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Historically education was for white wealthy males.  The goals of education were to teach knowledge, values, and skills.  The functionalist perspective of education focuses on the functions of education: transmission of cultural values, social integration, gatekeeping, replacing family functions (childcare, teaching skills), etc.  The conflict perspective of education focuses on the hidden curriculum (unwritten rules such as teaching obedience and conformity), unequal education, unequal funding, and educational discrimination.  The symbolic interactionist perspective of education looks at teacher expectations, interactions with teachers, labeling, and self-fulfilling prophecy.

The educational system has been considered a gender, race, and social class sorting machine

What have been your experiences in education?  How has your education affected you?  Can you apply our social theories to some of the experiences you have had?

Teacher Expectations

Malcolm X tells the story of what he was told by one of his teachers:

“I know that he probably meant well in what he happened to advise me that day.  I doubt that he meant any harm…I was one of his top students, one of the school’s top students-but all he could see for me was the kind of ‘in your place’ that almost all white people see for black people…He told me, ‘Malcolm, you ought to be thinking about a career.  Have you been giving it any thought?’…The truth is, I hadn’t.  I have never figured out why I told him, ‘Well, yes, sir, I’ve been thinking I’d like to be a lawyer.’  Lansing certainly had no lawyers- or doctors either- in those days, to hold up an image I might have aspired to.  All I really knew for certain was that a lawyer didn’t wash dishes, as I was doing.

Mr. Ostrowski looked surprised, I remember, and leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.  He kind of half-smiled and said, ‘Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic.  Don’t misunderstand me, now.  We all here like you, you know that.  But you’ve got to be realistic about being a nigger.  A lawyer- that’s no realistic goal for a nigger.  You need to think about something you can be.  You’re good with your hands- making things.  Everybody admires your carpentry shop work.  Why don’t you plan on carpentry?  People like you as a person- you’d get all kinds of work.’ (Malcolm X 1966;36)

Now, what if Malcolm X had listened to his teacher?

Teacher expectations are part of symbolic interactionism (interactions, expectations, labeling, self-fulfilling prophesy).

Schools As A Gender, Race, and Social Class Sorting Machine

The hidden curriculum is the “unwritten goals of schools, such as teaching obedience to authority and conformity to cultural norms” (Henslin, 2005)  If teachers teach kids differently depending on the kids’ social class the hidden curriculum would be taking place.  Studies have found that teachers in “lower class” schools have a different curriculum than teachers in “upper class” schools.  Just a note, the “lower class” schools were also mostly made up of racial minorities.  One example is regarding language.  It was found that in the “lower class” schools teachers were much less likely to correct the use of incorrect grammar in the children.  However, this was not the case in “upper class” schools where the children were constantly corrected and were quick to adopt proper language skills.  One teacher in the “lower class” schools, when asked why she does not correct the children’s grammar, went as far as to say “they are going to need that street language in their lives.”  What do you think about this?  Are these kids being socialized for their futures and future positions in the society (functionalist or conflict perspective)?  Another example is that children in “lower class” schools were given an art assignment they were given a piece of paper and crayons and specifically told what to draw (for instance, draw a picture of your family).  In the “upper class” schools the kids were given a piece of paper and told to draw whatever they wanted to draw and to tell the teacher a story about their picture.  So, what is the different here?  What skill are the “upper class” kids learning?  Are these kids going to need creativity in their future occupations?  Are the “lower class” kids going to need to be creative in their future occupations?  Think about how you can you apply all of our social theories to these examples.


Do you think you were tracked in school?  Were you on the vocational or college bound track?  Why?  What is the functionalist perspective of tracking (tracking as beneficial, ensures that all of the needed positions in society will be filled)?  What is the conflict perspective of tracking (tracking as inequality, lack of equal opportunities)?  As a side note, I was not on the college bound track…I wasn’t even told about the SATs…I actually went to school on the day the SATs were going to be given and saw the signs but was never told.  Was it because I lived with a single mother and was not in the AP classes?  Tracking can lead to labeling and eventually lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Rist Research (Ray Rist, 1970, 2000)

In his research on tracking Rist observed a kindergarten classroom.  After eight days of school (on the eighth day of school) the kindergarten teacher felt that she understood the children’s abilities sufficiently and assigned the children into three different work groups, the “fast learners”, the middle level students, and the “slow learners”.  Rist found that social class was the underlying factor for assigning the children into these groups (those from the upper social class were in the “fast learner” group, etc.).  The early tracking followed them throughout their educational careers and the children remained in the tracking positions from year to year.  In second grade the teacher labeled the groups: “Tigers”, “Cardinals”, and the “Clowns”.  Rist stated that “each child’s journey through school was determined by the eighth day of kindergarten”.  The children were labeled, treated and taught according to the label, and they became the self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Rosenthal and Jacobson Experiment, Pygmalion in the Classroom

Rosenthal and Jacobson researched the effects of teacher expectations.  In their experiment at a school they told the teachers that each student took a test to measure their IQ as well to identify those students who had the potential to make intellectual progress over the next year.  Before the school year began, teachers were informed of the names of those students who could be expected to perform well. In actuality, Rosenthal and Jacobson had randomly picked these student’s names from the class list; therefore the list was inaccurate and did not identify “academic spurters” as the teachers had been told.   Any differences between these children and the rest of the students existed only in the heads of the teachers.  At the end of the year a second intelligence test was administered.  Those students who had been identified as “academic spurters” showed, on average, an increase in their IQ scores.  The teachers’ assessments, such as reading grades, showed similar outcomes.  The teachers also indicated that these “special” (academic spurters) students “were better behaved, were more intellectually curious, had greater chances for future success, and were friendlier than their nonspecial counterparts”.   Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded that labeling and the self-fulfilling prophecy were at work. The teachers had subtly and unconsciously encouraged the performance they expected to see. Not only did they spend more time with these students, they were also more enthusiastic about teaching them and unintentionally showed more warmth to them than to the other students.  The result was that the special students felt more capable and intelligent and they performed accordingly.

1Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. 1968. Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.


Is there a hidden curriculum when it comes to gender?  Are boys and girls treated and taught differently by teachers and in school?  Studies have had some interesting results on this issue.  For instance, teachers give boys more attention during math and science lessons and girls more attention during reading and writing.  What do the children learn from this?  What are the long term effects of this?  Teachers allow boys to talk more and interrupt them.  Girls are praised for their good appearance, neatness, and the appearance and neatness of their work.  There is also something called the pecking order.  This is the order in which children are called on in class by their teachers, which not only indicates a gender issue but a racial issue as well.  If a teacher asks a question and the children raise their hand to answer it has been found that the first to be called on is the white male, then the non-white male, then the white female, and lastly the non-white female.  What do you think the non-white female thinks if she is rarely or never called on in class?  How will this affect her in the long run?  Children are also taught traditional gender roles in school by the teacher, children’s stories, and textbooks.  This was even more apparent in the past than today.  We also gender segregate children, we have two lines, the boys all line up together and girls all line up together.  This is just a subtle message in gender differences.  Note, many teachers state they do this so that they only have to watch and discipline one line (the boys’ line)!

It is very important to note that in all cases of differences being taught to children the teachers not only did not have the intention of treating the children differently but also did not realize it in the least bit…they were informed!

In the case of gender inequality in school, could we solve many of these problems by sending our girls to single-sex schools?  All of the women in the book “Who’s Who of American Women” went to single-sex schools.  There are many pro’s and con’s to noted about single-sex school.  If you are further interested you can do an online search on the pro’s and con’s)

Students’ Tests Scores vs. Students’ Background

Samuel Bowles (1977) researched the connection between family background and the likelihood of going to college.  He compared the college attendance of those with the highest test scores and grades (top 25%) and those with the lowest test scores and lowest grades (bottom 25%).  He also looked at the social class standing of each student.  He found that of those with the highest test scores and grades and were from affluent homes went to college; only half of those with the highest test scores but were from low income home went to college.  Comparatively, of those with low test scores and grades, those that were from affluent homes had a 26% chance of going to college, while those from low income homes had a 6% chance of going to college.  This research has been completed today and it continues to be found that those from higher social class families, regardless of their intellectual abilities and test scores, are more likely to go to college than those from low income homes (Carnevale and Rose, 2003).


Pre-reading skills have been found to have the biggest effect on educational success.  So, what children are more likely to enter kindergarten with pre-reading skills?  Those children who attend pre-school are more likely to have pre-reading skills.  Only about 20% of black children have pre-reading skills upon entering kindergarten compared to 45% of white children.  Children that grow up with books, nightly stories, and in which their parents take them to the library are the children who have pre-reading skills.  When children enter kindergarten the gap between minority children and white children is about three months (minority children are about three months behind white children; reading and math skills).  And studies have shown that they never catch up.  By the time they reach the 12th grade Hispanics and blacks are at about the same level as white and Asian children are in the eighth grade.  So, what children attend pre-school?  Is pre-school free in California and in some other parts of the country?  Only 47% of children in California attend pre-school, nationwide 52% of children attend pre-school.  Therefore, California is below the nationwide average.  Some states have a state preschool program: Georgia, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Florida.

Example Of A School In East St. Louis In Which Children Living In Poverty Attended

The area the kids live in does not have any trash pick-up so people just throw their trash in their backyards and later burn it themselves (obviously not healthy). The community has high rates of crime. The school specifically has no running water, the sewage system is backed up, many of the classrooms actually have sewage water on the floor, their football field does not have gold posts (a dream the coach talks about) and their uniforms are 10 years old and only taken to the laundry mat every few months, most of the kids are on the school lunch program and for many of them that is their only daily meal, and they built a new school down the road but due to low budget it was cheaply made and it actually crumbled. And specifically on the kids: they have cavities that have never been fixed, many of them “hold it” all day as they do not want to use the bathrooms, they cannot even remember what grade they are in when asked, most of them do not even know what time school starts, when it is time to say the pledge of allegiance they do not know it so they sing “jingle bells” instead. However, to help these students each year before Martin Luther King Day they read them the “I Have A Dream” speech. Now, let’s see if they can “overcome” it!   (Kozol, Jonathan)

What do you think about the opportunity structure for these children?  How will their educational playing field affect them?   How easy is it to overcome their environment and socialization?

Research Data

When we look at the research data on high school graduation rates, college attendance rates, and college graduation rates we can see that there are major differences according to race.  Or is it race?  The actual variable is social class and we see more racial minorities in the lower social classes attending substandard schools.

High Graduation Rates (U.S. average is 85%)

  • White 89%
  • African American/Black 79%
  • Hispanic/Latino 81%
  • Asian/Pacific Islander 92%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native 74%

High School Dropout Rates

  • White 4.2%
  • African American/Black 6.4%
  • Hispanic/Latino 8%
  • Asian/Pacific Islander 1.9%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native 9.5%

The long-term effects of dropping out of high school include: higher rates of unemployed, worse health, higher percentages of the nation’s prison and death row inmates, and the average cost to the economy is approximately $240,000 per person over his or her lifetime.

High School Graduates Attending College

  • Women 69.8%
  • Men 62%
  • White 66.9%
  • African American/Black 50.7%
  • Hispanic/Latino 63.4%
  • Asian American/Pacific Islander 89.9%

College Completion Data

  • About 40% of Whites, 26% of Black/African American, 19% of Hispanic/Latinx, and 58% of Asian Americans of working age have a bachelor’s degree
  • 6% of Community College students earn a Bachelor’s degree within 6 years.
  • Bachelor’s degree graduation rate for students who start at public four-year institution is 59.5% (private non-profits, 64.6%; for-profits, 15.7%)
  • White students starting at two-year institutions are 60% more likely to earn an associate’s degree, and are more than twice as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree.
  • The graduation rate for white students starting at four-year institutions is 62.6%, compared to 40.5% for black students, and 41.5% for Hispanic students.
  • There is almost a 30% gap in the graduation rate for four-year students whose parents never went to college compared to students whose parents earned a bachelor’s degree or more.
  • Community college generally have low graduation rates – but rock bottom rates for A recent review of community colleges found that while a third of the Asian students picked up their degrees only 15% of African-American students did so.
  • 65% of Native Americans earn a high school diploma compared with 75.2% of the U.S. population. College graduation rate 9.3% (national average is 20.3%).
  • 50% of Asian Americans had earned at least a bachelor’s degree (2007)

The key intervening factor for all of this data is social class.  Those in the higher social classes are more likely to not only attend a four-year college directly after graduating high school but they are also more likely to not have to work while attending college.  When researchers control for social class (look at those racial minorities who are in the upper social classes) we see that data directly relates to social class standing (racial minorities in the upper social classes are more likely to attend college and graduate from college).

Costs of College

In 2008 the net cost of attending a four-year public university (after financial aid) equaled 28% of the median family income, while a four-year private university equaled 76% of the median family income.  It is important to note that more scholarships are awarded based on merit, rather than economic need.  Student are very likely to have to take out student loans today and graduate with student loan debt.  My husband and I are still paying our student loans!

College Completion and Employment

Young adults ages 25–34 with a bachelor’s degree earned more than twice as much as young adults without a high school diploma or its equivalent, 50 percent more than young adult high school completers, and 25 percent more than young adults with an associate’s degree.

Young adults ages 25–34 with at least a bachelor’s degree had a full-time employment rate that was over 30 percentage points higher than that of their peers who had not completed high school (74 vs. 41 percent).

However, we do see that many who graduate college today may have a difficult time finding a job that can support them and ensure they can pay off their student loans.

Sources of research data:

National Center of Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences

U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Census

If I Believe, I Will Achieve

A professor of biology was about to give out his final exam to his class.  Before he did so he stated, “I have been privileged to be your instructor this semester, and I know how hard you have all worked to prepare for this test….I am well aware of how much pressure you are under to keep your GPAs up, and because I know you are all capable of understanding the material, I am prepared to offer an automatic ‘B’ to anyone who would prefer not to take the final.”  Most of the students were relieved, thanked the professor, and left.  Only seven students remained in the classroom.  The professor passed out the final exam.  The exam had two sentences on it: “Congratulations, you have just received an ‘A’ in this class.  Keep believing in yourself.” 

Now, what do you think were the characteristics of those students who stayed?  How do you think they were socialized by their family and how this impacted their self-concepts? What do you think their past educational experiences were?  Do you think they had specific experiences with teacher expectations in their past?  Would you have stayed?  Why?

Bottom Line

Reflect on how our parents’ education, and subsequently our educational experiences, impact our playing field.

Contemporary Social Problems in Education

  • Grade inflation: student given higher grades for mediocre work.  Recent research indicates that high school teachers used to assign twice as many C’s than A’s, today more A’s are assigned.  At Harvard University 90% of graduates graduate with honors (honor inflation).   Are standards declining?
  • Social Promotion: passing students from one grade to the next even if they have not met the standards.
  • Functional Illiteracy: high school graduates who have difficulty reading and writing.
  • Unequal funding: funding is calculated, in part, by property taxes.  Funding per child per year can range from $6,000 to $22,000 per state, county, and district.  Another thing to keep in mind is that the average funding per child in California is about $8,000; however the cost per inmate in prison per year over $40,000.  Think about the relationship between the two factors – which is considered an inverse relationship, the more funding we put into education the less we will need for prisons/inmates (less inmates). Research on other industrialized countries indicates that this is the case).
  • Violence in schools: school violence continues in our country; bullying has continued to increase

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