Chapter 6: Unequal student Attainments: Class, Gender and Race
Introduction: The new role of schooling in social inequality
The structural functionalists believed that schools in modern societies serve as “great
equalizers” that generate opportunities for all and level the playing field. They held that
modern schools promoted meritocracy in society. Primary ideology through the 1950s
Neo-Marxists contend that schools “reproduce” social inequalities. The very design of
mass public schooling, they argue, ensures that youth who are born disadvantaged remain
disadvantaged. The central Marxist claim that schools reinforce existing inequalities in
the wider society by stereotyping disadvantaged youth, devaluing their cultures and
skills, and steering them into lower streams. Widely held view for the past 30 years.
John porter (Canada’s most famous sociologist) coined the term “vertical mosaic” to
describe the intersection of class, ethnicity, and inequality, and he implicated schools a an
active generator of disparities.
A more recent outlook is that, contemporary schools may actually succeed in reducing
inequality, but fail to come close to totally eliminating it.
Describing class inequalities: persisting disparities amid rising attainment
Parental education, income, and occupational prestige remain strong predictors of
children’s school success, not only in Canada but also in most other western nations. A
remarkable aspect of these disparities is their reoccurrence at all stages of schooling, from
primary to secondary to post-secondary.
Percentage of children with delayed vocabulary development was higher (4x) among low
income households. Similar results found for reading scores in 15 year olds.
Socio-economic gradient: a statistical analysis of educational attainment in which
students’ socio-economic backgrounds are seen to influence their school success. Steeply
sloped gradients signify highly unequal attainments.
SES gradients can be found at virtually all levels of schooling, and they have three
o (1) gradients persist no matter how many other factors are taken into account,
such as ethnicity. Thus, these gradients represent a causal link between SES and
educational attainment that cannot be explained away by other factors.
o (2) the gradient is robust across different measures of education and SES. i.e.
Whether one measures readiness in school, literacy or parental occupation and
income for the SES component.
o (3) the SES gradient has largely persisted over time and space, although its
steepness varies both crossnationally and historically.
Gender and Attainment: Equalizing in Fractal form? Males once dominated most levels of schooling, and higher education was once a mainly
a male preserve, but that situation has changed over the past few decades, at least in some
key areas. (since 1950s primarily)
There has only been a small “reverse flow” of males moving into formerly female fields-
it is better described as a “trickle”.
Sociologist Andrew Abbott (2001) adopts the concept of “fractals” to understand why in
some areas, there still a marked persistent gender inequalities.
o Fractal is a living form that continually subdivides to create new structures at
different levels, while still reflecting the old form.
o Males were generally thought to be suited for “technical” fields and females for
“nurturing” fields. As years passed, the “nuruturing” kinds of jobs started
requiring education. So, more and more females started attending university and
then they slowly entered the uncharted territory of male disciplines such as
medicine and law-this marked a profound change. Yet, when one examines the
particul.ar specialties that women and men concentrate in, within these fields, one
can see vestiges of old distinctions (i.e. women do more family law). This patter
in parallel to the concept of “fractals”.
Racial and Ethnic Variations: Beyond vertical Mosaic and Abella Images
While Canada has always been diverse, it has also always been deeply stratified.
Inequality has been a persistent quality of Canadian life
According to a functionalists perspective, modern needs for a meritorious labour force, in
tandem with “common” school ideals, ought to compel schools to be colour-blind and to
reward everyone equally according to their efforts and talents.
The Marxist model of reproduction predicts virtually no mobility among disadvantage
racial or ethnic groups. It instead imagines Canadian society as a caste system, where
destinations are pre-ordered from birth, arrayed sharply by race.
o Model has been elaborated by John Porter. He used to the term “vertical mosaic”
in an attempt to capture this situation by showing that Canada’s numerous ethnic
groups were arrayed on an elaborate hierarchy of power and privilege.
Porter’s portrait of inequality in Canadian society depicted a multi-tiered
ladder, a vertical mosaic with numerous ethnic groups ranked according to
their resemblance (or not) to the British majority. The rank was as follows:
British Canadians-northern European ancestry-central and southern
Europeans-French Canadians-various other minorities-aboriginal
Parts of porter’s research has been disregarded due to flaws in his
empirical findings. For instance, in a later found research, it was found
that Canadian born children from southern Europe are in fact above the
Canada-wide average. The limited compensation model, predicts that schools can partly counteract some
inequalities, but that legacies of societal disparities will constrain what they can do.
Beginning in the 1980s, porter’s image of ethnic inequality as a multi-tiered ladder and
was replaced with a more American styled dichotomy. Now it is the Abella image: in
Canada, the whites and visible minorities
Neither the multi-tiered or Abella image fits today’s complex patterns of educational
attainment due to following reasons:
o Average young visible minority people exceed young whites in the attainment of
o Experiences within the visible minority groups are different hence that disregards
o Porter’s image is outdated, because British advantage has long disappeared
Causes of inequality: schools, families, and Environments
First empirical study that addresses these issues was the landmark “coleman report” by
In the 1960s, commentators believed that unequal high school outcomes stemmed from
the vast inequalities that existed between schools.
From his study, Coleman concluded that student success was more powerfully caused by
their family-based preparation for schooling rather than by variations in school resources.
And in schools that housed families from a variety of socio-economic circumstances,
large inequalities emerged within those schools.
Steven heyneman and William Loxley did the study internationally and found that:
family background matters more for student achievement than do school variations in
wealthier nations with more established school systems, while school effects are actually
stronger in poorer nations with relatively new systems. They interpreted this finding as
suggesting that in nations where schooling is relatively institutionalized, more affluent
families learn how to “play the game” and prepare their children for educational
competitions. In countries where mass schooling is newer, advantaged families have not
yet developed strategies to pass on their advantages, and so schools can do far more to
level the playing field.
The body of research on seasonal learning has found that schools indeed function as
equalizers, at least in terms of measured learning. Differences between socio-economic
groups, they conclude, stem from outside forces with which schools must contend.
Any robust understanding of the link between ethnic and racial origins