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Chapter 13: Education and Religion

13.4 Issues and Problems in Education

The education system today faces many issues and problems of interest not just to educators and families but also to sociologists and other social scientists. We cannot discuss all of these issues here, but we will highlight some of the most interesting and important.

Schools and Inequality

Earlier we mentioned that schools differ greatly in their funding, their conditions, and other aspects. Noted author and education critic Jonathan Kozol refers to these differences as “savage inequalities,” to quote the title of one of his books (Kozol, 1991). Kozol’s concern over inequality in the schools stemmed from his experience as a young teacher in a public elementary school in a Boston inner-city neighborhood in the 1960s. Kozol was shocked to see that his school was literally falling apart. The physical plant was decrepit, with plaster falling off the walls and bathrooms and other facilities substandard. Classes were large, and the school was so overcrowded that Kozol’s fourth-grade class had to meet in an auditorium, which it shared with another class and the school choir.


Jonathan Kozol has written movingly of “savage inequalities” in American schools arising from large differences in their funding and in the condition of their physical facilities. Thomas Hawk – El Paso High School – CC BY-NC 2.0; Nitram242 – Detroit School – CC BY 2.0.

During the late 1980s, Kozol (1991) traveled around the country and systematically compared public schools in several cities’ inner-city neighborhoods to those in the cities’ suburbs. Everywhere he went, he found great discrepancies in school spending and in the quality of instruction. In schools in Camden, New Jersey, for example, spending per pupil was less than half the amount spent in the nearby, much wealthier town of Princeton. Chicago and New York City schools spent only about half the amount that some of the schools in nearby suburbs spent.

These numbers were reflected in other differences Kozol found when he visited city and suburban schools. In East St. Louis, Illinois, where most of the residents are poor and almost all are African American, schools had to shut down once because of sewage backups. The high school’s science labs were 30 to 50 years out of date when Kozol visited them; the biology lab had no dissecting kits. A history teacher had 110 students but only 26 textbooks, some of which were missing their first 100 pages. At one of the city’s junior high schools, many window frames lacked any glass, and the hallways were dark because light bulbs were missing or not working. When he visited an urban high school in New Jersey, Kozol found it had no showers for gym students, who had to wait 20 minutes to shoot one basketball because seven classes would use the school’s gym at the same time.

Contrast these schools with those Kozol visited in suburbs. A high school in a Chicago suburb had seven gyms and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Students there could take classes in seven foreign languages. A suburban New Jersey high school offered 14 AP courses, fencing, golf, ice hockey, and lacrosse, and the school district there had 10 music teachers and an extensive music program.

From his observations, Kozol concluded that the United States is shortchanging its children in poor rural and urban areas. Poor children start out in life with many strikes against them. The schools they attend compound their problems and help ensure that the American ideal of equal opportunity for all remains just that—an ideal—rather than reality. As Kozol (1991, p. 233) observed, “All our children ought to be allowed a stake in the enormous richness of America. Whether they were born to poor white Appalachians or to wealthy Texans, to poor black people in the Bronx or to rich people in Manhasset or Winnetka, they are all quite wonderful and innocent when they are small. We soil them needlessly.”

Although the book in which Kozol reported these conditions was published almost 30 years ago, ample evidence indicates that little, if anything, has changed in the poor schools of the United States since then, with large funding differences continuing. For instance, in Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the country, many poor students attend schools that are among the worst in the nation (Semuels, 2016). Students who attend schools in higher income communities have far greater access to computers, updated textbooks, smaller class sizes, music and art programs, AP classes, tutoring, and the like, due to higher per pupil spending, compared to students attending schools in low income districts. For instance, in 2016, Greenwich, CT spent $6000 more per student than Bridgeport, CT, only 30 miles away, but a world of difference in terms of educational opportunity (Semuels, 2016). Even in states like Michigan, which overhauled the way it funds education in 1993, relying heavily on state sales tax rather than local property taxes, inequality still prevails due to the ability of local communities to supplement state educational funding through increases in property tax millage rates. According to researchers at the Economic Policy Institute, “…children’s social class is one of the most significant predictors—if not the single most significant predictor—of their educational success [and] …it is increasingly apparent that performance gaps by social class take root in the earliest years of children’s lives and fail to narrow in the years that follow” (Garcia and Weiss, 2017).

School Segregation

A related issue to inequality in the schools is school segregation. Before 1954, schools in the South were segregated by law (). Communities and states had laws that dictated which schools’ white children attended and which schools’ African American children attended. Schools were either all white or all African American, and, inevitably, white schools were much better funded than African American schools. Then in 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed de jure school segregation in its famous Brown v. Board of Education decision. In this decision the Court explicitly overturned its earlier, 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which said that schools could be racially separate but equal. Brown rejected this conclusion as contrary to American egalitarian ideals and as also not supported by empirical evidence, which finds that segregated schools are indeed unequal. Southern school districts fought calls for school desegregation, and de jure school segregation did not really end in the South until the civil rights movement won its major victories a decade later.


Many children today attend schools that are racially segregated because of neighborhood residential patterns. Photo by Lukas from Pexels.

Meanwhile, northern schools were also segregated and, in the years since the Brown decision, have become even more segregated. School segregation in the North stemmed, both then and now, not from the law but from neighborhood residential patterns. Because children usually go to schools near their homes, if neighborhoods are racially segregated, then the schools in these neighborhoods will also be segregated. This type of segregation is called .

During the 1960s and 1970s, states, municipalities, and federal courts tried to reduce de facto segregation by busing urban African American children to suburban white schools and, less often, by busing white suburban children to African American urban schools. Busing inflamed passions as perhaps few other issues during those decades (Lukas, 1985). White parents opposed it because they did not want their children bused to urban schools, where, they feared, the children would receive an inferior education and face risks to their safety. The racial prejudice that many white parents shared heightened their concerns over these issues. African American parents were more likely to see the need for busing, but they, too, wondered about its merits, especially because it was their children who were bused most often and faced racial hostility when they entered formerly all-white schools.

Today many children continue to go to schools that are segregated because of neighborhood residential patterns, a situation that Kozol (2005) calls “apartheid schooling.” In fact, 1988 was the year in which African American students experienced the highest level of school integration. Due to the termination of desegregation plans resulting from a more conservative Supreme Court in the 1990’s, the percentage of intensely segregated non-white schools (in which less than 10% of students are white) has more than tripled (Orfield, et. al., 2016). The states where African American and Latino students are most segregated, according to the Civil Rights Project, are New York, Illinois, Maryland, California, Michigan and New Jersey (Orfield, et. al., 2016). Table 13.1 “Percentage of Black Students in 90-100% Non-White Schools,” shows the degree of intensely segregated schools in these states.

Table 13.1 Percentage of Black Students in 90-100% Non-White Schools


Percentage of Black Students in Intensely Segregated Non-White Schools

New York






New Jersey






Source: Data from Orfield, Gary, et al. Brown at 62: School Segregation by Race, Poverty and State. Civil Rights Project, 16 May 2016, www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/brown-at-62-school-segregation-by-race-poverty-and-state/Brown-at-62-final-corrected-2.pdf.

Similarly, Latino student face high degrees of segregation in California, Texas and New York, with over half of Latino students enrolled in intensely segregated non-white schools (Orfield, et. al., 2016). In addition to racial-ethnic segregation, social class segregation also prevails, resulting in the phenomenon of “double segregation.” From 1993 – 2013, the proportion of poor students in predominantly African American schools has increased from 36.7% to 67.9%. In this same timeframe, for Latino students, the percentage has increased from 45.6 to 67.9%. Such trends result in isolation from racial-ethnic and social class diversity, and high levels of exposure to problems that afflict poor communities (Orfield, et. al., 2016). According to researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, “intense racial separation and concentrated poverty in schools that offer inferior opportunities fundamentally undermine the American belief that all children deserve an equal educational opportunity…” and school integration is necessary to ensure that all students “…are prepared to understand and live successfully in a society that moves beyond separation toward mutual respect and integration” (Orfield, et. al., 2016).

School Vouchers and School Choice

Another issue involving schools today is school choice. In a school choice program, the government gives parents certificates, or vouchers, that they can use as tuition at private or parochial (religious) schools. In addition, charter schools and magnet schools offer alternative educational settings within the public-school framework. Currently, 86.2% of students in grades 1 – 12 attend traditional public schools, while 4.5% attend public charter schools, 9.5% attend private schools and 3.3% (aged 5 – 17) are homeschooled (Digest of Education Statistics, 2017).

Advocates of school choice programs say they give poor parents an option for high-quality education they otherwise would not be able to afford. These programs, the advocates add, also help improve the public schools by forcing them to compete for students with their private and parochial counterparts. In order to keep a large number of parents from moving their children to charter schools or using vouchers to send their children to the private schools, public schools have to upgrade their facilities, improve their instruction, and undertake other steps to make their brand of education an attractive alternative. In this way, school choice advocates argue, choice has a “competitive impact” that forces public schools to make themselves more attractive to prospective students (Walberg, 2007).

Critics of school choice programs say they hurt the public schools by decreasing their enrollments and therefore their funding. Public schools do not have the money now to compete with private and parochial ones, and neither will they have the money to compete with them if school choice becomes more widespread. Critics also worry that school choice will lead to a “brain drain” of the most academically motivated children and families from low-income schools (Caldas & Bankston, 2005).

Because school choice programs and school voucher systems are still relatively new, scholars have not yet had time to assess whether they improve or worsen the academic achievement of the students who attend them. Some studies do find small improvements, while others find no significant difference in academic outcome. One study of school choice on student outcomes in Chicago found no positive impact on academic outcomes, however, school choice students did have lower incidents of disciplinary actions, fewer arrests and lower rates of juvenile incarceration (Cullen, Jacob and Levitt, 2006). Although there is similarly little research on the impact of school choice programs on funding and other aspects of public-school systems, some evidence does indicate a negative impact. In Milwaukee, for example, enrollment decline from the use of vouchers cost the school system $26 million in state aid during the 1990s, forcing a rise in property taxes to replace the lost funds. Because the students who left the Milwaukee school system came from most of its 157 public schools, only a few left any one school, diluting the voucher system’s competitive impact. Another city, Cleveland, also lost state aid in the late 1990s because of the use of vouchers, and there, too, the competitive impact was small. Thus, although school choice programs may give some families alternatives to public schools, they might not have the competitive impact on public schools that their advocates claim, and they may cost public school systems state aid (Cooper, 1999; Lewin, 1999).

School Violence

The issue of school violence won major headlines during the 1990s, when numerous children, teachers, and other individuals died from violent acts (including suicide) in the nation’s schools. From 1992 – 1999, this included 248 deaths on school property, during travel to and from school, or at a school-related event, for an average of about 35 violent deaths per year (Zuckoff, 1999). Against this backdrop, the infamous April 1999 school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where two students murdered 12 other students and one teacher before killing themselves, led to national soul-searching over the causes of teen and school violence and on possible ways to reduce it. Since the Columbine murders, it is reported that 220,000 students have experienced gun violence while at school (as victims and/or witnesses), with 143 deaths and 289 injuries of children, educators and other individuals (Cox, et. al, 2018). With the exception of large-scale shootings, such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, most of these incidents get little news coverage.

Fortunately, violent deaths in schools remain rare events. Below, Figure 13.8Number of students (aged 5 – 18), staff, and other nonstudent school-associated violent deaths (including homicides, suicides and legal intervention deaths involving law enforcement), School Years 1992–93 to 2014–15” demonstrates both the rarity and consistency in this number. As this trend indicates, the risk of school violence should not be exaggerated: statistically speaking, schools are very safe. Less than 1% of homicides involving school-aged children take place in or near school. Roughly 56 million students attend elementary and secondary schools, with 27 student homicides a year on average, so the chances are about one in 2.1 million that a student will be killed at school. Bullying is a more common problem, with about one-third of students reporting being bullied annually (National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2010).

Figure 13.8 Number of students (aged 5 – 18), staff, and other nonstudent school-associated violent deaths (including homicides, suicides and legal intervention deaths involving law enforcement), School Years 1992–93 to 2014–15


Source: Data from “Digest of Education Statistics, 2017.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_104.10.asp.

To reduce school violence, many school districts have zero-tolerance policies involving weapons. These policies call for automatic suspension or expulsion of a student who has anything resembling a weapon for any reason. For better or worse, however, there have been many instances in which these policies have been applied too rigidly. In one example, a 6-year-old boy in Delaware excitedly took his new camping utensil—a combination of knife, fork, and spoon—from Cub Scouts to school to use at lunch. He was suspended for having a knife and ordered to spend 45 days in reform school. His mother said her son certainly posed no threat to anyone at school, but school officials replied that their policy had to be strictly enforced because it is difficult to determine who actually poses a threat from who does not (Urbina, 2009).

Ironically, one reason many school districts have very strict policies is to avoid the racial discrimination that was seen to occur in districts whose officials had more discretion in deciding which students needed to be suspended or expelled. In these districts, African American students with weapons or “near-weapons” were more likely than white students with the same objects to be punished in this manner. Regardless of the degree of discretion afforded officials in zero-tolerance policies, these policies have not been shown to be effective in reducing school violence and may actually raise rates of violence by the students who are suspended or expelled under these policies (Skiba & Rausch, 2006).

Focus on Higher Education

The issues and problems discussed so far in this chapter primarily concern the nation’s elementary and secondary schools in view of their critical importance for tens of millions of children and for the nation’s social and economic wellbeing. However, issues also affect higher education, and we examine a few of them here.


Perhaps the most important issue is that higher education, at least at 4-year institutions, is quite expensive and can cost tens of thousands of dollars per year. The average cost in 2016-17 for students at all institutions, including tuition, fees, room and board was $23,091 (Digest of Education Statistics, 2017). Of course, this figure varies by the type of college or university a student attends.

In 2016, 64% of college students attended a 4-year institution, with the other 36% attending a 2-year institution, including public, private nonprofit and private for-profit institutions. Figure 13.9 “Cost of Attending College for First-Time Full-Time Undergraduate by Institution Type and Living Arrangement, 2016-17” demonstrates both the high cost of attending college, as well as the variation in cost found in the United States.

Figure 13.9 “Annual Cost of Attending College for First-Time Full-Time Undergraduate by Institution Type and Living Arrangement, 2016-17”


Source: Data from “Digest of Education Statistics, 2017.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_104.10.asp.

As is obvious from the chart above, there is a wide range of costs associated with attending college. The cost for tuition and fees alone ranges from $9000 at 2-year public schools to $38,7000 at 4-Year Private nonprofit schools. Adding roughly $10,000 in living expenses means these costs can soar to up to nearly $50,000 per year. Books and supplies can average an additional $1,000 per year for students.

Scholarships and other financial aid reduce these costs for many students. Private institutions actually collect only about 67% of their published tuition and fees because of the aid they provide, and public institutions collect only about 82% (Stripling, 2010). However, students who receive aid may still have high bills and graduate with huge loans to repay. In 2017, Americans owed over $1.3 trillion for student loans (Cilluffo, 2017). For all student loan borrowers, the median debt is $17,000, causing many new graduates to work two jobs in order to service their debt (Cilluffo, 2017).

Social Class and Race in Admissions

We saw earlier in this chapter that African American, Latino, and low-income students are less likely to attend college. This fact raises important questions about the lack of diversity in college admissions and campus life. Chapter 9 “Race and Ethnicity” discussed the debate over racially based affirmative action in higher education. Partly because affirmative action is so controversial, attention has begun to focus on the low numbers of low-income students at many colleges and universities, especially the more selective institutions that rank highly in ratings issued by U.S. News & World Report and other sources. Many education scholars and policymakers feel that increasing the number of low-income students would not only help these students but also increase campus diversity along the lines of socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity (since students of color are more likely to be from low-income backgrounds). Efforts to increase the number of low-income students, these experts add, would avoid the controversy that has surrounded affirmative action.


Although colleges and universities are making a greater effort to attract and retain low-income students, these students remain greatly underrepresented at institutions of higher education. Bart Everson – Students – CC BY 2.0.

In response to this new attention to social class, colleges and universities have begun to increase their efforts to attract and retain low-income students. The dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard University summarized these efforts as follows: “I honestly cannot think of any admissions person I know who is not looking—as sort of a major criteria of how well their year went—at how well they did in attracting people of different economic backgrounds” (Schmidt, 2010).

As part of their strategy to attract and retain low-income students, Harvard and other selective institutions are now providing financial aid to cover all or most of the students’ expenses. Despite these efforts, however, the U.S. higher education system has become more stratified by social class in recent decades: the richest students now occupy a greater percentage of the enrollment at the most selective institutions than in the past, while the poorest students occupy a greater percentage of the enrollment at less selective 4-year institutions and at community colleges (Schmidt, 2010).

Graduation Rates

For the sake of students and their colleges and universities, it is important that as many students as possible go on to earn their diplomas. However, only 60% of students at 4-year institutions graduate within 6 years. This figure varies by type of institution. At 4-year public institutions, 59% of first-time, full-time students graduate within 6 years, while at private nonprofit institutions the rate is 66%, compared to the 26% who graduate from private for-profit institutions within the same timeframe (Digest of Education Statistics, 2017).


Graduation rates vary by race and ethnicity in the U.S. Photo by nappy from Pexels

The 60% overall rate masks a racial/ethnic difference in graduation rates. As shown below in Figure 13.10 “Graduation Rate for First-Time, Full-Time Students Enrolled at 4-Year Colleges and Universities within 6-years (2010 Starting Cohort), by Race and Ethnicity,” the rate of graduation varies significantly, with the lowest rates for American Indian/Alaska Native and African American students, and the highest for Asian American students.

Figure 13.10 Graduation Rate for First-Time, Full-Time Students Enrolled at 4-Year Colleges and Universities within 6-years (2010 Starting Cohort), by Race and Ethnicity


*AI/AN represents American Indian and Alaska Natives.

Source: “Digest of Education Statistics, 2017.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_104.10.asp.

At some institutions, the graduation rates of Latino and African American students match those of whites, thanks in large part to efforts by these institutions to provide resources to students of color. As one expert on this issue explains, “What colleges do for students of color powerfully impacts the futures of these young people and that of our nation” (Gonzalez, 2010). Another expert placed this issue into a larger context: “For both moral and economic reasons, colleges need to ensure that their institutions work better for all the students they serve” (Stephens, 2010).

In this regard, it is important to note that the graduation rate of low-income students from 4-year institutions is much lower than the graduation rate of wealthier students. Low-income students drop out at higher rates because of academic and financial difficulties and family problems (Berg, 2010). Their academic and financial difficulties are intertwined. Low-income students often have to work many hours per week during the academic year to be able to pay their bills. Because their work schedules reduce the time they have for studying, their grades may suffer. This general problem has been made worse by cutbacks in federal grants to low-income students that began during the 1980s. These cutbacks forced low-income students to rely increasingly on loans, which have to be repaid. This fact leads some to work more hours during the academic year to limit the loans they must take out, and their increased work schedule again may affect their success.

Low-income students face additional difficulties beyond the financial (Berg, 2010). Their writing and comprehension skills upon entering college are often weaker than those of wealthier students. If they are first-generation college students (meaning that neither parent went to college), they often have problems adjusting to campus life and living amid students from much more advantaged backgrounds.


Key Terms

De facto segregation – segregation not mandated by law, rather it is driven by demographic patterns.

De jure segregation – segregation mandated by law (e.g., the South prior to 1954).


Continue to 13.5 Religion


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez, Rudy Hernandez, Aliza Robison, Pamela Smith, and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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