Educational Inequality exists for students of all backgrounds in the U.S. but this inequality is extremely pronounced in minorities. It is no secret that the whiter, richer, more educated individuals in this country have generally had greater access to more stable learning environments, more knowledgeable, academically concerned parents, and better educational resources. However, In the Post Brown Vs. Board of Education world, inequality still persists at high levels for people of color and poverty. Despite the abolition of obvious forms of discrimination, students of lower socioeconomic status continue to receive worse educations and attain lower levels of schooling as they continue the harsh cycle of poverty experienced by most low-income families. Inequality in the U.S. education system is due to numerous factors such as the U.S’ unique history of racial discrimination and uneven allocation of resources; however, increasing income disparity between the upper and lower classes, varying degree of parental involvement, and the cyclical nature of poverty are the largest and most important components of educational inequality. This paper analyzes the aforementioned variables and contextualizes them into a continuous cycle of educational discrimination and shortcoming regarding this country’s poor and minority citizens. However, first one must examine the history and role of education in the U.S. to properly assess the existence of this present day issue. In the early U.S., private institutions primarily administered education and public schools were created to be inherently unequal to these institutions, which accounts for much of the inequality present today. Today’s education has markedly different goals than it did in the mid 1700’s in that its religious connotation is virtually eliminated and the methods of teaching are less Draconian. However, despite the vastly dissimilar goals of early 18th century and 21st century education, one must consider the implications of the former and its role in shaping the latter. Public schools were only formed to deal with the large increase in the immigrant population that occurred in the mid 1800s; these schools were poorly funded, and were meant more for supervised congregation than actual learning. During this time period, native U.S. citizens still largely attended private schools but public schools with larger numbers of native citizens enjoyed the benefits of better teachers, resources, and funding. This began the long trend of racial and ethnic discrimination in U.S. education. This notion of inherent inequality is important as it created the environment in which parent involvement and SES became integral to student success. Richer, more involved parents sought to improve their children’s education by either placing them in private school or a more prestigious public school, and the immigrant population recognized the importance of involvement in their children’s education as they correctly inferred higher levels of educational attainment corresponded to increased social mobility (“School Choice: What’s Happening in the States.”) Parent SES, in general, has always played an integral role in determining the future success and mobility of one’s children but parental income specifically has been linked to greater educational opportunity as it is the chief determinant of poverty in this country. One’s income is highly related to their degree education; traditionally, people with greater education earn larger salaries. However, in recent years this fact has been greatly exacerbated as exemplified by the fact that individuals with a college degree earn 75% more than those without degrees; a drastic increase from 1979 in which this figure was 38% (Tyson, “Income Inequality…”). Additionally, not only do more educated people earn more money but those with lower levels of education have been earning increasingly lower amounts of money proportionately. For example, in 1973 the average hourly wage for a high school dropout worker was $13.61 in contrast to $9.78 in 1999 (Farkas, 2). This increased disparity has articulated itself with devastating consequences in regard to the level and extremeness of poverty, particularly amongst minorities; a troubling trend considering the already present disadvantages of racial discrimination, and generally lower levels of education. Increased levels of poverty result in the addition of more life stressors, such as hunger, lack of residential mobility, and poorer health, which detract from parent involvement and thus, decreases the likelihood of their children attaining an adequate or good education. In the year 2002, 98% of the population living in poverty reported living in hunger at some point during the year. Additionally, 30% of children in poverty had attended three or more different schools by the end of third grade; hardly the provision of a stable academic environment. Furthermore, 78% of the population with bachelor’s degree was reported to be in “excellent health” in 2001 whereas only this number was 56% and 39% respectively for people who had finished high school or who had never achieved their H.S. diploma (Rebell, 1474). If the biggest daily worry of parents pertains to such basic commodities as food and housing, they are hardly likely to trouble themselves with the education of their children when they have checkbooks to balance and need to find ways to put food on the table. Higher levels of poverty amongst minorities are crucial to educational opportunity chiefly because of the cultural and social components of most geographical areas. Generally, minorities live in concentrated areas and this fosters the unique temperament of the given region. Because school populations are based largely off of geographical placement, it is commonplace for large amounts of minority students to attend the same school. Indeed over 1.4 million African-American students and 1 million Latino students attended high schools in which the student body was 70% minority; this is in stark contrast to the 10,000 white students who attended these same schools (Orfield and Lee 12-13). The grouping of minority students in large quantities has been extremely controversial because of the effects many argue it has on the educational quality of the school, as these are often students of poverty who cannot relate well to the generally middle class, white teacher workforce. Indeed, this inability to effectively understand and communicate with teachers is seemingly supported by minority graduation rates and lower levels of education. 56% of Hispanics earn a high school diploma as do 54% of African-Americans, which is substantially lower than the 77% of white students. However, to characterize all minorities with lower degrees of educational attainment would be inaccurate as 81% of Asian students earn a H.S. diploma, 4 percentage points more than white students (“Graduation Rates”). Despite the general trend of minority students attending the same, less efficient schools, little effort has been made to change the current system because of previously failed attempts. Efforts to change the methods of enrollment in minority schools were often met with considerable backlash from the white community, which has resulted in reaffirming the homogenous grouping of minorities and subsequently, has created greater levels of inequality within certain schools. In 1974 Boston sought to force integration of its schools by bussing African American students to generally all white schools, racially charged riots ensued and the attempt was a failure. Further examples of backlash can be seen throughout U.S. history and all possess similar undertones; whenever integration was forced unwontedly upon a larger white community, it resulted in poor treatment of the minorities and public outcry. If such efforts had been met with less extreme reactions, or perhaps even positive reinforcement, minorities would have been encouraged not only to feel comfortable in these new school environments but also, over time, to perhaps disperse more broadly across different neighborhoods as the white communities’ responses would have encouraged more integration. While the majority of these efforts were more successful than Boston it is important to note that negative white reactions reaffirmed the idea that minorities must stay in homogenous communities which perpetuates a cycle of underfunded, disadvantaged schools. Ultimately, the shortcomings of minority students are not entirely within their control as they are often placed in less advantageous positions in a system that is not responsive enough to aptly deal with their different cultures, languages and social situations. Such unresponsiveness however is due largely to the existing gap many minority parents feel in regards to the education system as whole and this manifests itself often in decreased parental involvement (Rebell, 1491-1494).
Parents of minorities suffer much higher rates of poverty than whites and subsequently endure more life stressors; as such, they often lack the time or willpower to interact with their children as much as parents of higher SES which results in their children’s’ inherent academic disadvantages beginning at birth. A crucial component of parental availability hinges upon whether the household has two parents or only one. 54% of African-American children and 27% of Latino children come from single parent households (Farkas 10). Higher levels of single parent homes are directly correlated to less parental availability as these parents often work multiple jobs to combat the increasing income disparity previously mentioned; as a result, these parents have little spare time for home-based educational activities and it is these activities that form the basis for later educational success (Farkas, 11-12). For example, only 36% of kindergarten children in the lowest income quintile are read to on a daily basis and this results in lower vocabulary as they enter primary and secondary education. Despite the introduction of federal programs, such as Title I, to help children struggling in math and reading, the gap in vocabulary remains proportionately the same between the ages of 3 and 13 when comparing low income minority students to affluent white ones (“Education and Socioeconomic Status”). Since life stressors greatly hinder the chances of minority children in poverty, the U.S. has responded by pumping proportionately more money into the educational system than any other area of social welfare but the results have been mixed. The following quote from scholar Amy Mills clearly outlines the perceived goal of public education, “The United States saw the public schools as the central means by which the government would help improve the lives of the poor and disadvantaged,” (Rebell, 1475). However, this approach has been mildly effective as the money does not always go to the students in poverty nor does this approach recognize the broader implications of poverty’s social problems. Take for example New York City, where 81% of the public school population comes from poverty backgrounds, over $10,000 less is spent annually on these children than neighboring Manhasset, an area in which only 4.4% of the public school population hails from poverty (Rebell, 1477). The explanation for such vast differences is due to out of date government policy in which funding for schools is raised through taxation on local levels. When these policies were formed, the income gap between upper and lower classes in the U.S was less pronounced; also, poverty was not as highly concentrated in urban areas with great minority populations. Thus, through this outdated logic, schools in New York City raise less revenue because they tax a poorer population despite their abundant needs for more funding (Rebell, 78). However, the belief that greater funding leads to better schools is not universally accepted. Conservatives disagree with the logic that more funding equates to better education or greater educational opportunity as they insist the quality of school is determined by its teachers and students, not its funding; however this philosophy, and conservatives’ philosophies regarding teaching itself are incorrect. The Conservative mentality is captured in George H.W. Bush’s famous quote “‘just as more money has not provided a remedy in the past, it will not miraculously do so in the future,’” in direct reference to the education system (Payne, “Understanding…” 78). Studies show that the conservative mindset is correct to an extent, as educator PhD. Ruby Payne remarked about the importance of teachers, “ By offering a secure base, a teacher creates an environment that lets students’ brains function at their best” (Payne, “Under Resourced Learners,” 21). Conservatives maintain that the provision of a stable environment is self-explanatory; merely respect the children, provide safety and daily instruction, and this environment is created. Such rationale is not entirely incorrect but does not account for all aspects of the teaching environment. Safety, respect and consistent instruction are paramount but in terms of the best learning environments, students with teachers who “create lots of laughter and pleasant conversations” as well as demonstrate “warmth and positive regard for students” flourish in comparison to teachers who provide merely the framework of safety and basic respect. The creation of such environments and their productiveness can be seen in the fact that primary school classes with these types of teachers often covered 50% or more material in the academic year. Thus conservative ideology regarding teaching philosophies is underdeveloped. (Payne, “Under Resourced Learners,” 22) Furthermore, the basic conservative tenant that increased opportunity and better education are not linked to funding is untrue. Take for example the numerous California state court cases in which public schools in urban areas did not offer the required courses for their students to be accepted to California State Universities; this was a direct result of budget cuts and lack of funding. Such examples are not bound to the west coat either as students in New York City are required to take a lab in order to graduate H.S. but 31 NYC schools have no science lab and when asked, the majority of these schools cited funding as the number one reason for this problem (Rebell, 83). These shortcomings are the direct result of lack of funding for schools, schools with prevalent minority populations. Creating an environment in which minorities not only receive better education, but also reap the benefits of feeling more culturally connected to this education is paramount for the continued success of the U.S. economy. Indeed, it is estimated that by the year 2050 the U.S. population will be 50% minorities. Currently, over 60% of African-American and Hispanic students attend schools with high poverty rates, significantly higher than the 18% rate for Caucasians. In these schools, minority children are 5 times less likely to graduate high school on time than their white counterparts. Furthermore, in the year 2002 only 23% of African-American students and 20% of Hispanic students graduated high school with the minimum skills and credentials to be considered for four year colleges (Orfield and Lee, 17-19). The importance of a college degree has been steadily increasing as well as exemplified by the previously mentioned income disparity between college and H.S. graduates (page 3 of paper). If no progress is made in combatting these appalling rates of graduation and lower levels of education and preparedness, the results will be manifested in the country’s economic growth and GDP because the U.S. simply will not be able to compete with more highly educated countries in the new global economy. While this paper focuses largely on educational inequality for minorities and students in poverty, one must also ask the question if similar inequality exists amongst students who come from upper class backgrounds; are they receiving the best possible education from their schools? The answer unfortunately is also no but for different reasons, mainly, increased funding of special needs programs, the subsequent lack of funding for enrichment classes, and the general change of many school’s objectives regarding learning as most schools now merely teach to the test. The amount of money spent on a child with special needs generally ranges from $5,000 to $20,000 more annually than a normal student. This, coincided with the fact that the number of special needs students is increasing, has sapped many districts of their funds; funds which used to go to enrichment programs. In Ohio, 16% of the secondary student population is identified as “gifted” yet only one fifth receive adequate funding and programs from their schools (Jones, 1). Finally, schools that score well on standardized have teachers who spend an average of three to four weeks teaching test material and 60% of these teachers taught this material over an even longer time frame. This time spent on test preparation hinders the gifted population as they will already receive great scores, thus rendering review useless to them. Furthermore, these practices skew the quality of schools tested as many condition their middle and lower students to specific strategies and techniques geared toward success on the test as opposed to actual understanding of the material. (Klein, 25). Inequality in education is not a new concept. Since the founding of the public school system, students of higher SES with more engaged parents have done better and gone on to greater success after school. Furthermore, certain individuals are just born with higher IQ rates, often giving them an edge in the academic environment. Conservative arguments against low SES, funding, and race are irrelevant to the educational argument as they simply refuse to acknowledge them as key variables in education. Ultimately, inequality in education will only be solved when commonsense reforms are made. Increased funding for struggling schools and a workforce that can better relate to students of various SES will lead to an improved perception of the U.S.’ Education System for those in poverty who generally feel irrelevant in it. Once minorities and the impoverished feel included in the system, greater levels of education will ensue resulting in lower levels of inequality and prolonged economic success. Works Cited
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