Educational inequality

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Educational Inequality is the difference in the learning results, or efficacy, experienced by students coming from different groups. Educational efficacy is most often measured by grades, test scores, drop-out rates, college entrance statistics, and college completion rates.[1]

A lot of 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]

Throughout the world, there have been continuous attempts to reform education at all levels.[3] With different causes that are deeply rooted in history, society, and culture, this inequality is difficult to eradicate. Although difficult, education is vital to society’s movement forward. It promotes “citizenship, identity, equality of opportunity and social inclusion, social cohesion as well as economic growth and employment” and for these reasons, equality should be promoted.[4]


Unequal educational outcomes are attributed to several variables, including family of origin, gender, and social class. Achievement, earnings, health status, and political participation also contribute to educational inequality within the United States and other countries.[5]

Family background[edit]

In Harvard's "Civil Rights Project", Lee and Orfield identify family background as the most influential factor in student achievement.[2] A correlation exists between the academic success of parents with the academic success of their children. Only 11% of children from the bottom fifth earn a college degree while 80% of the top fifth earn one.[6] Linked with resources, white students tend to have more educated parents than students from minority families.[7] 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.[7] 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]

Also, family background influences cultural knowledge and perceptions. Middle class knowledge of norms and customs allows students with this background to better navigate the school system.[7] 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.[7] Additionally, children from poorer families, who are often minorities, come from families that distrust institutions.[7] 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.[7]

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 parental attention, and more stress all influence the performance of children in school.


Throughout the world, educational achievement varies by gender. The exact relationship differs across cultural and national contexts.

Female disadvantage[edit]

Obstacles preventing females' ability to receive a quality education include traditional attitudes towards gender roles, poverty, geographical isolation, gender-based violence, and early marriage and pregnancy.[10] Throughout the world, there is an estimated 7 million more girls than boys out of school. This "girls gap" is concentrated in several countries including Somalia, Afghanistan, Togo, the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, girls are outnumbered two to one.[11]

Socialized gender roles have an impact on females' access to education. For example, in Nigeria, children are socialized into their specific gender role as soon as their parents know their gender. Men are the preferred gender and are encouraged to engage in computer and scientific learning while the women learn domestic skills. These gender roles are deep rooted within the state, however, with the increase of westernized education within Nigeria, there has been a recent increase in women having the ability to receive an equal education. There is still much to be changed, though. Nigeria still needs policies that encourage educational attainment for men and women based on merit, rather than gender.[12]

Females are shown to be at risk of being attacked in at least 15 countries.[13] Attacks can occur because individuals within those countries do not believe women should receive an education. Attacks include kidnappings, bombings, torture, rape and murder. In Somalia, girls have been abducted. In Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya students were reported to have been raped and harassed.[13] In Pakistan and Afghanistan, schools and busses have been bombed and gassed.[13]

Early marriage effects females ability to receive an education.

Male disadvantage[edit]

In 51 countries, girls are enrolled at higher rates than boys. Particularly in Latin America, the difference is attributed to prominence of gangs and violence attracting male youth. The gangs pull the males in, distracting them from school and causing them to drop out.[13]


United States[edit]

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.[14] Once the legal abolishment of slavery was enacted, racial stigma remained. Social, economic, and political barriers held blacks in a position of subordination.[7] Freedmen's schools existed but they focused on maintaining African Americans in servitude, not an enriching academic prosperity.[14] 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.[14] Research reveals that there was a shrinking of inequality between racial groups from 1970-1988, but since then the gap has grown again.[1][14]

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.[14] 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.[14] 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.[15]


Access to resources play an 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.[16] 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 the 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 are predominantly poor.[2] Also, in schools that are composed of 90% or above of minorities, only one half of the teachers are certified in the subjects they teach.[3] As the number of white students increase in a school, funding tends to increase as well.[14] 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.[17]

State conflicts[edit]

Within fragile states, children may be subject to inadequate education. The poor educational quality within these states is believed to be a result of four main challenges. These challenges include coordination gaps between the governmental actors, the policy maker's low priority on educational policy, limited financing, and lack of educational quality.[18]

Measuring Educational Inequality[edit]

In the last decade, tests have been administered throughout the world to gather information about students, the schools they attend, and their educational achievements. These tests include the Organization for Economic and Co-Operational Development’s Program of International Student Assessment and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. To calculate the different test parameters in each country and calculate a standard score, the scores of these tests are put through Item Response Theory models. Once standardized, analysts can begin looking at education through the lens of achievement rather than looking at attainment. Through looking at achievement, the analysts can objectively examine educational inequality throughout the globe. [19]

Effects of Education Inequality[edit]

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.[20] 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.[20]


There are a variety of efforts by countries to assist in increasing the availability of quality education for all children.


Based on input from more than 1,700 individuals in 118 countries, UNESCO and the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution have co-convened the Learning Metrics Task Force.[21] The task force aims to shift the focus from access to access plus learning.[21] They discovered through assessment, the learning and progress of students in individual countries can be measured.[21] Through the testing, governments can assess the quality of their education programs, refine the areas that need improvement, and ultimately increase their student's success.[21]

Education for All Act[edit]

The Education For All act or EFA is a global commitment to provide quality basic education for all children, youth, and adults. In 2000, 164 governments pledged to achieve education for all at the World Education Forum. There are six decided upon goals designed to reach the goal of Education for All by 2015. The entities working together to achieve these goals include governments, multilateral and development agencies, civil society and the private sector. UNESCO is responsible for coordinating the partnerships. Although progress has been made, some countries are providing more support than others. Also, there is need to strengthen overall political commitment as well as strengthening the needed resources.[22]

Global Partnership for Education[edit]

Global Partnership for Education or GPE functions to create a global effort to reduce educational inequality with a focus on the poorest countries. GPE is the only international effort with their particular focus on supporting countries' efforts to educate their youth from primary through secondary education. Main goals of the partnership include providing educational access to each child, insuring each child masters basic numeracy and literacy skills, increasing the ability for governments to provide quality education for all, and providing a safe space for all children to learn in. They are a partnership of donor and developing countries but the developing countries shape their own educational strategy based upon their personal priorities. When constructing these priorities, GPE serves to support and facilitate access to financial and technical resources. Successes of GPE include helping nearly 22 million children get to school, equipping 52,600 classrooms and training 300,000 teachers.[23]

Multicultural Education[edit]

Some educational theorists have promoted the idea of multicultural education as a way to equalize education in the United States. While there are many different interpretations of the term ‘multicultural education,’ this section will refer to the work of James A. Banks. According to Banks, multicultural education is a reform movement that allows all students equal opportunities to learn regardless of their gender, social class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or culture.[24] Since competition and biases are inevitable in a school setting, educational equality is an ideal that cannot ever fully be attained. But Banks insists that multicultural education should be viewed as an ongoing process and all educators should use the goals of multicultural education to increase educational equality.[24] The main goal of multicultural education is to teach diverse groups of students how to interact with the similarly diverse world around them. Culturally diverse nations have macrocultures and microcultures.[24] Macroculture refers to overarching cultures, traditions, and sentiments of the majority group in a country. Microcultures often share values of the macroculture, but also have some of their own traditions and beliefs. Historically, schools have taught with the perspective of the macroculture in mind. This contributes to educational inequality because students are at a disadvantage due to differences in their culture, perspective, ways of thinking, and learning preferences. For example, certain cultural norms may cater to males and therefore result in male students experiencing the most success. Multicultural education seeks to combat this by making changes to the ways curriculum is organized and taught. Banks proposes that changes in teaching and learning approaches be made that give equal opportunities for all students to learn.[24] He says that educators should format schools and curriculums in ways that teach students to function effectively in the macroculture, in their own microculture, and in other microcultures.[24]

It is important to note that multicultural education should not be implemented merely as a way for students to learn about their own culture, but rather as a way for them to learn about a variety of cultures. Race or gender segregated schools whose curriculum and pedagogy only teach the history and culture of their own group do not promote educational inequality.[24] A multicultural education that promotes educational equality should be inclusive and teach about the history and culture for all cultural groups.[25]

Massive Online Classes[edit]

There is a growing shift away from traditional higher education institutions to massive open online courses(MOOC). These classes are run through content sharing, videos, online forums and exams. The MOOCs are free which allow for many more students to take part in the classes, however the programs are created by global north countries, therefore inhibiting individuals in the global south from creating their own innovations.[26]

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.

Global evidence[edit]

Education inequality varies across national contexts.

School children in Rhbat, Nagar sit in classroom learning. The boys are in the front with the girls behind them.
School children in Rhbat, Nagar
Schoolgirls sit in the girls' section of a school in Bamozai, near Gardez, Paktya Province, Afghanistan.
Schoolgirls in Bamozai, Afghanistan


The Bangladesh education system includes more than 100,000 schools run by public, private, NGO and religious providers.[27] The schools are overseen by a national ministry. Their system is centralized and overseen by the subdisticts also known as Upazilas.[27] During the past two decades, the system expanded through new national policies and pro-poor spending. The gross enrollment rate in the poorest quintile of upazilas is 101 percent.[27] Also, the poorest quintile spending per child was 30 percent higher than the wealthiest quintile.[27]

Educational inequalities continue despite the increased spending. They do not have consistent learning outcomes across the upazilas. In almost 2/3 of upazilas, the dropout rate is over 30 percent.[27] They have difficulty acquiring quality teachers and 97 percent of preprimary and primary students are in overcrowded classrooms.[27]

South Africa[edit]

Inequality in higher education[edit]

Africa, in general, has suffered from decreased spending on higher education programs. As a result, they are unable to obtain moderate to high enrollment and there is minimal research output.[26]

Within South Africa, there are numerous factors that effect the quality of tertiary education. The country inherited class, race and gender inequality in the social, political, and economic spheres during the Apartheid. The 1994 constitution emphasizes higher education as useful for human resource development and of great importance to any economic and social transitions. However, they are still fighting to overcome the colonialism and racism in intellectual spaces.[26]

Funding from the government has a major stake in the educational quality received. As a result of declining government support, the average class size in South Africa is growing. The increased class size limits student-teacher interactions, therefore further hindering students with low problem solving and critical thinking skills. In an article by Meenal Shrivastava and Sanjiv Shrivastava, the argument is made that in large class sizes “have ramifications for developing countries where higher education where higher education is a core element in the economic and societal development”. These ramifications are shown to include lower student performance and information retention.[26]


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,[28] and continue to grow throughout the school years.[29]

United States[edit]

Children in a classroom in the United States.
Children in a classroom in the United States

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.[30]

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.[31]

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.[32] 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.[33] 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.[34]

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.[33]

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.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Williams, Belinda, ed. Closing the Achievement Gap: A Vision for Changing Beliefs and Practices. 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Culone
  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. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Haycock, Kafi (2001). "Closing the Achievement Gap". Helping All Students Achieve 58: 6–11. 
  4. ^ Shrivastava, Meenal; Shrivastava, Sanjiv (June 2014). "Political economy of higher education: comparing South Africa to trends in the world". Higher Education 64 (6): 809–822. 
  5. ^ Ferreira, Francisco; Gignoux, Jeremie (2014). "The Measurement of Educational Inequality: Achievement and Opportunity". World Bank Economic Review 28 (2): 210–246. doi:10.1093/wber/lht004. 
  6. ^ Haskins, Ron; James Kemple (2009). "A New Goal for America's High Schools: College Preparation for All". The Future of Children 19: 1–7. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Gamoran, Adam (2001). "American Schooling and Educational Inequality: A Forecast for the 21st Century". Sociology of Education 74: 135–153. doi:10.2307/2673258. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f Greenstone, Michael et al. (2011). "Improving Student Outcomes: Restoring America's Education Potential". The Hamilton Project. Strategy Paper: 1–30. 
  9. ^ a b c d Farkas, George (2006). "How Educational Inequality Develops". National Poverty Center. Working Paper Series: 1–50. 
  10. ^ "Women and Girls Education". United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Retrieved 4 November 2014. 
  11. ^ Ekine, Adefunke; Samati, Madalo; Walker, Judith-Ann. "Improving Learning Opportunities and Outcomes for Girls in Africa". Brookings Institution. Retrieved 13 November 2014. 
  12. ^ Okonkowo, Ejike (Dec 2013). "Attitude towards Gender Equality in South-eastern Nigerian Culture: Impact of Gender and Level of Education". Gender & Behavior 11 (2): 5579–5585. 
  13. ^ a b c d Winthrop, Rebecca; McGivney, Eileen. "Girls' Education Hotspots: A look at the Data". Brookings Institution. Brookings Institution. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Ladson-Billings, Gloria (2006). "From Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools". Educational Researcher. AERA Presidential Address: 1–11. 
  15. ^ Lawrence Mishel, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America 2008/ 2009 (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press)cited in Stiglitz, Joseph E. (2012-06-04). The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (p. 308). Norton. Kindle Edition.
  16. ^ Brown, Cynthia G. "The Persistence of Educational Inequality". Center for American Progress. Retrieved 3 December 2011. 
  17. ^ Merolla, David (2013). "The Net Black Advantage in Educational Transitions: An Educational Careers Approach". American Educational Research Journal. 
  18. ^ Winthrop, Rebecca; Matsui, Elena. "A New Agenda for Education in Fragile States". Brookings Institution. Brookings Institution. Retrieved 11 November 2014. 
  19. ^ Ferreira, Francisco; Jeremie, Gignoux (2014). "Measurement of Educational Inequality: Achievement and Opportunity". World Bank Economic Review 28 (2): 210–246. doi:10.1093/wber/lht004. 
  20. ^ a b Leonhardt, D. & Scott, J. (2005). Class matters: Shadowy lines that still divide. New York Times.
  21. ^ a b c d Brookings Institution. Brookings Institution and UNESCO Institute for Statistics Retrieved 4 November 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  22. ^ United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "Coordination and Advocacy for EFA". United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Retrieved 3 November 2014. 
  23. ^ The Global Partnership for Education. Global Partnership for Education Retrieved 3 November 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  24. ^ a b c d e f Banks, James; Banks, eds, Cherry (2009). Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0470483288. 
  25. ^ Barry, Brain (2000). Culture and Equality. Cambride, UK: Polity Press. 
  26. ^ a b c d Shrivastava, Meenal; Shrivastava, Sanjiv (June 2014). "Political economy of higher education: comparing South Africa to trends in the world". Higher Education 64 (6): 809–822. 
  27. ^ a b c d e f Steer, Liesbet; Rabbani, Fazle; Parker, Adam. "Primary Education Finance for Equity and Quality: An Analysis of Past Success and Future Options in Bangladesh". Brookings Institution. Brookings Institution. Retrieved 4 November 2014. 
  28. ^ Sullivan, A., Ketende, S., & Joshi, H. (2013). Social Class and Inequalities in Early Cognitive Scores. Sociology..
  29. ^ Feinstein, L. (2003). Inequality in the early cognitive development of British children in the 1970 cohort. Economica, 70(277), 73-97.
  30. ^ Leonhardt, D. (2005). Class matters: The college dropout boom. New York Times.
  31. ^
  32. ^ Spellings, Margaret. "10 Facts About K-12 Education Funding". June 2005. U.S. Department of Education. 28 Nov 2011
  33. ^ a b Bjornberg, U. & Dahlgren, L. Policy: The case of Sweden. University of York, United Kingdom.
  34. ^ a b Clawson, D. & Gerstel, N. (2007). Caring for our young: Childcare in Europe and the United States. Ed. Ferguson, S.J. Shifting the center: Understanding contemporary families. 3rd Ed. McGraw Hill: Boston, MA

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