After the Industrial Revolution, the responsibility for educating youth shifted from families to schools in developed nations. Schools are now a major social institution, educating the majority of children and youth in the developed world and functioning as a primary engine of change in developing countries. Sociology of education has sought to understand the central role that schools play in society from a variety of perspectives, with great emphasis on issues pertaining to equality and opportunity. Sociologists have two broad theoretical approaches to studying education’s role in society: the functionalist and conflict paradigms. The functionalist paradigm emphasizes the role that education plays for society, while the conflict paradigm focuses on divisions within society that education maintains or reinforces.
The structure of a country’s educational system is closely linked to its economic and political history. Though all developed nations provide universal education, some countries’ school systems are run by the central government that ensures standardized curricula and funding, while others are more decentralized. In the developing world, many countries do not have a history of stability and this affects developing countries’ ability to provide universal education. In many developing countries the school system is inherited in a large part from the former colonial power and is heavily shaped by the policies of the World Bank. Education systems are closely related to economic growth and having a disciplined and educated labor force is an important step in economic development.
Though commonalities in the structure of schooling exist across countries, each country is generally unique in its development of its schools. Systems of education not only reflect national values, but also play a major role in shaping national society. In the USA, 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. Prior to common schooling, only children from wealthier families could afford formal schooling. As the USA moved from a barter-and-trade to a market economy, the fragmented and informal system of schooling was no longer adequate preparation for children to be competitive in the market-driven economy. The end result was the development of the common school. Common schools had two main goals: first, to provide knowledge and skills necessary to be an active member of civic life; and second, to create Americans who value the same things: patriotism, achievement, competition, and Protestant values. Though common schools provided more equitable access to education for white children than the previous informal system, these schools still reflected the values of the ruling elite – white Protestants.
When common schools finally included African-American children, after the US Civil War, they were educated in separate facilities. By 1896 ”separate but equal” schools were officially sanctioned by the Supreme Court (in Plessy v. Ferguson). Racially-segregated schools became the norm across the USA, and white schools received substantially more financial and academic resources. In 1954, ”Separate but equal” schools were finally 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 USA have failed to reflect the ideals of educational equality put forth in the ruling. Early research in sociology of education, such as the influential Coleman Report (1966), recognized that stratification in educational attainment was strongly related to students’ family background, particularly in terms of race or ethnicity. This suggests that inequalities in education are deeply intertwined with inequalities in the structure of US society and that educational inequalities potentially begin before children ever set foot in kindergarten. Since the Coleman Report, educational researchers and policy makers have struggled to know how to provide equality of educational opportunity within a national 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 these groupings often reinforce the relationship between family background and attainment. Schools tend to provide more resources, such as higher quality instruction, to students in higher-level tracks which can have serious consequences for students in other tracks.
Though sociology of education has focused on how school processes affect achievement and equality, families play an important role in education that has received significant attention. For example, families from the middle and upper socioeconomic statuses (SES) may provide their children with more cultural capital – or dispositions, attitudes, and manners of speech that are recognized as elite – than parents from lower SES. Parents with higher levels of SES tend to actively foster children’s growth through adult-organized activities that encourage critical and original thinking and provide children with cultural capital which they can then use to take advantage of opportunities at school. 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 the structure of leisure activities to the children (Lareau 1987). Families can also transmit advantages to their children through social capital, or the ”the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up” (Coleman 1987: 334). The relationships can help monitor children’s development, communicate norms (such as staying in school), and help deter bad behavior (such as cutting class).
- Coleman, J. S. (1987) Families and schools. Educational Researcher 16 (6): 32-8.
- Coleman, J. S., Campbell, E. Q., Hobson, C. J., McPartland, J., Mood, A. M., Weinfall, F. D., & York, R. L. (1966) Equality of Educational Opportunity. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Washington, DC.
- Lareau, A. (1987) Social class differences in family-school relationships: the importance of cultural capital. Sociology of Education 60: 73-85.
Anna S. Mueller