Issues Around The World

Educational Inequality

Written by:
Ivy Frater & K Eng


The concept of freedom is such a fundamental tenet of the American society that it is even enshrined in the words of its constitution and the lyrics of its national anthem: Americans are purportedly created equal, live in “the land of the free'' and have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The issue with this sentiment is that not everyone in American society is able to enjoy the same freedoms - including free access to education.


How do we define
Educational Inequality
as a
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As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”(Duncan). However, in many cases not everyone has equal access, let alone any access, to this powerful weapon. This lesson plan examines the determinants of educational inequality and the reasons behind its occurrence.


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History & Context

What is the history of
Educational Inequality
issue and the context around it?  - A timeline.
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1783 to 1950s: Founding of Public Schools in America

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).

On the left is an image of a classroom of white students in desks raising their hands circa 1930s. On the right is an image of a crowded classroom of Black children in chairs circa 1930s.
1954- 1960s: Integration

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.

Black protestors marching on the street holding signs for equal rights, integrated schools and decent housing during the Civil Rights movement.
1970s-1990s: Re-Evaluating the Education System

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.

Students and Nancy Reagan in Los Angeles classroom listen to a police officer give a presentation for D.A.R.E
Now: Segregation in modern-day

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.

Further, in one American school that implements ‘Tracking’, 51.5% of students are Black, and yet make up merely 18.7% of AP course enrolment (Kohli & Quartz).

Black woman holding sign that reads, "60 years after Brown v. Board: Still separate, still unequal" in front of other protestors.
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Educational inequality and race
The school-to-prison pipeline
Other issues surrounding
Educational Inequality
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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).

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Recent News

Recent events, activities, and government actions on
Educational Inequality
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Government Actions
Government Actions
News Events
November 22, 2022
News Event
Gov't Action (State)
Gov't Action (Federal)


Student loans cancelled
President Joe Biden extends pause on student loan payments and cancels student loan payments.
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Reflection Activities

Check your awareness and understanding level on the issue of
Educational Inequality
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Sources used for
Educational Inequality
issues page
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