Impact & Role of Education on Social Inequality

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  • 0:01 Functions of Schools
  • 1:27 Sorting Machines
  • 3:20 Inequalities in Schools
  • 5:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Schools are sometimes described as sorting machines that categorize students based on skills and interests. This process can perpetuate inequalities. This lesson explores the impact and role of education on social inequality.

Functions of Schools

When I was in high school in the 1980s, we had a college day. Our teachers assigned us to visit classrooms where college representatives came to talk about their colleges. I lived in a small town in Oklahoma and wanted to go to one of the large state universities. Instead, I was assigned to visit the rooms with community colleges and small local colleges. I was a good student and didn't understand why I hadn't been assigned to the state university classrooms or to any of the out-of-state colleges. Was it because I was from a lower middle class family? Was it because I had a single mother and two other siblings with college aspirations?

In the United States, our schools serve two main purposes:

  • Educate students
  • Socialize students

Beyond academic curriculum, schools function to teach students the specific skills needed in society and in a workplace. In sociology, this is known as human capital. Human capital refers to the knowledge and skills necessary to make a person more productive in and valuable to society.

Overall, this sounds like a helpful goal. But how do we know what is valuable to society? Schools emphasize the societal values, beliefs, and attitudes of the dominant culture. That means minority influences are often ignored.

Sorting Machines

Schools, like society as a whole, use stratification. This is a system by which schools categorize students. Through stratification, schools separate students into groups, programs, and classes. Students are sorted according to their skills, interests, test results, talents, family background, and other factors.

This system of ranking, or sorting, is why schools are sometimes described as sorting machines. Think of it like a factory. The blue ones go here; the green ones go there. It's the same in a school. The smart ones go here; the poor ones go there. Schools sort students in order to place students into the groups and programs that will maximize their human capital. That's why we have vocational programs and advanced placement classes. Those are two tracks for two very different types of students.

Note though, that the sorting process is not always based on merit. Because of this, sociologists argue that the sorting process furthers social inequalities by denying underprivileged students access to the same groups, programs, and classes as privileged students. Sorting favors students who are already privileged. That's because student performance is largely influenced by teacher expectations and instructional methods. When high-achieving students are put in classes with other high-achieving students, they continue to do well. But the same is true for low-achieving students. When low-achieving students are put in classes with high-achieving students, they tend to improve rather than fall behind.

Inequalities in Schools

Let's take a look at some of the specific inequalities found in the United States educational system. Studies show that white, middle and higher-income students routinely do better than minority and lower-income students. There could be many reasons why, including:

  • Income available for tutors, test prep courses, and other materials
  • Access to private schools or better public school districts
  • Greater parental involvement in the schools
  • Higher priority placed on education in those families
  • More informal educational opportunities, such as traveling
  • Willingness to deal with school administration

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