Ireland, elimination of fees was intended to equalize class access to secondary education (Raftery and Hout 1993). Some socialist societies went much further, instituting systems that gave clear preference in access to education to children from formerly disadvantaged backgrounds (see Shavit and Blossfeld 1993). Interestingly, in very few cases did these reforms, even the most far-reaching ones, succeed in eliminating former class or status disadvantages in schooling. Social differentials in educational attainments, for example, have proven remarkably resistant to egalitarian school reform (Shavit and Blossfeld 1993). One major reason for this is that increasing the access of formerly disadvantaged groups to a particular level of schooling—say secondary education—increases the proportion of advantaged children attending as well and generally does not significantly alter class or status effects on the likelihood of entering that level of education (Raftery and Hout 1993, p. 60). Further, once secondary education, for example, is readily available to formerly disadvantaged groups, higher education becomes the significant arena in which class and status advantages are preserved (Walters 2000). Gender is an exception: in some Western societies, women are now more likely than men to obtain baccalaureate degrees, although not Ph.Ds.

It appears that the only way to significantly reduce class or status inequalities in educational outcomes is to combine egalitarian school reform with a variety of social policies that significantly reduce inequalities in living conditions, family-based resources, and occupational opportunities. Of the 13 countries covered by Shavit and Blossfeld’s (1993) important edited book, for example—including a range of countries from capitalist to state socialist—only in Sweden and the Netherlands were egalitarian school reforms coupled with social welfare policies that substantially reduced inequalities in family resources and did educational inequality significantly decline. Further, the substantial decline in gender inequality in education witnessed in some societies is due to school-based reforms as well as a significant decline in gender stratification in the public sphere.

The failure of sweeping school reform in a number of socialist states, including ‘reverse discrimination’ policies intended to favor children of working-class or peasant backgrounds, is particularly illuminating. To an important degree, new elites took the place of old elites (e.g., party elites replaced old class elites) but children of elites still enjoyed educational advantages. Further, none of these reforms closed off all possible means by which even former elites could ensure their children’s educational advantage: for example, bribes, favors based on personal ties, passing on various forms of cultural capital that helped children overcome formal barriers to their access to privileged schooling, and the lingering effect of family financial capital (see summary in Walters 2000, p. 255).

3. Summary

Social inequality in education is an enduring feature of the twentieth century. There have been changes in which social groups are advantaged and disadvantaged, but groups that are disadvantaged in the larger society are generally—though not always—disadvantaged with respect to educational achievement and attainment, if not with respect to educational opportunities. Many societies have implemented changes that make access to education formally more open to disadvantaged groups, but these changes and reforms have not succeeded in creating equality of educational outcomes. Inequality in family-based resources and patterns of stratification and inequality in the larger society continue to be determinants of social inequality in education.


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