Changes in developed economies and societies stemming from the Industrial Revolution have shifted responsibilities for the education of young people from the family and community to schools. Schools are now a major institution, educating the vast majority of children and youth in the developed world and functioning as a primary engine of change in developing countries. Although education brings about changes in society as a whole as well as in individuals, schools are also influenced by larger social forces. Sociological theories address these central roles that schools play in society from differing perspectives.
The functionalist paradigm emphasizes the role that education plays for society. Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, was among the first educational researchers to focus on the function schools serve for the larger society. Durkheim (1961) argued that the main goal of education was to socialize individuals so that they share values with the larger society. Ensuring that all students received the same moral education allowed for a more integrated society with less social conflict about wrong behaviors or attitudes. A second important functionalist perspective on education developed in economics through research on human capital (Schultz 1961). The human capital perspective describes education as a set of investments that increase individuals’ knowledge and skills, which in turn improves national labor productivity and economic growth. Education then becomes an important tool for societies to increase the efficiency and size of their economy.
While the functionalist perspective emphasizes the role of education for society as a whole, the conflict paradigm focuses on divisions within society that education maintains or rein forces. Max Weber (2000) was one of the first to argue that education serves dual and potentially conflicting functions for society. First, schools can be an equalizing institution where individuals, regardless of their social status, can gain access to high status jobs through their own talent and hard work. Second, schools can rein force existing status hierarchies by limiting opportunities to individuals from high status backgrounds. In other words, Weber recognized schools’ potential to either facilitate or block social mobility. Weber’s incorporation of the notion of social status into the function of schools in society was extremely influential in shaping sociological research on education. Randall Collins (1979), Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, and others furthered Weber’s ideas on status attainment by arguing that schools socialize individuals to accept their place in an unjust, capitalist society. This work shifted the emphasis found in human capital theory away from schools as providers of skills and training to schools as providers of hollow credentials that are rewarded in the labor market. Critically, these credentials do not represent higher levels of skills, but simply serve as status markers that employers use to sort workers into low and high prestige occupations.
Both historically and when comparing countries today, the structure of a country’s educational system is closely linked to its economic and political history. Developed countries are generally characterized by a history of relatively steady economic growth, a stable political system, and freedom from the devastation of war. This common context enables developed countries to form a cohesive formal schooling system that serves all children until at least the age of 15 or 16. In recent decades, developed nations have incorporated the ideals of equality of educational opportunity and providing opportunities to children from disadvantaged backgrounds into their goals for educational policy.
Though all developed nations provide universal education and many are motivated by similar ideals, the structure of schooling can vary drastically from developed country to developed country (for an overview, see Brint 1998). In Japan, France, and Sweden, the school system is run by a central governmental ministry of education that ensures standardized curricula and funding. Other countries, such as Germany, Canada, and the US, are more decentralized and allow local or regional governments to maintain control over public education. Additionally, the school systems in these nations vary in how they structure opportunities to learn and earn credentials. In his classic article, Ralph Turner (1960) contrasted the English and US school systems, characterizing the former as a “sponsored” system, in which talent is identified in the early years and nurtured in a stratified system. The US system, on the other hand, is a “contest” system, consisting of a series of contests in which all students compete on a level playing field. Though “sponsored” and “contest” systems are ”ideal types,” most developed nations’ school systems reflect aspects of sponsored or contest systems.
In the developing world, many countries have been independent from colonizing powers for approximately only 50 years and do not have the same history of political stability, economic security, and times of peace that privilege developed countries. These instabilities (along with problems related to poverty) affect the ability of developing countries to provide and prioritize universal education. In many developing countries, the school system is inherited in large part from former colonizers and is heavily shaped by the policies of the World Bank. The World Bank promotes a model of schooling that emphasizes primary schools, private spending, balances equity and efficiency, and discourages vocational education. Though the structure and experience World Bank policies provide can improve schooling priorities in developing nations, they sometimes do not recognize that factors unique to a particular country may require modifications. A central question concerning the role of education in developing nations concerns how important education systems are to economic growth. Much of the research on education in developing nations examines this question and generally finds that having a disciplined and educated labor force is a positive and important step in economic development.
Though commonalities in the structure of schooling exist across countries in the developed and developing world, each country is generally unique in the development of its particular educational system. Systems of education not only reflect national values and attitudes, they also play a major role in shaping national culture and social status hierarchy. In the US, the idea of public schooling – or the common school – developed in the early nineteenth century as a response to political and economic shifts in American society (see Parkerson & Parkerson 2001 for a history). Prior to common schooling, the majority of Americans were educated by their families, and only children from wealthier families could afford formal schooling. As the US moved away from a barter and trade economy toward markets where goods were exchanged for cash, white Protestant Americans from the middle and working classes recognized that the fragmented and informal system of schooling was no longer adequate preparation for their children to be competitive in the market driven economy. This realization led these Americans to demand that a quality primary education be made available to their children. The ideal of equality emphasized during the American Revolution meant that there was already growing political support among the Protestant political elite for the idea of public education for white children.
The end result of these forces was the development of the common school. Common schools had two main goals: first, to provide knowledge and skills necessary to being an active member of economic and social life; and second, to create Americans who value the same things – namely, patriotism, achievement, competition, and Protestant moral and religious values. Significantly, these goals were important both to individuals trying to make it in the new economic and social order and to the success of solidifying the young United States into a coherent nation. Religious diversity was not tolerated in the nascent nation, and Catholic immigrants were often seen as threats to the dominant Protestant way of life. Therefore, though common schools were open to all white Americans, the emphasis on Protestant values (which went hand in hand with anti-Catholic attitudes) alienated many Catholics. This religious tension eventually led Catholics to pursue alternative schooling and resulted in the development of Catholic private schools.
Though common schools provided more equitable access to education than the previous informal system, these schools still reflected the values of the ruling elite – white Anglo Saxon Protestants – in US society. In addition to appreciating Protestant values over those of other religions, educating white boys was generally seen as more important than educating white girls as white boys were more likely to benefit from their education upon entry into the formal labor market. Furthermore, African Americans, freed or enslaved, were almost categorically excluded from common schools in the early 1800s as the flawed ”ideal of equality” applied only to white Americans.
Despite the development of the common school, elite white Protestant Americans were able to maintain educational superiority by opting out of the common school system. The elite private and boarding school system began before the American Revolution and flourished during the nineteenth century (at the same time that the common school system was expanding). Though the growing public education system diminished the percentage of secondary students in private schools, private schools maintained an exclusivity that appealed to elite parents eager to pass on status and advantage to their children. In Preparing for Power: America’s Elite Boarding Schools (1985), authors Cookson and Persell explore the admissions process and the demographic characteristics of ”the chosen ones,” America’s most privileged students. Historically, these elite schools tended to have a homogeneous student body in terms of family background, religion, and race, and admission was based not on openly stated academic requirements but on a complicated balance of merit, family wealth, social standing, and an individual’s ability to fit the school’s ideal. Thus, the presentation of self as a person of status – someone with ambition, confidence, and poise – was just as important as academic capacities to gaining access to America’s most elite secondary education. Though these private schools continue to promote an elite social class identity, currently they also face pressure to diversify the racial composition of their student bodies.
While elite private schools have historically allowed privileged Americans to opt out of public schooling, religious schools have offered an important private alternative to non-elite, and sometimes marginalized, Americans throughout the history of the US. Catholic schools were a part of Colonial America and are among some of the oldest educational institutions in the US. In contrast to elite private schools, religious schools had a moral purpose of teaching religious beliefs and producing religious leaders. Beginning in the 1800s, Catholic schools provided an alternative to the public school where children read the Protestant version of the Bible. Today, Catholic schools serve a more diverse student population in terms of race, social class, and religious beliefs. Catholic schools today are known for providing good opportunities to learn and prepare for college (Bryk et al. 1993). Critics suggest that Catholic schools select more promising students, an option not available to public schools.
Though research on elite and Catholic private schools suggests that access to a private versus public education affects students’ academic opportunities, inequalities between schools within the public sector have long plagued the American educational system, with serious implications for children with no choice other than public schooling. As mentioned previously, the common school system generally excluded African American children until after the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Though the end of slavery meant that the common school system finally included African American children, they were generally educated in separate facilities (see Orfield & Eaton 1996 for a history). By 1896, the idea of ”separate but equal” schools was officially sanctioned by the Supreme Court through its decision in Plessy v. Ferguson. Racially segregated schools became the norm across the US, though whether this segregation was by law or by practice varied by state and region. Equitable distribution of resources between racially segregated schools never existed; white schools received substantially more financial and academic support. ”Separate but equal” schools were eventually declared inherently unequal in the Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), and schools were ordered to desegregate ”with all deliberate speed.”
Though Brown is perhaps one of the most widely celebrated Supreme Court decisions, schools in the US have failed to reflect the ideals of desegregation and educational equality put forth in the ruling. Early research in sociology of education recognized that stratification in educational attainment was related to students’ family background, such as race or ethnicity, rather than simply differences in achievement test scores (e.g., Coleman et al. 1966). These differences were social and had to do with the schools’ social context rather than factors that could be affected by redistribution of funding levels alone. Since the Coleman Report (1966) and its political consequences of busing that shocked the nation, educational researchers and policymakers have struggled to know how to provide equality of educational opportunity within a context of socioeconomic inequality.
Beginning around 1980, sociologists of education turned their attention to stratification systems at work within schools. Secondary schools tend to group students in courses or ”tracks” (such as academic, general, or vocational), and through these groupings schools can either reinforce or disrupt the relationship between family background and attainment. Typically, the high school curriculum is organized into sequences of courses in which subject knowledge gained from one course pre pares a student for the next course. Mobility between sequences is restricted and forms the foundation of a stratification system for adolescents. Furthermore, schools tend to provide more resources, such as higher quality instruction, to students in higher level courses, which can have serious consequences for low ability students (Hallinan 1994). The result is that students’ course taking patterns follow a trajectory or sequence of courses over the years of high school in which mobility between course sequences is unusual. This is especially true in mathematics, where mobility into the elite college preparatory classes is nearly impossible after the sequence has begun. Students’ placement in these sequences explains much of why family background is linked to students’ attainment and is strongly related to a variety of
outcomes that indicate students’ basic life chances.
Research on stratification within schools further confirmed the results of Coleman’s earlier analysis on equity in education – schools are more effective at educating students from privileged family backgrounds. Because schools have been idealized as a great equalizing force, understanding why family background is linked strongly to education became the next important goal of sociology of education.
Annette Lareau (1987), building on Pierre Bourdieu’s (1973) idea of cultural capital, offered one explanation of how parents transmit advantages to their children when she found that parents interacted with teachers and schools very differently depending on their social class backgrounds. In addition to conditioning how parents interact with the school, parents’ cultural capital also influences how they socialize their children. Lareau describes middle class parents’ childrearing strategies as ”concerted cultivation” or active fostering of children’s growth through adult organized activities (e.g., soccer, music lessons) and through encouraging critical and original thinking. Working class and poor parents, on the other hand, support their children’s ”natural growth” by providing the conditions necessary for their child’s development, but leaving structure of leisure activities to the children. These different styles have implications for students’ abilities to take advantage of opportunities in schools.
Coleman’s concept of social capital articulated another way that families transmit advantages to their children. In parenting, social capital refers to ”the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up” and can exist within families and communities (Coleman 1987: 334). Social capital within families taps how close parents and children are and how closely parents are able to monitor their child’s development. For example, Coleman (1988) found that a higher percentage of children from single parent families (who have less social capital in the home) drop out during high school than children from intact families. Social capital in communities is also important, as Coleman et al. (1982) demonstrated: students in Catholic high schools were less likely to drop out compared to their peers in other private and public schools, not because of school related differences (such as quality curriculum), but rather because of the close knit adult relationships surrounding Catholic schools. The cohesive Catholic community allowed adults to better transmit norms about staying in school to teenagers.
Though the principal manifest function of schools is undoubtedly to provide opportunities for learning, schools also serve as the primary location for social interaction with peers and for the development of adolescent cultures. Since Durkheim first emphasized schools as a socializing institution, sociologists have investigated how schools’ adolescent cultures affect adolescents’ priorities, goals, and behaviors. James Coleman’s The Adolescent Society (1961) recognized the importance of ”adolescent culture” in schools to the decisions, both academic and social, that adolescents make. Coleman stated that adolescents turn to each other for social rewards, not to adult communities; therefore, understanding the value systems of adolescent society is key to understanding what motivates students. Importantly, for some adolescents, the goals of formal schooling – achievement, engagement – are reflected in the adolescent culture; however, when students rebel against the formal goals of schooling, it can reinforce preexisting inequalities based on family back ground.
Fordham and Ogbu (1986) have examined how adolescents’ oppositional culture to schooling develops and how it explains in part the links between family background and students’ achievement. Given the history of racism in the US, Fordham and Ogbu argue that doing well in school has come to represent ”acting white” to African American youth in an urban school. This may lead many African American students who are academically able to perform significantly below their capabilities. It also creates a tension for African American students who want to succeed academically; not only do they have to cope with the challenge of coursework, but they also have to deal with the burden of appearing to act white. More recently, this perspective has been challenged by researchers who argue that African American students actually hold educational values in high esteem and do not reject academic success.
Much of the sociological research on education has focused on equity – with good reason. Education has serious implications for adolescents’ future lives. Individuals’ academic credentials affect the jobs they are able to get and the incomes they earn. Individuals with a college degree earn higher wages than those with a high school degree who earn more than high school dropouts (Arum & Hout 2000). Educational attainment also has serious implications for health throughout the life course. More highly educated individuals experience better health (including self-perceived health, morbidity, and mortality) than people with less education (Ross & Mirowsky 1999). Education also shapes the social relationships that individuals form. People tend to marry others with similar amounts of education. Taken together, these findings indicate that education plays a powerful role in individuals’ lives. Though we don’t fully understand how education affects these diverse aspects of the human experience, it is clear that education is an important social institution.
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