11.1 An Overview of Education in the United States
Education is the social institution through which a society teaches its members the
skills, knowledge, norms, and values they need to learn to become good, productive
members of their society.
Formal education is often referred to as schooling, and as this term implies, it occurs
in schools under teachers, principals, and other specially trained professionals.
Informal education may occur almost anywhere, but for young children it has
traditionally occurred primarily in the home, with their parents as their instructors.
By the mid-1800s, a call for free, compulsory education had begun, and compulsory
education became widespread by the end of the century. This was an important
development, as children from all social classes could now receive a free, formal
education. Compulsory education was intended to further national unity and to teach
immigrants “American” values. It also arose because of industrialization, as an
industrial economy demanded reading, writing, and math skills much more than an
agricultural economy had.
Until very recently in the record of history, formal schooling was restricted to wealthy
Education in the US Today:
More than 75 million people, almost one-fourth of the US population, attend school at
Correlates of Educational Attainment:
65% of US high school grads go to college in the fall. This is very high compared to
other industrial nations where a very small % of the population who pass rigorous
entrance exams go. They are the brightest in their nation whereas anyone who can
aﬀord it can go to college in the US.
Social class and race aﬀect whether students drop out of high school, their chances of
getting good grades, whether a family can aﬀord to send its children to college, and
the chances of staying in college.
educational attainment—how far one gets in school—depends heavily on family
income and race/ethnicity
Family Income and Race/Ethnicity:
African Americans and Latinos are least likely to have a degree, and whites and
especially Asians/Pacific Islanders are most likely to have a degree.
Explaining the Racial/Ethnic Gap in Educational Attainment: Racial discrimination - Tracking: Students tracked into vocational or general curricula
tend to learn less and have lower educational attainment than those tracked into a
faster-learning, academic curriculum. Because students of color are more likely to be
tracked “down” rather than “up,” their school performance and educational attainment
Students of color are more likely than white students to be suspended, expelled, or
otherwise disciplined for similar types of misbehavior. Because such discipline again
reduces school performance and educational attainment, this form of discrimination
helps explain the lower attainment of African American and Latino students.
Teachers’ expectations of students affect how much students learn. Research finds that
teachers have lower expectations for their African American and Latino students, and
that these expectations help to lower how much these students learn.
Poor neighborhoods cause education problems: First, because many adults in these
neighborhoods are high school dropouts and/or unemployed, children in these
neighborhoods lack adult role models for educational attainment. Second, poor
neighborhoods tend to be racially and ethnically segregated. Latino children in these
neighborhoods are less likely to speak English well because they lack native English-
speaking friends, and African American children are more likely to speak “black
English” than conventional English; both language problems impede school success.
Poor neighborhoods have higher rates of violence and other deviant behaviors than
wealthier neighborhoods. Children in these neighborhoods thus are more likely to
experience high levels of stress, to engage in these behaviors themselves (which reduces
their attention and commitment to their schooling), and to be victims of violence (which
increases their stress and can impair their neurological development). Crime in these
neighborhoods also tends to reduce teacher commitment and parental involvement in
their children’s schooling. Finally, poor neighborhoods are more likely to have
environmental problems such as air pollution and toxic levels of lead paint; these
problems lead to asthma and other health problems among children (as well as adults),
which impairs the children’s ability to learn and do well in school.
Females are more likely than males to graduate high school, to attend college after high
school graduation, and to obtain a degree after starting college.
Impact of Education on Income:
Credential society - A society in which higher education is seen as evidence of the
attainment of the needed knowledge and skills for various kinds of jobs.
A college degree today is a virtual requirement for a decent-paying job. In the past a high school degree was all that was necessary, because less people
graduated. Now, society increasingly requires skills and knowledge that only a college
education brings. Also, many more people graduate high school so its not that
Impact of Education on Mortality:
People with higher levels of education live longer. They are less likely to smoke and
engage in other unhealthy activities. They also have better access to high-quality health
How the US Education System Compares Internationally:
Of the twenty-eight nations for which OECD has high school graduation data, the
United States ranks only twenty-first, with a graduation rate of 76 percent.
Lessons from Other Societies:
Finland has the best elementary and secondary schooling in the world. But it wasn't
always the case. They made changes and now even low-income students do almost as
well as wealthy students.
Finland raised teachers’ salaries, required all teachers to have a three-year master’s
degree, and paid all costs, including a living stipend, for the graduate education needed
to achieve this degree. These changes helped to greatly increase the number of teachers,
especially the number of highly qualified teachers, and Finland now has more teachers
for every 1,000 residents than does the United States. Unlike the United States, teaching
is considered a highly prestigious profession in Finland, and the application process to
become a teacher is very competitive.
Finland revamped its curriculum to emphasize critical thinking skills, reduced the
importance of scores on standardized tests and then eliminated standardized testing
altogether, and eliminated academic tracking before tenth grade.
Finland built many more schools to enable the average school to have fewer students.
Today the typical school has fewer than three hundred students, and class sizes are
smaller than those found in the United States.
Finland increased funding of its schools so that its schools are now well maintained and
well equipped. Whereas many US schools are decrepit, Finnish schools are decidedly in
Finland provided free medical and dental care for children and their families and
expanded other types of social services, including three years of paid maternity leave
and subsidized day care, as the country realized that children’s health and home
environment play critical roles in their educational achievement. 11.2 Sociological Perspectives on Education
Functionalism - Education serves several functions for society. These include
(a) socialization, (b) social integration, (c) social placement, and (d) social and
cultural innovation. Latent functions include child care, the establishment of peer
relationships, and lowering unemployment by keeping high school students out
of the full-time labor force. Problems in the educational institution harm society
because all these functions cannot be completely fulﬁlled.
Conﬂict Theory - Education promotes social inequality through the use of
tracking and standardized testing and the impact of its “hidden curriculum.”
Schools diﬀer widely in their funding and learning conditions, and this type of
inequality leads to learning disparities that reinforce social inequality.
The Functions of Education:
Socialization - If children are to learn the norms, values, and skills they need to
function in society, then education is a primary vehicle for such learning. In the United
States, these norms and values include respect for authority, patriotism (remember the
Pledge of Allegiance?), punctuality, and competition (for grades and sports victories).
Social integration - For a society to work, functionalists say, people must subscribe to a
common set of beliefs and values. Thousands of immigrant children in the United States
today are learning English, US history, and other subjects that help prepare them for the
workforce and integrate them into American life.
Social placement - Beginning in grade school, students are identified by teachers and
other school officials either as bright and motivated or as less bright and even
educationally challenged. Depending on how they are identified, children are taught at
the level that is thought to suit them best. In this way, they are presumably prepared for
their later station in life.
Social and cultural innovation - Our scientists cannot make important scientific
discoveries and our artists and thinkers cannot come up with great works of art, poetry,
and prose unless they have first been educated in the many subjects they need to know
for their chosen path.
Latent functions - Functions that are by-products of going to school and receiving an
education rather than a direct effect of the education itself. Child care - Child taken care
of for free for several hours. Establishment of peer relationships - Make friends.
Final latent function of education is that it keeps millions of high school students out of
the full-time labor force. This fact keeps the unemployment rate lower than it would be
if they were in the labor force.
Education and Inequality: Conflict theory does not dispute the functions just described. However, it does give some
of them a different slant by emphasizing how education also perpetuates social
Such tracking does have its advantages; it helps ensure that bright students learn as
much as their abilities allow them, and it helps ensure that slower students are not
taught over their heads. But conflict theorists say that tracking also helps perpetuate
social inequality by locking students into faster and lower tracks. Worse yet, several
studies show that students’ social class and race and ethnicity affect the track into which
they are placed, even though their intellectual abilities and potential should be the only
things that matter: White, middle-class students are more likely to be tracked “up,”
while poorer students and students of color are more likely to be tracked “down.” Once
they are tracked, students learn more if they are tracked up and less if they are tracked
Conflict theorists add that standardized tests are culturally biased and thus also help
perpetuate social inequality. According to this criticism, these tests favor white, middle-
class students whose socioeconomic status and other aspects of their backgrounds have
afforded them various experiences that help them answer questions on the tests.
US schools differ mightily in their resources, learning conditions, and other aspects, all
of which affect how much students can learn in them. Simply put, schools are unequal,
and their very inequality helps perpetuate inequality in the larger society. Children
going to the worst schools in urban areas face many more obstacles to their learning
than those going to well-funded schools in suburban areas.
Conflict theorists say that schooling teaches a hidden curriculum, by which they
mean a set of values and beliefs that support the status quo, including the existing social
Because compulsory schooling began in part to prevent immigrants’ values from
corrupting “American” values, conflict theorists see its origins as smacking of
ethnocentrism (the belief that one’s own group is superior to another group).
Applying Social Research:
Small class sizes were better than large classes in a study.
Students in smaller classes: had higher average scores on standardized tests, continued
to have higher average test scores, were more likely to complete high school and attend
college, less likely to be arrested during adolescence, were more likely to be married and
to live in wealthier neighborhoods, and white girls in smaller classes were less likely to
have a teenage birth than white girls who had been in the larger classes.
When teachers think students are smart, they tend to spend more time with these
students, to call on them, and to praise them when they give the right answer. Not
surprisingly, these students learn more because of their teachers’ behavior. But when teachers think students are less bright, they tend to spend less time with these students
and to act in a way that leads them to learn less.
Experiment done: Students were randomly designated "bright" and "not bright" but the
researchers told the teachers that the students were tested and that is how they knew
who was bright and who wasn't. At the end of the year, the students were tested again
and the "bright" ones did better because the teachers spent more time helping them.
Many studies find that teachers call on and praise boys more often. It sends an implicit
message to girls that math and science are not for them and that they are not suited to
do well in these subjects.
11.3 Issues and Problems in Elementary and Secondary Education
Schools and Inequality:
City schools spend much less on education than suburban schools.
Salaries in urban schools in low-income neighborhoods are markedly lower than those
in schools in wealthier neighborhoods. As a result, teachers at the low-income schools
tend to be inexperienced teachers just out of college. All things equal, they are less likely
than their counterparts at wealthier schools to be effective teachers.
de jure segregation - School segregation stemming from legal requirements.
School segregation in the North stemmed, both then and now, not from the law but
from neighborhood residential patterns. Because children usually go to schools near
their homes, if adjacent neighborhoods are all white or all African American, then the
schools for these neighborhoods will also be all white or all African American, or mostly
so. This type of segregation is called de facto segregation.
Federal courts tried to reduce de facto segregation by busing urban African American
children to suburban white schools and, less often, by busing white suburban children to
African American urban schools. P