Assessing Class: Education
Education plays a significant role in one's social position, that is, to a person's place in the social hierarchy (Lindemann, 2007, p. 54) and ultimately in stratification. Indeed, a notion prevails that the United States is the "ultimate classless society" (Stephen, 2007, p. 28). In part, this view stems from a widespread belief that access to education provides equality of opportunity and contributes directly to social mobility (that is, to one's ability to move upwardly from one's social class of origin), by increasing access to occupations with high prestige and concomitantly higher levels of income. Education therefore plays a crucial role in the likelihood of people being able to improve their social class location. Moreover, some researchers suggest that education can help reduce racial and gender inequities and expand citizenship (Cremin, 1988; Gutmann, 1987; Kluger, 1975; Spring, 2000; Tyack, 1974). However, empirical research suggests that the contemporary US "is more stratified politically, economically, and socially than ever before" (Stephen, 2007, p. 28), which suggests that education is not providing the opportunities for social mobility that perhaps it once did and/or that there is increasing stratification within the education system that contribute to and reinforce stratification more widely.
Keywords Achievement Gap; Digital Divide; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Social Hierarchy; Social Position; Social Mobility; Stratification; Tracking
Industrial societies are divided into social classes that affect people's economic and social preferences. Members of social classes have different consumption patterns, political preferences, moral attitudes, social behavior, lifestyle, and education experiences and outcomes (Güvali, Need & Graff, 2007). The study of social class — structurally produced economic hierarchies — and how to best measure it is a central theme in sociology and the foundation for scholarship on poverty, inequality, and stratification. Stratification — a structured hierarchy characterized by inequalities between social groups — in the United States and around the world is a consequence of the unequal distribution of rewards.
Education plays a significant role in one's social position, that is, to a person's place in the social hierarchy (Lindemann, 2007, p. 54) and ultimately in stratification. On the one hand, education is seen not only as enabling people to develop their individual potential, but is also viewed as a mechanism for creating equality. Indeed, a notion prevails that the United States is the "ultimate classless society" (Stephen, 2007, p. 28). In part, this view stems from a widespread belief that access to education provides equality of opportunity and contributes directly to social mobility (that is, to one's ability to move upwardly from one's social class of origin). Since the mid-twentieth century, social mobility has been a feature of Europe and North American societies (Ianelli and Paterson, 2005), as more people enter professional occupations. Social and economic indicators such as income and occupation are typically used to measure social class, and education plays a significant role in determining one's employability, employment, and income (Danziger and Reed, 1999). Education therefore plays a crucial role in the likelihood of people being able to improve their social class location by moving into higher occupational classes. Moreover, some researchers suggest that education can help reduce racial and gender inequities and expand citizenship (Cremin, 1988; Gutmann, 1987; Kluger, 1975; Spring, 2000; Tyack, 1974).
However, empirical research suggests that the contemporary US "is more stratified politically, economically, and socially than ever before" (Stephen, 2007, p. 28), which suggests that education is not providing the opportunities for social mobility that perhaps it once did. Indeed, there is evidence that education — the relationships, material resources, environments, and processes associated with delivering and experiencing education — may perpetuate social inequalities.
Perspectives on Education: Consensus
Education is seen as having different functions. Within a consensus or functionalist perspective, associated with the work of Talcott Parsons, education is seen to have a role in socialization; it contributes to ensuring that children are “trained” to comply with the demands of the social system. Indeed, for many people, education exists to ensure that individuals learn how to be good citizens and thereby maintain an efficient, stable social order. Consequently this view of education emphasizes merit, ability, and effort and the needs of society or the economy. Such a view also expresses the idea that education is about individual opportunity (Raines & McAdams, 2006).
In contrast, conflict approaches to education argue that the education system perpetuates existing social divisions. For instance, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels (1976) argued that education is an instrument of the state and as such helps to perpetuate capitalism by initiating children into the expectations of the capitalist system, such as the demand for time-discipline.
Nonetheless, politicians, journalists, and many sectors of the public view education as both the most important solution to inequality and the most important problem for public policy. Education plays a critical role in many aspects of social opportunity: it shapes attitudes, forms political preferences, and plays a key role in determining one's lifestyle (Baer & Lambert, 1982). It also plays a vital role in forming one's political values, impacts one's participation in politics, and ultimately shapes one's political influence (Verba, 2001). And it is seen as a social leveler that can turn immigrants into Americans, transform children into responsible citizens, and create and maintain democracy (Hochschild, 2003).
To be sure, as Hochschild (2003) notes, there have been advances in public education since the late twentieth century (e.g., dropout rates are down, achievement is up, and resources are more equitably distributed). However, there are stark differences between socioeconomic and racial groups in levels of achievement and dropout rates. Urban schools are particularly vulnerable to these differences, and within higher education, which is increasingly important in order for adults to find stable employment and gain momentum within the labor market, there are clear class differences in terms of access, retention, and attainment.
While there is some consensus that education plays a role in providing equality of opportunity, there is considerable debate about whether education contributes to equality of outcomes.
Building on the work of James Coleman (e.g., 1987), research suggests that not only do social class and family background have a major impact on education experience and academic performance, but also, education has a major role in perpetuating social inequalities. Schools demonstrate higher patterns of inequality than other social institutions (Gibbons & Telhaj, 2007) and there is evidence that what happens inside the education environment is significant, such as the quality and degree of parent-teacher interaction; the quality of the curriculum; and the location of the school (urban or non-urban). Moreover, social disparities linked to social class continue into higher education, where those who graduate with a four-year degree are more likely to be in higher income groups and come from families with at least some personal wealth (Raines & McAdam, 2006).
Socioeconomic Status, School Readiness
Parental involvement in their children's education has increasingly been a focus of the national conversation about education in the US. For instance, the National Coalition for Parental Involvement in Education (NCPIE) cites research that indicates children attain higher grades and are more likely to enter and graduate from higher education if their parents are involved in their education (www.ncpie.org). However, there are differences in levels and kinds of parental involvement. Middle-class parents tend to be more involved and better informed about how to support their children (Lareau, 1987). The higher levels of involvement that are associated with parents of the middle class may be a consequence of more flexible work schedules that are enjoyed by the middle and upper classes, allowing more time for contact and teacher interactions. Additionally, middle class parents may be more likely to be informed about what's going on in school because they occupy deeply entrenched social networks through which such information is circulated and exchanged.
Researchers have found that socioeconomic status has a bearing on how ready children are for school. For instance, Crnic and Lamberty (1994) argue that families with high socioeconomic status may have more success in preparing their children for school because they typically have access to a wide range of resources to promote and support young children's development, such as books and toys to encourage learning activities at home. Also, such families may have easier access to information about their children's health, as well as social, emotional, and cognitive development. In addition, families with high socioeconomic status often seek out information to help them better prepare their young children for school. In contrast, the challenge of preparing children for school can be formidable for families in poverty (Ramey & Ramey, 1994). Consequently, they argue, children from families with low socioeconomic status are at greater risk of entering kindergarten unprepared than their peers from families with median or high socioeconomic status.
Concomitantly, in education settings that service impoverished students, teachers may play a significant role in mediating the effects of poverty in classrooms, by creating classrooms and interactions in which students are valued and treated with respect, within a framework of positive relationships that can support academic achievement, performance, and motivation (San Antonio, 2008, p. 74).
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