Education is traditionally viewed as a leveler of opportunity. In a free and public education system, children of all backgrounds can theoretically achieve any adult status by seizing opportunities available to all and excelling based on their merit and effort (Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch, 1995). In an unequal society with a highly residual social welfare system, however, the actual possibility of mobility through education is central to social justice efforts, creating a critical pathway to opportunity for children born into poor families and those whose families are marginalized because of racial discrimination.
Problematically, a significant body of research suggests that schooling in the United States does not lead to an equalization of resources, skills, or opportunities (Braswell et al. , 2001; Ferguson, 1998; Miller-Cribbs, Cronen, Davis, & Johnson, 2002). In fact, the school achievement gap between poor and nonpoor children is troublingly high (Braswell et al. , 2001). Given the race-poverty overlap, it is not surprising that the poverty gap coexists with a race gap in student achievement (Jencks & Phillips, 1998). Some scholars conceptualize achievement gaps in terms of cultural or attitudinal differences (Murray, 1994).
For example, Murray attributed black youths’ declining educational outcomes to cultural adaptations to changing incentive structures. Describing recent social policy as removing disincentives to crime, nonmarital childbearing, and welfare participation, Murray concluded that an ensuing “culture of poverty” inhibits academic success in ethnic minority communities. With a related logic, Ogbu noted an “oppositional culture” of black youths who react against mainstream expectations and disengage from school because they fear being accused of “acting white” and because they do not perceive the benefits of education.
From this perspective, youths choose not to succeed in school when they are surrounded by a culture that stigmatizes achievement and when there are few material rewards to outweigh the costs of such stigma. Other scholars agree that there are cultural dynamics involved in sustaining achievement gaps, but they focus more on the structural conditions in which local cultural norms become both necessary and logical. As Mickelson (1990) noted, “the material realities experienced by black youths challenge the rhetoric of the American Dream … the myth that education equals opportunity for all” (p. 59).
Likewise, Loury (1987) argued that structural disadvantage, in the form of inherited material and social marginalization, constrains what ethnic minority youths can achieve through equal opportunity educational programs. These constraints limit the supports, opportunities, and resources that parents from ethnic minority groups can deploy on their children’s behalf. Wilson (1997) described the broad demographic and residential shifts that have isolated some ethnic minority youths in neighborhoods where few adults are employed and few parents have finished school or married before having children.
This social isolation, Wilson claimed, is a significant structural barrier to academic success. In a related vein of scholarship, some studies have focused more on the quality and value of day-to-day experiences of relationship available to students in isolated ethnic minority or poverty milieus. Studies by Stanton-Salazar and Dornbusch (1995) and Fernandez-Kelly (1994) both found that a lack of opportunities for mentorship, relationship, support, or information from more privileged social ties forecloses many options for poor ethnic minority youths, leaving high rates of school failure and early childbearing as sadly predictable outcomes.
Similarly, studies addressing peer-group effects explore the idea that a child’s social ties in school influence his or her individual learning (Bankston & Caldas, 1998; Hoxby, 2000; Reardon, 2003). These studies consistently find that having a higher proportion of low-income children in a school is correlated with lower levels of individual student achievement. However, such peer group effects may be expressions of culture of poverty dynamics if child and family risk factors accumulate at the school level due to residential segregation.
From a social justice perspective, it is noted that even “cultural” processes may ultimately reflect structural causes to the degree that an individual’s choices, beliefs, values, and behaviors are shaped by unequal access to resources and opportunities, institutional oppression, and processes of marginalization. One such structural cause is the quality of education itself. Dramatic differences in school quality are well documented, from Kozol’s (1991) description of the deplorable conditions in East St.
Louis to the “Corridor of Shame” depicted by Ferillo (2005) in a film documenting the inability of impoverished schools in rural South Carolina to provide even a “minimally adequate” education. But in addition to the types of obvious differences noted by Kozol and Ferillo, educational quality reflects a range of more subdue processes, experiences, and opportunities at the nexus of school and classroom environment.
Within classrooms, educational quality depends on several factors: the particular qualities and attributes of the teacher, the social and physical context in which learning unfolds, and the specific activities and events structuring how children experience their time as learners. Teachers are important as primary facilitators of the social and learning environment, and as resources, mentors, and supports for children’s development.
Some teacher attributes appear particularly important to predicting academic outcomes, with more experienced teachers, teachers with stronger academic and cognitive skills, and teachers with subject-specific preparation and expertise all associated with positive effects on student learning (Mayer, Mullens, Moore, & Ralph, 2000). Unfortunately, high-poverty and high-ethnic minority schools, on average, have teachers with less experience, less education, and lower levels of credentialing (Betts, Rueben, & Danenberg, 2000).
As Biddle and Berliner (2003) reported, inequities in per student funding are associated with sizable differences in academic outcomes, largely because of related differences in teacher qualifications. Along with teachers, classroom peers are important to individual student learning, as differences in race, socioeconomic status, and skill level can expose children to diverse perspectives, strengths, and norms.
Although ability tracking appears to benefit high-skill students (Fertig, 2003), it limits lower-skill students’ opportunities to learn from and with their more advanced classmates-with potentially damaging consequences. Pianta and colleagues (2002) documented that classrooms of predominantly low-income kindergarteners offer diminished instructional climates and teaching approaches that are less child centered.
A National Center for Education Statistics (1999) study noted a greater emphasis on basic skills learning and more use of teacher-directed “routine skill” such as lecture and worksheets in classrooms within high-poverty schools. Knapp and Turnbull (1990) found that the educational approach differed depending on the percentage of students in a class who read below grade level. So in important ways, the quality and nature of the educational experience varies, depending both on a particular student’s own characteristics and on the characteristics of the peers with whom that student spends classroom and school time.
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