American education is a complicated system, particularly so because it is both the cause and solution for many social problems in the country. It is often seen as a way to “escape” social inequalities, by obtaining degrees and diplomas which allow people to get hiring paying jobs, or by simply empowering them through knowledge. There are a few issues inherent in the United States’ educational institution that will forever block its use as an equalizer of social inequality. First, the use of local taxes to fund schools prevent schools in poor neighborhoods and minority neighborhoods (which are often the same) from adequately meeting the needs of their pupils. Second, fragmentation of educational institutions increases racial and socioeconomic segregation among students. And finally, the lack of federally standardized curriculum frequently results in excessively low graduation rates, or excessively high graduation rates accompanied by low comprehension.
The educational system in the United States is often referred to as an equalizer of social stratification. Though this is a nice sentiment, it is inaccurate. American education has always been affected by social status (race, class, religious affiliation, gender, etc.), and very rarely actually improves underrepresented peoples’ living conditions after they finish their educational career. For example, Black and Latino people still earn disproportionately less money than their White counterparts, at all levels of educational achievement. The concept of a single system being an equalizer of all social inequality is flawed, as it implies that social inequality is a result of personal achievement, and not institutionalized. Although that does not imply that education should not be intended to improve lifelong outcomes for underrepresented people–it should–but this purpose cannot remove the blame on all other institutions for these inequalities.
Local taxes funding local education may seem like a productive idea, but it fails to address neighborhood funding inequalities, and reinforces racial and socioeconomic segregation in schools and geographic locations. People living in poor neighborhoods, which are a huge portion of racial minorities, are unable to fund their local schools as much as those in richer neighborhoods (in the states that follow this standard, which are about 45 of them). This results in quality of education matching the social class of its district; lower class students receive worse education than higher class students. Furthermore, these poor schools cannot afford many resources, including school supplies, extracurricular programs, and a proportionally sized staff. When these schools have to lay off teachers, their student body does not decrease as well, and as such, class sizes are increased exponentially, which reinforces the use of school as “daycare” rather than education, with teachers required to enforce rules and assign busywork more than they are able to actually educate students.
Lately, more and more students have been attending alternative educational programs, such as private schools, charter schools, homeschooling, and voucher programs. Although these programs often provide improved education than public schools, they do result in racial and socioeconomic segregation. Since these programs are attended by choice, and not simply by neighborhood, they allow students to attend schools where they will much similar to their peers, including same sex/gender, race, and class. For example, most Black charter students attend schools where a huge portion of the student body are of color. This may further normalize social self-segregation, and increase social racism and classism among these people later in life.
The United States’ education system lacks federally standardized curriculum and tests, unlike most other industrialized nations. Nations that have national curricula also have much higher educational success rates than the United States. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is largely at fault for this aspect of American education. This act requires states to have their own specific proficiency level requirements for reading and math, rather than using national standards. This has resulted in state tests (and thus, school curriculum) that vary hugely in difficulty and challenge, creating generations of high school graduates with differing proficiency levels in reading and math. Furthermore, it has been found that increased passing rates are more related to lowered difficulty, rather than improved comprehension.
College degrees, especially from more prestigious universities, are directly related to one’s outcomes later in life, such as post-graduate salaries and social stigmatization/appreciation, and as such, many seek out higher educational opportunities. The immense social power of universities, especially elite universities like Yale and Harvard, combined with their extraordinarily high tuition results in institutions that are inherently discriminatory towards the lower class, racial minorities, women, disabled people, and various other underrepresented groups that experience statistically poor economic opportunities. Furthermore, this intersecting discrimination is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as fewer college opportunities results in poorer economic outcomes, which in turn results in fewer college opportunities for their families. Class and socioeconomic differences among various groups are the primary forces preventing many of America’s underrepresented peoples from attending college. Although the number of Black and Latino people with college degrees is slowly rising since 1990, this rate of change is not nearly as fast as for Whites. The tuition of four-year institutions costs on average $20,000, which also happens to be approximately the poverty line for a family of 3 (differs slightly for Alaska and Hawaii particularly), around which many of America’s racial minorities earn yearly. Additionally, families close to universities through funding or personal relationships are also much more likely to be admitted to these schools than average applicants, regardless of their SAT scores. Despite affirmative action admittance, college opportunities are still given disproportionately to rich Whites than to poor minorities, whom already have significantly more economic and social opportunities than minorities.
For this essay, two educators, Laura Smoyer, Algebra instructor, and Stefanee Foster, mathematics and special education instructor, were interviewed about their educational career, as well as the new Oregon Promise program. Both of their decisions to become educators we’re somewhat spontaneous. However, their goals after they became licensed teachers differed. While Smoyer wanted to show that everyone can learn to enjoy mathematics and challenges, Foster desired to entice systemic change in educational institutions. She felt– and still feels– that the segregation that students that don’t speak English or have learning and behavioral disabilities experience damages them and their educational career, “Once I got to grad’ school, my goal was that I was going to have a completely inclusive classroom with all different kinds of students, like students that didn’t speak English or that had learning disabilities so we could all learn from each other.” Her passion for this category of students is partially driven by one of her sons being put through special education systems, by which she saw the “rigmarole” that these systems put the students through. Smoyer says that since most of her career has been at Portland Community College and public schools in the Portland metropolitan area, she has not seen any significant unequal distributions of underrepresented peoples. Foster, on the other hand, notes that the richer schools are pretty much entirely White, “[Low income schools paying with grants] are very minority heavy. [The richer schools], where the parents pay, are very White. The charter school I work at, of course I’m seeing a lot of disabilities … but I swear to God, there’s like 2 Black kids there, and no Hispanics or Asians.” Though these two instructors have different experiences with diversity and low income students, they have taught at very different kinds of institutions.
The Oregon Promise program provides two free years of community college for students after they graduate high school with a cumulative GPA of at least 2.50. Laura Smoyer has paid attention to the program, while Stefanee Foster does not know very much about it. This is as would be expected, since Smoyer is actually a college instructor and has children in high school, and Foster has neither taught at a college (though states she plans to) nor does she have children in high school. Her thoughts on the program can be briefly summed up with her statement, “I’m living with $100,000 debt. And I don’t want that for my students, or my kids, or anyone else,” and that she hopes the program increases the educational opportunities for underrepresented groups. Meanwhile, though Smoyer does believe the program will benefit Oregon’s students, she worries about two aspects. First, she worries about students not having to pay any tuition, as she believes that a monetary commitment improves student focus and dedication. Second, she worries that students currently enrolled, that do have to pay, will feel that they were treated unfairly, since students newly graduating are receiving the same things that they are, but for free. Furthermore, she believes that it won’t have the huge impact that many, like Foster, believe and hope that it will.
Educational institutions and systems are inherently biased against various groups of people, particularly lower income people, which happens to be a category in which many of America’s underrepresented peoples fall into. These biases result in worse and less educational opportunities for, primarily, people of color and people with disabilities. As education is supposedly a gateway to white collar well-paying careers, it needs to be as unbiased and nondiscriminatory as possible. Fortunately, there are efforts to increase opportunities for underrepresented people, like the Oregon Promise program. However, America will never achieve completely unbiased education until all of its institutions are made non-profit and state or federally funded. As long as extremely high tuitions exist in these institutions, and as long as primary/secondary educational institutions are locally funded, they will be discriminatory for any groups which are disproportionately lower income.