Education in America

Education in America

by Kimberly A. Goyette


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285101
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/16/2017
Series: Sociology in the Twenty-First Century Series , #3
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Kimberly A. Goyette is Professor and Chair in the Department of Sociology at Temple University and specializes in the Sociology of Education.  

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Education in America

By Kimberly A. Goyette


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96071-8


The Promise(s) of Education

We have all had experience with the education system in some way or another. Most of us (those who were not home-schooled) have been in some type of primary and secondary schools. You may be a student now in a college or university. You may be a parent of a student. We all know education "from the inside." We have seen its effects firsthand.

Some of you may be in college classrooms right now. You are likely high school graduates who have "made it" to or perhaps even through college. You might think if you have made it this far education has worked for you. You did the work you needed to do to get to where you are now. The education system correctly recognized that work and sorted you into the right place. You earned your place as a high school graduate or as a college student or graduate. You probably haven't thought too much about how your race, socioeconomic background, or gender shaped your education because you "made it." Whether you are black, white, Hispanic, or Asian, rich or poor, male or female, you made it through high school and into college. There are plenty of examples of people who went through the education system and "made it" like you — even those who were very poor, like former president Bill Clinton, who achieved the most prestigious occupation in the United States thanks, in part, to the success of the US public education system.

Who gets to "make it," though? Who are the people that don't make it? Are there any patterns that we can see in who gets higher levels of education and who does not? Is this related to their socioeconomic background, race, gender, or other characteristics? Social scientists and the public at large generally consider educational attainment, what kinds of degrees people are able to achieve, a measure of success. How much education one eventually gets, whether a high school degree, associate's degree, bachelor's degree, or more, is thought to be one indicator of status and social mobility in the United States, and one that correlates highly with other indicators of "success" like higher income, professional employment, even marriage. We know, though, that there is much inequality in eventual educational attainment across social groups: inequality by socioeconomic background, inequality by race and ethnicity, and, to a much smaller degree, inequality by gender. For example, in a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve in 2014, the Survey of Household Economics and Decision-Making, researchers found that parents' education was strongly related to their children's adult education attainment in their sample of about 1700 respondents aged 25 to 44. Table 1-1 shows that a majority of those whose parents had a high school degree or less had also attained a high school degree or less as adults, while more than 80% of those who had two parents with bachelor's degrees also attained a bachelor's degree or more as an adult.

Figure 1–1 shows that the eventual educational attainment of the adult population also varies substantially by race and ethnicity. Looking at adults 25 and older, we see that Asian Americans have the highest rate of attaining bachelor's, master's, professional, and doctoral degrees, followed by non-Hispanic whites. Hispanics have the highest rates of not completing high school, while blacks have the highest rates of attaining a high school degree and attending college but not receiving a degree.

There is less inequality in educational attainment by gender than there is by socioeconomic background and by race or ethnicity. Looking at the degree attainment of men and women in the United States 25 years and older, we see an interesting pattern. Men tend to be slightly overrepresented among the least and most educated. For example, figure 1-2 shows that men tend to have less than a high school degree or only a high school degree more than women. Women are slightly overrepresented among those who have some college, associate's degrees, and master's degrees. Men and women appear to be equally likely to have bachelor's degrees, but men are more likely than women to hold professional or doctoral degrees. This figure represents men and women of all ages above 24, so if women continue to enter and graduate from college at higher rates than men, as is the current pattern, we may see this pattern change among younger ages first — with more women attaining bachelor's degrees particularly. As more women attain bachelor's degrees and some of them continue on to further education, it is possible that differences in professional and doctoral degrees will diminish.

From the above table and figures, it appears that there are differences in whether people "make it" to college and beyond particularly by socioeconomic background and race. These differences in eventual educational attainment are consequential. Systematic differences in educational attainment by socioeconomic background, race and ethnicity, and gender lead to differences in occupational attainment, marriage and family formation, voting behavior and civic engagement, and health outcomes. This book explores public schooling in the United States that leads up to this eventual attainment. Do schools themselves shape these patterns?

Horace Mann, and many others following him like John Dewey, famously called education the "Great Equalizer." He declared, "Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of man, — the balance-wheel of the social machinery." It is hard to agree on what Mann meant by this, though. Did he mean that different groups — defined by race or ethnicity, socioeconomic background, gender, disability status, or other characteristics — should have similar outcomes such as grades, test scores, college attendance, or eventual attainment? Should these groups have equal opportunities? What does "opportunity" mean?

Before diving into these questions, though, we should understand the role of education as an institution and an organization. In most societies, in the past 100 to 200 years, education has not simply occurred organically through social interaction; it has also been established as an institution. Being institutionalized means that "education" occurs in particular places during specific times, and people have clearly delineated roles in that institution. So, for example, much education in the United States occurs in places called schools from 8 am to 3 pm and is led by people called teachers. It is no longer perceived as something that occurs organically when a child talks with an adult or observes an insect and makes a conclusion about its behavior; rather, it is what occurs during the school day in a school taught by a teacher.

Another feature of institutionalized education is that it is bureaucratic. That means that rules determine what is acceptable and unacceptable in that institution. According to Max Weber, as time goes on, those rules become more and more complex. Rules determine who can be called a "teacher." In the United States, it is typically someone who has at least a four-year college degree and has been certified to be a teacher. Rules determine when and how teachers are hired and can lose their jobs. Rules determine students' behavior in the institution — line up, no chewing gum, hands to yourselves are some of those rules. There are often consequences to breaking rules. Schools can put students in detention, suspend them, or expel them.

Institutionalized education strives to be, and in many places is, universal. Institutionalized education, to be successful, should reach all members of a society at some point in their lives. In most societies, this occurs during childhood, often from ages six to 12, though much education may occur before and after these ages, depending on the society. Institutionalized education tends to expand in scope over time. It encompasses more and more children of a particular age and then expands to include children and young adults from different ages — younger (preschool) to older (college and graduate school). Institutionalized education strives to include children from all parts of its society — rich and poor, of all races and ethnicities, boys and girls, of all abilities.

Often when we consider the institution of education, we think about the ways we shape it. We consider the ways we use education to further our goals for society, whatever they may be. But we could also consider the ways that education shapes us as a society. Education as an institution validates certain types of knowledge over others. It provides legitimacy to certain fields and not others. It provides credentials that signal which fields and careers have status and prestige. The institution of education is not just something that reflects a society's views, but also something that shapes and changes a society.

The main purpose of the institution of education is to prepare young members of a society for their adult roles in that society. Two ways that youths are prepared for these adult roles is through socialization and through sorting or stratification. Emile Durkheim, a nineteenth-century sociologist, refers to socialization as the ways that members of a society learn that society's norms and values. Stratification occurs when young members of a society are trained for particular roles in the economy, polity, family, or other institutions. When education stratifies or sorts students, it differentially allocates resources and knowledge to different members of society according to different attributes, that is, education gives people different knowledge or resources based on their future roles in society.

According to Durkheim, education teaches us how to behave. It teaches us norms, values, and beliefs that are important to our culture, our society. It teaches us what knowledge is valued by our culture and society. Education is referred to by Durkheim as an agent of cultural transmission. According to Durkheim, the institution of education should be the main institution through which the individual learns the ways of a given group or society. It should be the place an individual acquires the physical, intellectual, and moral tools needed to function in a society.

How exactly, though, does this socialization occur? How do we learn to negotiate our places in society, appropriate social rules or norms, social values, about what is acceptable and valued in schools? Sociologists have identified two different types of "curricula," that is agendas or plans by which skills, knowledge, rules, and values get transmitted or communicated to students. The first is the formal curriculum and the second is called the hidden curriculum. The formal curriculum is what is explicitly taught in schools. This is the knowledge or set of skills we are most likely to identify when asked what we learned in school. We know we are required to learn algebra, to study American history. The curriculum also points to the areas of these subjects that are important to learn. For example, we know that the Revolutionary War was an important part of American history because we spend a lot of time learning about it, there are a lot of materials, textbook pages, and the like devoted to it, and we may even get tested on it. We know that Catcher in the Rye and The Scarlet Letter are important books to read. We learn about subjects and predicates, prepositions and dangling participles in order to learn the "correct" way to speak and write. We also learn the school rules — they are posted and explicit, and the consequences for breaking them are clear. We may also learn values from the formal curriculum. In many schools, there are curricula designed to teach children not to bully. The formal curriculum is explicit; it is stated. We recognize what we are learning.

The hidden curriculum is subtler than the formal curriculum. We may not always be aware of the lessons we learn from this hidden curriculum. From the hidden curriculum, we may learn what is expected of us based on our anticipated roles in society, the unspoken rules we should follow in order to be rewarded. Rules that have to do with how we are expected to behave may be based on our race, our gender, or our socioeconomic background. We may begin to negotiate our positions in society and form expectations of ourselves and the rules by which we think ourselves and others should live based on the messages sent from this hidden curriculum.

Let me give you an example of what I mean by the hidden curriculum. Researchers observing in school classrooms have found that teachers call on boys more than girls. There may be many reasons why this occurs (boys are louder, teachers want to encourage more participation from boys), but, regardless of why this occurs, this practice may communicate to girls, without them explicitly realizing it, that what they have to say is less valuable than what boys have to say. Girls are subtly taught that their thoughts or answers are not as important.

Durkheim also talks briefly about another activity that education carries out. Not only must education provide common societal principles and values for people, but it must also ensure that people fill the diverse roles that are important for society. Some people need to farm, some people need to heal others, some need to build shelters. Educational institutions sort youths so that particular people fill each role. Education in this sense stratifies people.

These adult roles carry different amounts of responsibility and varying rewards. These rewards often, though not always, reflect how much a student has to invest to be trained in a particular field, how difficult that job is, and how much we as a society value that role. For example, doctors may be paid more than accountants because they need to invest more in their training. Professional athletes are highly paid because the society values their abilities. We rely on the institution of education primarily to sort students into these adult roles of doctor, accountant, athlete, and so on.

Table 1–2 shows you some occupations taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2014. Here you see occupations like waiter/waitress, real estate agent, teacher, doctor, and lawyer. The middle column shows the entry level of education generally needed for that occupation. Waiters and waitresses need no formal degree, for example. Occupations like postal workers and plumbers typically require a high school degree or the equivalent. Dental assistants and court reporters need vocational training, while registered nurses and preschool teachers have associate's degrees, typically. Bachelor's degrees are required for occupations like airline pilots and investment bankers, while postgraduate degrees are needed to become doctors, lawyers, and veterinarians. How much education you get determines what kind of occupations you can have, what kind of roles in society you can fill.

The third column of the table shows the average annual earnings of those occupations. The table clearly shows a pattern: those occupations with higher levels of required education also get higher rewards. Janitors, who need no degree, make about $22,000 a year, while postal workers who need high school degrees earn $53,000 a year. High school teachers who have bachelor's degrees earn about $55,000 a year, while psychologists who need advanced degrees make $69,000. There are some exceptions to the pattern. Airline pilots make almost $100,000 a year on average with bachelor's degrees and mental health counselors with master's degrees make less than $42,000 a year, but generally as the required education increases so do the income rewards. This is the basic picture of stratification: you need particular levels of education to get certain jobs and these jobs have different amounts of resources or rewards associated with them. The education you attain may not completely determine the job you will get, but it increases the probability that you will get certain jobs.

Many have made the argument that this sorting occurs most efficiently when it is only based on students' talents, abilities, and hard work. The society works best when those students who are most talented and are willing to work the hardest are the doctors we depend on to save lives. We want students who have a breadth of knowledge and who are willing to think deeply about complex issues to govern our nation. We want students who are good at math and able to put in the time to understand complex tax codes to be our accountants. Should we ever have legal problems, we want those who are good at argumentation to defend us. And, when we watch sports, we want to be amazed by what athletes are able to accomplish.


Excerpted from Education in America by Kimberly A. Goyette. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures ix

List of Tables xii

Acknowledgments xv

1 The Promise(s) of Education 1

2 Competing Visions of Public Education: Who and What Should It Be For? 17

3 What Does Education Do? Paradigms and Theories about How Education Works 29

4 Inequality by Socioeconomic Background and Class 50

5 Inequality by Race and Ethnicity, Immigrant Status, and Language Ability 89

6 Inequality by Gender and Disability 131

7 Educational Inequality in Other Nations 155

8 Education Reforms and Inequality Jessica Brathwaite Kimberly Goyette 178

9 If We Don't Like Educational Inequality, Why Is It So Hard to Make It Go Away? 196

Notes 207

References 219

Index 243

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