As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”¹ However, in many cases, not everyone has equal access, or even any access to this powerful weapon. This lesson plan examines the determinants of educational inequality and the reasons behind its occurrence.
Following the Revolutionary War, public schools were established across America aiming to teach students important literacy skills while moving away from religion-based education (Race Forward).
However, this free, public education was not open to all. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade remained active, and Southern states sustained their ban on allowing enslaved people access to this form of education. Following the Civil War, although slavery was abolished, Black people still had limited access to education.
Jim Crow Laws were instituted across the country. As a result, public schools were segregated, with “white” schools generally having greater access to resources and better facilities compared to Black schools (Race Forward).
In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. This led to a ruling that segregating schools is unconstitutional (US Courts). Despite this ruling, there was limited action to put desegregation at schools in effect. Further to address this lack of action, in 1968, Green v. School Board of New Kent County led to a ruling that prompted active desegregation of schools. (Brittanica).
School boards began separating schools by grade level instead of race and especially focused on desegregating faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities, and facilities. Unfortunately, this ruling also had little effect as showcased in the following statistic three years post Green v. School Board of New Kent County: 85% of Black students attended a “Black school” while no white students attended a “Black” school (Britannica).
In response, the courts strengthened desegregation efforts nation-wide by formulating new integration plans to eliminate all traces of segregation in schools through establishing committees to help school boards address issues related to desegregation.
Starting in the 1970s, many studies argued that schooling experience and level does not affect an individual’s life successes and failures, but rather family background directs these outcomes. Consequently, the current education system adopted a more “laid back” approach with a lower emphasis on non-English language classes, as well as a lower credential requirement when hiring new teachers (Ravitch).
The low test scores became an increasingly prevalent issue in the 1980s and led President Ronald Reagan to shift focus on improving the education system. This resulted in the appointment of a new Secretary of Education, William J. Bennett, who was determined to increase the current, low test scores of American students.
Additionally, during this time period, students from lower socioeconomic and/or minority households were more likely to fail or drop out of school, participate in drug-abusing tendencies, along with a higher likelihood of becoming pregnant (Ravitch). During the late 1980s and early 1990s, support for these students was increased through call to actions for better schools, and also scholarships (Ravitch).
Further, throughout the 1990s, the education system benefited from technological advancements, for instance the introduction of computers. However, despite these benefits, technology also created a new gap between schools who could afford new technology versus those who could not.
Segregation still exists in our nation today. For instance, a controversial practice, ‘Tracking’, puts students on separate paths based on their previous academic performances. Researchers have argued that ‘Tracking’ is largely responsible for creating the education gap between Black and Latino students, as well as white and Asian students.
Tracking is the practice of separating students into different groups or classes based on academic ability and test scores. Although some students in marginalized ethnic groups achieve higher test scores and the grades required for entry into higher level classes, many of these students are not enrolled in these classes as a result of ‘Tracking’ (Kohli & Quartz). Another reason for this low enrolment is related to wealthier families, who are predominately white, have the means to ensure their kids are tested, leading to their subsequent enrolment in higher level classes.
During the 2020-2021 school year, more than one-third of American students attended a predominantly same-race/ethnicity school (Carillo, et al). Schools with primarily wealthy,White-attendees had increased exposure to higher quality resources. In addition, this school type is twice as likely to offer AP courses in contrast to schools with students chiefly those of color.
Furthermore, even when AP courses are available to both groups of students, White students are generally more likely to be placed in these classes - despite if scores are equivalent amongst White students and students of color (AECF).Therefore, on average, Black and Latino students are behind their White peers up to four grade levels at time of graduation (AECF).
The School-to-prison pipeline is a concept where public school students are pushed out of the school system and into the criminal justice systems as a result of zero tolerance policies, as well as the presence of police officers inside schools. This contributes to behavior criminalization handlings at school with overly harsh punishments.
Black students are at an highly disproportionate risk for these overly harsh punishments. In fact, these students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than White students (ADL).
Students with disabilities are also affected by the School-to-prison pipeline. Further, disabled students make up 8.6% of public school attendees, yet juvenile detention centres consist of 32% disabled children (Elias). Schools having inadequate resources also contributes to the ‘pipeline’.
Moreover, when schools fail to meet their students’ educational needs, such as providing special education teachers. This results in an increase in student dropouts along with a heighten risk of these students becoming involved with crime.*Special education is a term widely used in the education system, however it is up for debate in the disabled community*
In the past couple of years, higher education inequality has grown. In 2013, 9% of students in the bottom income quartiles obtained a post-secondary degree (Marginson). In addition, college tuition has exponentially increased over the years, with selective schools quickly becoming too expensive for the vast majority of Americans.
In accordance with Yale University’s Dean of Admissions, only 5% of American families can afford to pay their tuition in full (Marginson). Therefore in Tier 1 private American universities, or the most prestigious and selective schools in the country, 64% of students come from families who are amongst the top 10% of earners, leading to the majority of high achievers from low-income families not applying to these schools (Marginson).
In fact, while the majority of upper class students who score in the top 10% of the SAT/ACT enroll in the most selective colleges, only 34% of low-income students with the same scores will enroll is highly selective colleges (Higher Learning Advocates). This gap was only further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, where students from lower income families were twice as likely to cancel college plans due to the pandemic versus wealthier families (Higher Learning Advocates).
Gender-based discrimination is still ongoing amongst American schools. For example, in a comparison where girls and boys obtain equal scores in math, teachers still rated boys as more mathematically skilled (Cimpian).
Another example discusses that girls are more likely viewed as stronger writers over boys. Further, these labels affect girls’ tendency to select majors other than STEM (Cimpian).
However, over the years, the number of women in STEM majors has increased to 45% as of 2020. Yet, gaps still exist, where women obtain 16% of computer science degrees, 21% of engineering degrees, and 27% of economic degrees. (Kantrowitz). Within the education industry, in America, women account for less than one in five deanships, fewer than one in three full-time university faculty positions, and make up less than one in four of faculty positions having tenure in business schools (Bentley University).