Why is American Education so Unequal?

In the United States, we tend to look at education as the key to the American Dream. Graduating from high school, going to college, earning a degree, and finding a well-paying job is the life path that defines the American experience for many, particularly for those of us that are members of the so-called “millennial” generation. Of course, this train of thought extends from well before the present day, as America has been long established as a land of opportunity; a place where anyone can create a better life for themselves so long as they put their noses to the grindstone and work hard. Education, we assume, helps us to fulfill this way of life and ultimately achieve such goals.

Pew Research Center

Unfortunately, this simply isn’t the case for many individuals, especially when it comes to persons of color or people with poor/working-class economic backgrounds. Though these groups have made strides in recent years, statistics show that African Americans and Hispanics (the U.S.’ two major minority groups) continue to trail Whites in major socioeconomic benchmarks (i.e. High School Graduation, College enrollment, total employment, etc.). So what’s going on here? Why are our schools producing the types of social and economic inequalities that we believe they can remedy?

A Flawed Foundation

Part of the answer to this question lies in the core ideals that have shaped America’s education system, the most notable of which is known as functionalist theory. In a society that is functionalist, people are unified on a common ground and sorted into jobs that: a) suit their skills best and b) help fulfill the overall goal of their society. Additionally, functionalist structures assume that peoples’ power or status is derived from their level of ability and nothing else (basically, the more skilled you are, the better off you are). Therefore, functionalist theory works best in a meritocracy.

Now, when the American common school model — essentially the current model of our education system — was widely adopted in the late 19th Century, lawmakers were seeking to create a standard for public education that would unite youth with common American ideals and expand their economic opportunities by offering them learned skills. Thus, the education system established was based in functionalist theory. However, as America’s long-standing history of racial and gender discrimination shows, U.S. society is not meritocratic. What results then is an education system that has been created-for and adapted-to a very specific group of people, something which puts discriminated groups at a disadvantage when attempts are finally made to integrate them into the system.

What this Means for American Students

The production of inequality by our schools becomes even more defined when we think about functionalist theory’s major assumption. Because functionalism believes that hard work is the only thing that determines social status, those who “fail” within the system are seen as people who just don’t work hard enough. In our schools, this creates an unhealthy and dangerous attitude towards students of color who are disadvantaged because of society’s racial biases. If they fail to assimilate to the system in some way, they are seen as failures or delinquents, magnifying the inequalities that they are trying to get away from via school.

“[A] prominent strategy…was to situate “culture” rather than “race” as the scientific reality behind poverty and lack of education. This strategy is still prominent , particularly in the version that blames parents for their children’s poor performance in school.” — Jay Gillen, Educating for Insurgency (2014)

In other words, students are entering schools with social disadvantages that the education system ignores. They are then treated poorly as a result, and subsequently blamed and labeled when they aren’t able to make up for the injustices that were unfairly placed upon them. This has created a cycle where schools are not helping to improve equal opportunity and are instead reproducing the inequalities that exist within our society, something which betrays the very principle of the American Dream as we understand it.

Ending the Cycle

The reality of American inequality in schools can feel defeating, but it is an issue that can be remedied. Though students of color and poor people continue to trail whites and upper middle class individuals in social and economic benchmarks, progress has been made in recent years; and progress can continue to be made if we begin to look at the big picture and ask for change.

Change starts with becoming aware of the injustices that our students are facing on an everyday basis. It starts with ending segregated learning and taking a serious look at how school funding reinforces inequality. But most of all, change begins at the classroom level, and so it is up to us as educators to remove ourselves from the biases that hurt students and replace them with a new curriculum that takes into account student experiences and focuses on critical thinking. Only then will we be able to fulfill America’s dream and provide equal opportunities to all of its citizens.