10. Social Inequality & the US Education System

Author: Sara Werbowski, Senior

The United States prides itself on equality and justice, and maybe at one point, the country had been innovatively reaching equality (compared to the historical viewpoints of other countries- Nazi Germany’s reign, for example). Capitalism and power not only define the current US economy, but unfortunately that economy has taken such a role on the US stage, that the equality of life has been gagged and bound by the systemic oppression. Who can have a voice when there is no whistle-blower left in the power play?
Now, even our National Congress of State Legislators website displays a sickening, hypocritical search tool that reads “A Guide to School Choice: An in-depth look at public and private school choice policies, options for legislators, and how the various forms of choice interact with each other” accompanied by “Evaluating School Principals: From the Statehouse to the Schoolhouse”.  This is not to say that the NCSL does not support great reform efforts, however this example is used to highlight the fundamental issues within the US society that contributes to the thought-process that bolsters inequality, even from well-intentioned organizations. What is the lesser of these evils- independence for states or support of federal and local government monopolization of school systems? The fact that legislators ‘need’ to compare schools highlights the disparity- the difference, the inequality- of school systems. Furthermore, by creating the evaluations of principals, not even teachers of these schools, they fuel the societal buy-in by producing additional academic and systemic pressures on those teachers whom would be willing to work on decreasing the inequalities of these “lesser schools” defined by the same organization… essentially dissuading teachers to apply for a position in that area. Some teachers would have only applied to get their feet on the ground, or because they weren’t able to secure a job else where, at a ‘better’ school, that they will be able to grow a new program at, which looks great on paper.”  By government labeling of schools, policy and regulations have successfully forced the hand of opportunity-makers to focus on themselves, in order to sustain themselves in the dog-eat dog world, instead of envisioning the kind of school system it could be. This is mirrors the system labeling of kids within the “bad” schools, the low-scoring classes, the overcrowded and under-staffed schools.  The results are found in A Public Education Primer, as it reports that “students in high-poverty schools are more likely to be taught by an out-of-field teacher or a first-year teacher than students in low-poverty schools.” While all financially impoverished  communities are subject to out-of-field teachers, it aligns with another macro issue. 
Who decided to implement the systemic structure that provides the environment for “better and worse” schools? People who have power make the policies, and by power I allude to “voice” power- when a complaint is made, the complaint is heard by people who have the ability and opportunity to make a change. People gain this power by experience., and looking good on paper (having your name in congruence with accomplishments). You can only gain experience through opportunity and a learned history of successfully completing these opportunities. In the best “worst case” opportunity, one could gain power by learning from mistakes and then later completing a different task successfully with the skills learned in the first “unsuccessful” experience- this bolsters confidence and a long-term outlook. You can only obtain access to opportunity if “people” believe in you and people only believe in you if you show them you can be trusted with opportunity and, yes, have the experience.  Effectively leading us to an infinity sign of oppression. Well if “people in power” label your school or your community as “a lost cause,”  “not a good place” to move to, not a “good” school for the kids, then you won’t get the economic growth you need in the community to bring up the educational outlook, you won’t get the basic skills taught by “good” schools because “good” teachers won’t apply to teach there, and you won’t be offered the opportunities you need to eventually be in power because you already have been told won’t go anywhere… point blank…. you won’t move there.  These communities are seen as problems to society, and though we have reformed every other part of our government, in order to “restrict” and push society in a different direction, this is the root of the problem we have been ignoring while we have been busy treating all the other symptoms.
We compare our schools, label our schools and decide who will or won’t graduate from high school (let alone college) based on which school system children will attend. In recent history, we focused on standardized testing and regulations, getting caught up in President Reagan’s publishing of A Nation at Risk, and losing sight of the effects on these regulations on the children (Anyon, 2012). Essentially, we determine the level of quality of life that an individual will get because of systemic, structured labeling. School systems are traditionally based on community orientation. Race will be discussed later, but it’s important to note when discussing communities that most white students attend school in suburban areas, while African American and Hispanic racial identities attend school most frequently in a city (Table 1, 3, 4 &5). Communities are usually based on what you can afford to pay monthly for. What you can afford to pay monthly for is based on your job, and of course your job is determined mainly on what you look like on paper which is the result of the opportunities you are given. Keep in mind most business owners throw away resumes (if you have the means to print or understanding to make one) if there are any grammatical errors or formatting issues on it. I learned to create a resume in my third year of college… which suggests that if someone didn’t learn how to do this at college, or if someone didn’t go to college, they wouldn’t have a good job, live in a good neighborhood, or be able to send their kids to a “good” school system. Essentially, you’re behind if you never get ahead, but the qualities of being ‘ahead’ are considered a necessity to even be considered for a job. Oppressing the children, and our future, at it’s finest with inability to access the ‘best’ schools (Table 2).  This may be why Anyon is so passionate about the education reform focusing more on eliminating “poverty-wage work and housing segregation”(2012). Our society needs to be more effective at identifying the true problems, and speak out in support of fixing it for those who can’t.
This kind of system fuels judgment and stigma, and allots privileged individuals yet another opportunity to determine who is deserving of assistance and goods, and who is not. Systems judge the person’s lifestyle, their history, and allots them to play God by choosing who is of worth to receive these assistance programs. It’s as if by simply being a living, human being, you’re not worth giving breath to. While education is ‘one’ factor and many people look at it as such, it’s obvious that where a child starts out determines where they can go in life (Holzer, Whitmore, Duncan & Ludwig, 2007).  The lottery system is unjust as well- while fair in theory, who are we to pull a number and instantly allot the child a ‘better life’ “a ticket to equality” while their sibling does not receive that opportunity? Shouldn’t we work towards removing the disparity between those lifestyles instead of buying into the corrupt system and piece-mealing an “opportunity”? With the population of the US, making everyone “happy” is nearly impossible, but giving everyone an equal playing field is not impossible. Societally, we must not judge any one individual on any one thing, rather base one public idea on the individual: the needs of each individual are different, and every individual should have ample access health and education, which will provide them personal access to every other sphere of success in life, creating a “level” playing field ( Orfield, & Lee, 2005).  Historically, Anyon explains regulation of schools was thought to help students, however as we have seen tragically most recently, the more funding allotted to schools for test scores is actually widening the gap on account of consequences previously discussed. She discusses the opportunity to increase living wage in these areas, significantly increasing the communities economics, improving school funding, and in turn drawing more teachers to the said “bad” communities, putting the systematically impoverished childrens’ feet on the ground of equality.  Though it would increase policy and economic growth substantially, the initial start up would force those privileged individuals to think more community oriented instead of the systematically ascribed personal opportunity (Holzer, Whitmore, Duncan & Ludwig, 2007). Harvard’s The Civil Right’s project shows the stark racial correlation with those who are predisposed to living in a lower-income communities, with lower performing school systems, as alluded to earlier just so happen to be in the city schools, and mostly affects Hispanic and African American communities (Orfield & Lee, 2005).  It’s not surprising that due to this historical context, minorities are often found starting out on in an unequal arena full of little opportunity, and handed a dim systemic outlook for their future.  If this is the case, they aren’t even given the tools or knowledge to change that for themselves.
For the start up costs of this extreme overhaul of our society backing up the values we say we care about (and yet astringently hoard) if everyone began to have base tax percentage that is equal across income levels we could begin to reduce the disparity of everyone, and funnel funding where it actually needs to be- in every school, in every town, for every individual child. This years tax overhaul of 5.8% rate for all taxable exemptions (as opposed to the prior low tax rates for wealthy and corporations while middle class had born the brunt of taxation, often putting them into poverty levels, Anyon, 2012), as well as the Affordable Health Care Act, though implemented late amongst the issues, still serve the society an opportunity to neutralize the inequality societally has constructed. If theory serves it’s purpose will essentially be better in the long run for everyone, and initializes the change our society needs. One example of societally-focused basic health care needs for all is the French system of health care (class).  We must first get the majority on board in order to truly begin to make progress. Hopefully other areas follow suit and the American people can begin to understand that we are all in this world, traveling this life together, and we could have each been born into any community, and suddenly be behind before we got started. Once these ‘opportunities,’ found in education, become standards of living (since they are pre-requisites to meeting the minimum standards in life) we can begin to move towards systematic equality. Education is power, and every single human being in the United States, in accordance with our country’s values, should have access to reaching their potential through education. It’s our responsibility at citizens to stand up for the oppressed and do what we can in a state of privilege- otherwise we, too, could fall for what the systemic oppression sell us.   
1. Anyon, J. (2012). What “Counts” as Educational Policy? Notes toward a New Paradigm
Center on Education Policy. Retrieved from http://elon.mrooms3.net/pluginfile.php/252717/mod_resource/content/1/Anyon%20education%20policy.pdf
2. Holzer, H.J., Whitmore, D., Duncan, J. & Ludwig, J.(2007). The Economic Costs of Poverty in the United States. Retrieved from http://elon.mrooms3.net/pluginfile.php/252716/mod_resource/content/1/economic%20costs%20of%20poverty.pdf
3. Kober, N., Usher, A., Reptner, D.S., & Jennings, J. (2012). A Public Education Primer Retrieved from http://elon.mrooms3.net/pluginfile.php/252721/mod_resource/content/1/Education%20Primer2012.pdf
4. Orfield, G. & Lee, C. (2005) Why Segregation Matters: Poverty and education inequality. Retrieved from http://elon.mrooms3.net/pluginfile.php/252718/mod_resource/content/1/Why_Segreg_Matters.pdf


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