Educational inequality

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Educational Inequality is the difference in efficacy experienced by students coming from different communities. Educational efficacy is most often measured by grades, test scores, drop-out rates, college entrance statistics, and college completion rates.[1] This article focuses on the educational inequality in America.

Much educational inequality is attributed to economic disparities that often falls along racial lines and in much modern conversation about educational equity conflates the two, showing how they are inseparable from residential location and, more recently, language.[2] Educational inequality between white students and minority students continues to perpetuate social and economic inequality[1]

Educational inequality has become one of the most important political and social issues in the United States. There have been numerous attempts at reforms and there continues to be more.[3] With different causes that are deeply rooted in history, society, and culture, this inequality is difficult to eradicate.


There are a variety of causes attributed to the existence of education equality in the United States. There is a focus on history, family background, and resources.


The historical relationship in the United States between white and racial/ethnic minorities plays a role in the current educational inequality. The enslavement of African Americans removed the access to education for generations.[4] Once the legal abolishment of slavery was enacted, racial stigma remained. Social, economic, and political barriers held blacks in a position of subordination.[5] Freedmen's schools existed but they focused on maintaining African Americans in servitude, not an enriching academic prosperity.[4] The United States then experienced legal separation in schools between whites and blacks. Schools were supposed to receive equal resources but there was an undoubted inequality. It was not until 1968 that Black students in the South had universal secondary education.[4] Research reveals that there was a shrinking of inequality between racial groups from 1970-1988, but since then the gap has grown again.[1][4]

Latinos and American Indians experienced similar educational repression in the past, which effects are evident now. Latinos have been systematically shut out of educational opportunities at all levels. Evidence suggests that Latinos have experienced this educational repression in the United States has far back as 1848.[4] American Indians experienced the enforcement of missionary schools that emphasized the assimilation into white culture and society. Even after "successful" assimilation, those American Indians experienced discrimination in white society and often a rejection by their tribe.[4] It created a group that could not truly benefit even if they gained an equal education.

American universities are separated into various classes, with a few institutions , such as the Ivy League schools, much more exclusive than the others. Among these exclusive institutions, educational inequality is extreme, with only 6% and 3% of their students coming from the bottom two income quintiles.[6]

Family background[edit]

Another crucial factor in determining educational inequality is the family background of students. There is a proven correlation between the academic success of parents with the academic success of their children. In Harvard's "Civil Rights Project", Lee and Orfield identify family background as the most influential factor in student achievement.[2] Only 11% of children from the bottom fifth earn a college degree while 80% of the top fifth earn one.[7] Linked with resources, white students tend to have more educated parents than students from minority families.[5] This translates to a home-life that is more supportive of educational success. This often leads to them receiving more at-home help, have more books in their home, attend more libraries, and engage in more intellectually intensive conversations.[5] Children, then, enter school at different levels. Poor students are behind in verbal memory, vocabulary, math and reading achievement, and have more behavior problems.[8] This leads to their placement in different level classes that tracks them.[9] These courses almost always demand less from their students, creating a group that is conditioned to lack educational drive.[3] These courses are generally non-college bound and are taught by less qualified teachers.[1]

Family background also influences cultural knowledge and perceptions. Middle class knowledge of norms and customs allows students with this background to better navigate the school system.[5] Parents from this class and above also have social networks that prove to be more beneficial than networks based in lower classes. These connections may help students gain access to the right schools, activities, etc.[5] Additionally, children from poorer families, who are often minorities, come from families that distrust institutions.[5] America's history of racism and discrimination has created a perceived and/or existent ceiling on opportunities for many poor and minority citizens. This ceiling muffles academic inspirations and muffles growth.[5]

The recent and drastic increase of Latino immigrants has created another major factor in educational inequality. As more and more students come from families where English is not spoken at home, they often struggle with overcoming a language barrier in addition to simply learning subjects.[2] They more frequently lack assistance at home because it is common for the parents to not understand the work that is in English.[9]

Furthermore, research reveals summer months as crucial time for the educational development of children. Students from disadvantaged families experience greater losses in skills during summer vacation.[8] Students from lower socioeconomic classes come disproportionately from single-parent homes and dangerous neighborhoods.[3] 15% of white children are raised in single-parent homes and 10% of Asian children are. 27% of Latinos are raised in single-parent homes and 54% of African American children are.[9] Less resources, less parent attention, and more stress all influence the performance of children in school.


As mentioned in family background, access to resources play a hugely important role in educational inequality. In addition to the resources from family mentioned earlier, access to proper nutrition and health care influence the cognitive development of children.[8] Children who come from poor families experience this inequality, which puts them at a disadvantage from the start. Not only important are resources students may or may not receive from family, but schools themselves vary greatly in the resources they give their students. On December 2, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education released that school districts are unevenly distributing funds, which are disproportionately underfunding low-income students.[10] This is holding back money from the schools that are in great need. High poverty schools have less-qualified teachers with a much higher turnover rate.[2] In every subject area, students in high poverty schools are more likely than other students to be taught by teachers without even a minor in their subject matter.[3] Better resources allows for the reduction of classroom size, which research has proven improves test scores.[8] It also increases the number of after school and summer programs—these are very beneficial to poor children because it not only combats the increased loss of skill over them summer but keeps them out of unsafe neighborhoods and combats the drop-out rate.[8]

This lack of resources is directly linked to ethnicity and race. Black and Latino students are three times more likely than whites to be in high poverty schools and twelve times as likely to be in schools that almost everyone is poor.[2] Also, only about half of teachers in schools that are composed of 90% or above of minorities meet state requirements to teach their subject.[3] There is also a trend of funding increase as the number of white students increase in a school.[4] From the family resources side, 10% of white children are raised in poverty, while 37% of Latino children are and 42% of African American children are.[9] Research indicates that when resources are equal, Black students are more likely to continue their education into college than their white counterparts.[11]

Inequality at birth[edit]

Property tax dilemma[edit]

In the United States, schools are funded by local property taxes. Because of this, the more affluent a neighborhood, the higher the funding for that school district. Although this situation seems favorable, the problem emerges when the equation is reversed. In neighborhoods inhabited by predominantly working and lower-class families, properties are less expensive, and so property taxes are much lower than those in affluent neighborhoods. Consequently, funding for the school districts to which working and lower class children are assigned is also significantly lower than the funding for the school districts to which children of affluent families are assigned. Thus, students in working and lower class schools do not receive the same quality of education and access to resources as do students from affluent families. The reality of the situation is that distribution of resources for schools is based on the socioeconomic status of the parents of the students. As a result, the U.S. educational system significantly aids in widening the gap between the rich and the poor. This gap has increased, rather than decreased, over the past few decades due in part to a lack of social mobility.[12]

Wage gaps[edit]

Main article: Income gender gap

Wage gaps for paid work is one example of disadvantage and oppression based on gender. Although the differences are improving, issues still persist in the United States and across the globe.[13]

Social mobility[edit]

Social mobility refers to the movement in class status from one generation to another. It is related to the "rags to riches" notion that anyone, with hard work and determination, has the ability to move upward no matter what background they come from. Contrary to that notion, however, sociologists and economists have concluded that, although exceptions are heard of, social mobility has remained stagnant and even decreased over the past thirty years.[14] Some of the decrease in social mobility may be explained by the stratified educational system. Since the educational system forces low-income families to place their children into less-than-ideal school systems, those children are typically not presented with the same opportunities and educational motivation as are students from well-off families, resulting in patterns of repeated intergenerational educational choices for parent and child, also known as decreased or stagnant social mobility.[14]

Other factors[edit]

Social immobility expresses itself in lower class children who follow in the same path as their parents, mainly not obtaining higher education. The result of such choices is that the poor remain poor and the rich go to college. Reasons for poor children opting to not pursue higher education range across a variety of different explanations. Lower class children have not grown up with the same expectations of life because these have not been instilled in them by their parents, or most importantly, by the educational system. The U.S. educational system fails its lower-income students by not providing them with the same access to resources and opportunities as it does to its more affluent students. Furthermore, several studies have shown that programs such as gifted education and tracking further manage to separate those with higher level skills from those with lower level skills, which often happens to be the rich from the poor. In fact, the vast majority of children in gifted student programs happen to be middle-class Caucasians.[15] This is not to say that poor students are not as smart as rich students, but it does imply that they have not received the same opportunities in childhood to develop certain skills. Middle and upper class students grow up with parents who foster their intellectual and educational development by engaging in a child raising approach known as concerted cultivation. This approach values education and learning, and parents engaged in this form of parenting value visits to the museum, extracurricular activities, homework, tutoring, and reading to their children.[16] Furthermore, middle and upper-class parents can afford to place their children in significantly better childcare centers before they enter grade school. As the Carolina Abecedarian Project found, these are essential elements in future educational and life successes.

Evidence for the unequal distribution of college students' socioeconomic status can be seen by examining college enrollment rates and demographics. One study examined the top 146 colleges in the U.S. and found that the average student representation on the colleges was the following: 75% of students came from socioeconomic backgrounds consistent with the richest 25% of the population. Less than 5% of students came from the poorest 25% of the population.[17]

Importance of early educational intervention[edit]

Some universities across the United States have sworn to aid their low-income students. The following was said by Lawrence H. Summers, President of Harvard University, when he announced in 2004 that Harvard would provide full scholarships to its neediest students:

We need to recognize that the most serious domestic problem in the United States today is the widening gap between the children of the rich and the children of the poor. Education is the most powerful weapon we have to address that problem.[12]

Although a noble idea, Summers' promise to aid low-income students entering college is flawed in the sense that the attempt to push students into higher education needs to occur significantly earlier than high school. Some studies have shown that early educational intervention in low-income children as early as preschool has yielded phenomenal results in college enrollment and graduation compared to their non-intervention peers.[18][19]

Failure of low-cost alternatives[edit]

Similar systems as the one established at Harvard have yielded less-than-promising results. The University of Virginia and Amherst College have created programs that provide education free or low cost to low-income students, and like Harvard, the rates at which low-income students apply have not increased significantly. Similarly, the establishment of community colleges is one such attempt at providing low-cost education to low-income students; however, contrary to their ultimate goal, as well as the goal of those who enroll, transferring to four-year institutions is not usually the end product. Of those who entered community college transfer programs in the mid-90s, only about 17% transferred in five years.[12]

What these findings suggest is that perhaps another factor determines college attendance and overall success. The Carolina Abecedarian Project at the Frank Porter Graham Institute of Child Development at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has attempted to identify that factor in a longitudinal study continued over 21 years.[20]

Carolina Abecedarian Project[edit]

The Carolina Abecedarian Project began in 1972 and aimed to discover the long-term effects of early educational intervention on at-risk children born into poor families.

This relatively small project (111 infants born between 1972 and 1977 to high risk mothers, defined by low income and education) in which 57 children were assigned to an experimental group where for the next five years they were transferred out of the home environment to research-grade daycare center for 6–8 hours a day, 5-days a week with 1:3 or at most 5 caregivers to infants. The control group was not interfered with; however, basic supplies, such as diapers, were provided. All daycare workers were professionals educated with at least a Masters degree, and care focused on emotional, social, and cognitive development, with an emphasis on language.

Results were assessed in three follow-up studies at age 12, 15, and 21, and revealed remarkable results. Not only did the intervention group maintain higher test scores throughout the years in math and reading, but the rate at which they graduated high school, entered college, waited to have their first child, and made overall positive life choices was far higher than for their non-intervention peers. Furthermore, the mothers of the intervention children were more likely to obtain higher education themselves, especially the teen mothers. Researchers suggest that early enhanced development of language "appears to have been instrumental in raising cognitive test scores".[18][20]

"The importance of high quality, educational childcare from early infancy is now clear. The Abecedarian project provides scientific evidence that early childhood education significantly improves the scholastic success and educational attainments of poor children even into early adulthood"[20]

What we can infer from these results is that five years of extensive quality care for children beginning in infancy yields results that begin to close the gap between children of the rich and children of the poor, as earlier mentioned by Summers. However, rather than providing that low-cost education in college, the care needs to be provided in early childhood to set a foundation for the value of education that will remain with the child throughout life.

Policy implications[edit]

With the knowledge that early educational intervention programs, such as extended childcare during preschool years, can significantly prepare low-income students for educational and life successes, comes a certain degree of responsibility. One policy change that seems necessary to make is that quality child care is available to every child in the United States at an affordable rate. This has been scientifically proven to push students into college, and thus increase social mobility. The ultimate end result of such a reality would be that the widely stratified educational system that exists in the U.S. today would begin to equalize so that every child born, regardless of socioeconomic status, would have the same opportunity to succeed. Many European countries are already exercising such successful educational systems.

International evidence[edit]


Evidence from the British birth cohort studies has illustrated the powerful influence of family socio-economic background on children's educational attainment. These differences emerge early in childhood,[21] and continue to grow throughout the school years.[22]

International comparisons[edit]

Compared to other nations, the United States is among some of the highest spenders on education per student behind only Switzerland and Norway. [23] The per-pupil spending has even increased in recent years but the academic achievement of students has remained stagnant.[8] The Swedish educational system is one such system that attempts to equalize students and make sure every child has an equal chance to succeed. Some ways that Sweden is accomplishing these goals is by making sure every child can go to daycare affordably. Of the total cost of childcare, parents pay no more than 18% for their child; the remaining 82% is paid for by various government agencies and municipalities. In 2002, a "maximum-fee" system was introduced in Sweden that states that costs for childcare may be no greater than 3% of one's income for the first child, 2% for the second child, 1% for the third child, and free of charge for the fourth child in pre-school. 97.5% of children age 1-5 attend these public daycare centers. Also, a new law was recently introduced that states that all four and five year old children can attend day care for free.[24] Since practically all students, no matter what their socioeconomic background, attend the same daycare centers, equalization alongside educational development begins early and in the public sphere. Furthermore, parental leave consists of 12 months paid leave (80% of wage) whereas one month is awarded solely to the father in the form of "use it or lose it". This results in the privilege and affordability of staying home and bonding with one's child for the first year of life. Due to this affordability, less than 200 children in the entire country of Sweden under the age of 1 are placed in child care.[25]

Stratification in the educational system is further diminished by providing all Swedish citizens and legal residents with the option of choosing which school they want their children to be placed in, regardless of what neighborhood they reside in or what property taxes they pay. Additionally, the Swedish government not only provides its citizens with a free college education, but also with an actual monthly allowance for attending school and college.[24]

Together, these privileges allow for all Swedish children to have access to the same resources. A similar system can be found in France, where free, full-day child care centers known as "écoles maternelles" enroll close to 100% of French children ages 3–5 years old. In Denmark, children from birth to age six are enrolled in childcare programs that are available at one-fifth the total costs, where the rest is covered by public funding.[25]


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  2. ^ a b c d e Lee, Chungmei; Gary Orfield (2005). "Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and Educational Inequality". The Civil Rights Project. Harvard University: 1–47. 
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  11. ^ Merolla, David (2013). "The Net Black Advantage in Educational Transitions: An Educational Careers Approach". American Educational Research Journal. 
  12. ^ a b c Leonhardt, D. (2005). Class matters: The college dropout boom. New York Times.
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  14. ^ a b Leonhardt, D. & Scott, J. (2005). Class matters: Shadowy lines that still divide. New York Times.
  15. ^ Gootman, E. & Gebeloff, R. (2008). Gifted programs are less diverse. New York Times
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  17. ^ "America's untapped resources: Low-income students in higher education." Century Foundation Press, 2004.
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  19. ^ Conyers, L.M., Reynolds, A.J., & Ou, S.R. (2003). The effect of early childhood intervention and subsequent special education services: Findings from the Chicago child-parent centers. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 25, 75–95
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  23. ^ Spellings, Margaret. "10 Facts About K-12 Education Funding". June 2005. U.S. Department of Education. 28 Nov 2011
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