Privilege & Disadvantage in U.S. Education
A discussion of privilege, disadvantage, and inequality in schools will always be a complicated endeavor. Although the United States has a publicly-funded education system, children who attend the public schools do not always get an equal education. Students who come from a higher socioeconomic background tend to be privileged in the system, as are white children. In contrast, students with low socioeconomic status tend to be at a disadvantage. Understanding how privilege and disadvantage operate in school is a complex topic that involves exploring class and race in relation to the allocation of school resources and the achievement gap between whites and nonwhites.
Keywords Brown v. Board of Education; Color-blind Society; Critical Race Theory; Discrimination; Inequality; Magnet Schools; Race in Education; Self-efficacy; Self-fulfilling Prophecy; School Funding; Socioeconomic Status (SES); Tracking; White Flight; White Privilege
Remember back to your childhood when you played with a set of nesting cups. Maybe in the bathtub, you had a blue cup that fit inside a yellow cup. The yellow cup fit inside the red cup, and all three fit into a final fourth cup. Now consider the concepts of privilege, disadvantage, and inequality in schools. These concepts are nested much like those cups. At the individual level, students may be privileged because they have a high socioeconomic status or a particular race/ethnic background. Others may be disadvantaged because they do not. But whether either group of students succeeds in school is not based only on these individual factors but on how each individual interacts with the school system. School organizational systems and belief structures may serve to support or hamper individual achievement. The environment of the school, which can also be privileged or disadvantaged, is one factor that impacts whether students who begin with a range of advantages and disadvantages will graduate having attained an education of equal quality.
But schools are also nested. They fit within a larger community that is defined by neighborhood and county boundaries. The people who live in the community may be privileged or disadvantaged in a variety of ways. The choices the community members make from their respective positions impact how resources are allocated to the school. These resources include school funding as well as values, attitudes, and beliefs that influence school organizational systems and structures. Resources can be applied equally to all schools, or they can be parceled out in ways that enhance existing disparities. Finally, communities, schools, and individuals are nested within a sociopolitical context that includes a long history of individuals and the US government striving to establish the basis for equality and to extend that equality to greater numbers of people. This context must also be taken into account when trying to understand school inequalities within the spectrum of the larger US society.
If this all sounds complex, it is. A discussion of privilege, disadvantage, and inequality in schools will always be a complicated endeavor.
To extrapolate these concepts and understand how they work in relation to one another, one might begin with some basic definitions. Inequality in relation to privilege and disadvantage refers to two main categories of problems. The first relates to resource allocation, and the second relates to disparities in achievement among different groups of students. Privilege in relation to disadvantage refers to something that someone or something (e.g., a school) has that gives them greater opportunities within the educational context. In relation to inequality, privilege often refers to how some students or schools have access to greater resources and conditions that leads them to higher levels of achievement. Disadvantage is privilege's opposite. Although there may be a variety of privileges that one may have, in the context of US inequality in education, to talk about privilege and disadvantage is to talk about class and race.
There is little doubt in the educational world about the relative impact of class on student success. A parent's high socioeconomic status, measured by one's income and level of education, is significantly associated with higher levels of educational achievement (Buchanan, 2006; Fram, Miller-Cribbs, & Van Horn, 2007; Johnson, McGue, & Iacono, 2007; Strenze, 2007). Wealthy and educated parents contribute to their children's achievement by augmenting their children's schooling in many ways. They provide educational materials such as books and computers in the home. They provide cultural enrichment in the form of travel or visits to museums and performances. They may pay for extra tutoring or after school classes, and they funnel money into the schools through organizations such as the PTA. To be born into a middle or upper class family in the United States means not only to enjoy the benefit of attending a high quality school in a safer and healthier neighborhood (Squires & Kubrin, 2005), but also all of the extra advantages that parents can buy.
An extra privilege is to be white. Race is not always as good a predictor of academic achievement as socioeconomic status. Despite more than fifty years having passed since desegregation, inequalities in outcomes between whites and nonwhites persist (Battle & Pastrana, 2007; Buchanan, 2006; Noguera, & Wing, 2006). Partly, this can be explained by referring to the disadvantages of not being rich. For in this country, minorities tend to be concentrated in the lower classes (Squires & Kubrin, 2005). However, in instances where class should not be an issue, there are still reported discrepancies between white and black student achievement, an indication that white privilege continues to impact educational outcomes (Noguera & Wing, 2006).
How do privilege and disadvantage manifest themselves in the day to day operations of schools? One way is through school funding. It has already been made clear that when parents have more money their children experience greater educational success. Schools also benefit from the higher incomes of their students' parents, for schools in wealthier communities tend to have more money. Having more money means being able to afford better facilities, pay teachers more, and provide students with more classroom materials. This leads almost inevitably to higher student achievement and school prestige. Schools in poorer districts sometimes struggle just to provide the basics.
Of course, a reasonable question to ask is why schools in a publicly-funded system differ in the amount of money they have to spend on their students? Shouldn't all schools have the same resources? The answer lies in the way schools raise funds. In most districts, school funding comes primarily from property tax revenues. Therefore, schools in wealthier communities that have more expensive houses and more businesses have a higher tax base on which to draw funds. Rural areas with few people and poor urban areas with lower property values do not have this privilege.
Of course, states try to adjust for these inequalities in funding. Theoretically, schools in poor and rich districts are supposed to receive comparable funding. This is because according to the law, states have a responsibility to ensure that education funding is both equitable and adequate. In other words, the distribution of educational goods and services throughout the state must be fair, and the availability of resources must be sufficient to ensure that all students can reach a certain level of performance. To achieve equity and adequacy, states attempt to make up the funding shortfalls in poorer districts. They do this by establishing funding formulas that take into account a variety of factors such as the size of the district, the number of students with special needs, the number of students living in poverty, and so on. However, in reality, funding formulas, because they result from political processes in which many constituents vie for a small piece of pie, are not always perfect in eliminating funding disparities. Furthermore, even when the formula is fair, states do not always have the money to fully fund their goals (Goodwind, Weiner, Pristoop, & Roza, 2006; Podgursky, Smith, & Springer, 2008). Thus, inequalities in funding leave some schools at a disadvantage.
While inequities in school funding are well-reported, especially in election years, the privileges and disadvantages associated with race are less discernible.
White privilege is rooted in the foundation of US history. The US Constitution was written in a way that accorded slaves the right to be recognized as 3/5 of a whole person. Though slavery ended with the Civil War and that wording was removed, inequality was not. A segregated society kept whites and blacks apart in stores, neighborhoods, and schools. Though the Supreme Court ruled in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case that school segregation was separate and unequal, resulting efforts at integration did not always lead to greater equality. Today, white privileges are frequently institutionalized, which makes them difficult to identify. They are also frequently denied as even existing—a symptom that this privilege is so normalized as to be invisible.
To grasp how white privilege is institutionalized in schools, a closer look at the history of desegregation is needed. Following the mandate in Brown to dismantle the separate black and white educational systems, school districts developed a variety of ways to encourage integration. One of these was to bus children from their neighborhood school to a school in another part of the district. In some districts, all-black schools were closed, and their students dispersed to their white counterparts. Some districts established magnet schools. These schools were designed to focus on a specialized curriculum and were supposed to be so enticing that parents from around the district would want to send their children there (AndrÉ-Bechely, 2004; Dixson & Rousseau, 2005).
While the Brown decision forced schools to integrate, whites were not always enthusiastic about the change. After all, segregation existed due to deep...
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