Hot Topics in Education

Learning Outcomes

  • Consider legal and equality concerns in education

When Americans are asked about their opinion of public education on the Gallup poll each year, reviews are mixed at best (Saad 2008). Schools are no longer merely a place for learning and socializing. With the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling in 1954, schools became a repository of politicized legal action that is at the heart of several issues in education.

Equal Education

Until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, schools had operated under the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which allowed racial segregation in schools and private businesses (the case dealt specifically with railroads) and introduced the troubling phrase “separate but equal” into the U.S. lexicon. Brown overruled this, declaring that state laws establishing separate schools for Black and white students were, in fact, unequal and therefore unconstitutional in light of the 14th Amendment (which guarantees equality before the law).

While the ruling paved the way toward civil rights, it was also met with opposition in many communities. In Arkansas in 1957, the governor mobilized the state National Guard to prevent Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower, in response, sent members of the 101st Airborne Division from Kentucky to uphold the students’ right to enter the school. In 1963, almost ten years after the ruling, Governor George Wallace of Alabama used his own body to block two Black students from entering the auditorium at the University of Alabama to enroll in the school. Wallace’s desperate attempt to uphold his policy of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” stated during his 1963 inauguration (PBS 2000), became known as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” He refused to grant entry to the students until a general from the Alabama National Guard arrived on President Kennedy’s order.

WATCH IT

Click on this link (https://youtu.be/xERXusiEszs?t=212) to watch a video showing footage of the Little Rock 9, the students who the National Guard was sent to prevent Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. This next video is an interview with one of the Little Rock 9 students discussing her experience.

Armed National Guardsmen escorting Black students up the outside stairs of a brick high school building.

Figure 1. President Eisenhower sent members of the 101st Airborne Division from Kentucky to escort Black students into Little Rock Central High School after the governor of Arkansas tried to deny them entry. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Presently, students of all races and ethnicities are permitted in America’s schools, but there remains a troubling gap in the relative quality of education they receive. The long-term socially embedded effects of racism—and other forms of discrimination and disadvantage—have produced a range of challenges for many students. Those from wealthy families and those of lower socioeconomic status do not receive the same opportunities. This is the result of many factors, including the policy wherein economic resources are dependent on local property taxes, which results in wealthier neighborhoods having higher quality schools. In demographic and sociological literature, this is often referred to as cumulative advantage or disadvantage.

Today’s public schools, at least in theory, are positioned to help remedy those gaps. To help ensure universal access, this system was legally mandated to accept and retain all students regardless of race, religion, social class, and the like. Moreover, public schools are held accountable to equitable per-student spending (Resnick 2004). Private schools, usually only accessible to students from high-income families, and schools in more affluent areas generally enjoy access to greater resources and better opportunities. In fact, the strongest predictors for student performance include socioeconomic status and family background. Children from families of lower socioeconomic status often enter school with already acquired learning deficits, and must overcome these obstacles alongside their institutionally assigned responsibilities. These patterns, uncovered in the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, are still relevant today, as sociologists generally agree that there is a great divide in the performance of white students from affluent backgrounds and their nonwhite, less affluent counterparts. The Coleman Report, commissioned in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, found that the racial and social demographics of schools, along with the student’s home and family life, had a greater effect on student learning than the quality of the school institution itself.

Despite these shortcomings in equal access to education, which have been well-established by academic research, it is important to note that schools do narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Research shows that it is often the non-school environment that presents the greatest inequality, and that schools, despite being unequal in quality and opportunity, present a smaller inequality than what is seen in students’ homes. This conclusion is drawn from the evidence that the gap in cognitive skills grows mostly during the summer months, when students are not attending school and when their progress is exclusively dependent on the home environment and the resources there.[1]

The findings in the Coleman Report were so powerful that they brought about two major changes to education in the United States. The federal Head Start program, which is still active and successful today, was developed to give low-income students an opportunity to make up the preschool deficit discussed in James S. Coleman’s findings. The program provides academic-centered preschool to students of low socioeconomic status.h

Try It

Transfers and Busing

In the years following Brown v. Board of Education, the Southern states were not alone in their resistance to change. In New York City, schools in lower-income neighborhoods had less experienced teachers, inadequate facilities, and lower spending per student than did schools in higher-income neighborhoods, even though all of the schools were in the same district. In 1958, Activist Mae Mallory, with the support of grassroots advocate Ella Baker and the NAACP, led a group of parents who kept their children out of school, essentially boycotting the district. She and the rest of the group, known as the Harlem Nine, were publicly chastised and pursued by the judicial system. After several decisions and appeals, the culminating legal decision found that the city was effectively segregating schools, and that students in certain neighborhoods were still receiving a “discriminatorily inferior education.” New York City, the nation’s largest school district, enacted an open transfer policy that laid the groundwork for further action (Jeffries 2012).

With the goal of further desegregating education, courts across the United States ordered some school districts to begin a program that became known as “busing.” This program involved bringing students to schools outside their neighborhoods (and therefore schools they would not normally have the opportunity to attend) to bring racial diversity into balance. This policy was met with substantial public resistance from people on both sides, whether dissatisfied with white students traveling to inner city schools, or minority students being transported to schools in the suburbs.

No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds

In 2001, the Bush administration passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test students in grades three through eight. The results of those tests determine eligibility to receive federal funding. Schools that do not meet the standards set by the Act run the risk of having their funding cut. Sociologists and teachers alike have contended that the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act is far more negative than positive, arguing that a “one size fits all” concept cannot apply to education.

As a result of widespread criticism, many of the national aspects of the act were gradually altered, and in 2015 they were essentially eliminated. That year, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The law decreases the federal role in education. Annual testing is still required, but the achievement and improvement accountability is shifted to the states, which must submit plans and goals regarding their approaches to the U.S. Department of Education for approval. While this aspect of ESSA was delayed for several years under the Trump administration, the Department of Education announced in April, 2020 that Massachusetts had become the first to have its plans approved. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed many states’ further action in terms of ESSA approval.

New Views On Standardized Tests

The funding tie-in of the No Child Left Behind Act has led to the social phenomenon commonly called “teaching to the test,” which describes when a curriculum focuses on equipping students to succeed on standardized tests, to the detriment of broader educational goals and concepts of learning. At issue are two approaches to classroom education: the notion that teachers impart knowledge that students are obligated to absorb, versus the concept of student-centered learning that seeks to teach children not facts, but problem solving abilities and learning skills. Both types of learning have been valued in the U.S. school system. The former, to critics of “teaching to the test,” only equips students to regurgitate facts, while the latter, to proponents of the other camp, fosters lifelong learning and transferable work skills.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Testing (ACT) have for decades served as rites of passage for millions of high school students. Colleges utilize the scores as benchmarks in the admissions process. Since the tests have been important in college admissions, many families place significant emphasis on preparing for them.

However, the disparity in how much money families are able to spend on that preparation results in inequities. SAT/ACT-prep courses and tutors are expensive, and not everyone can afford them. As a result, the inequity found in K-12 education may extend to college.

For years, college admissions programs have been taking these disparities into account, and have based admissions on factors beyond standardized test scores. However, issues with the tests remain. In 2020, a slate of highly selective colleges eliminated their standardized test requirement for admission, and, in 2021 several colleges expanded and extended their “test-optional” approach.

Students With Disabilities

Since the 1978 implementation of what would become the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), states and local districts have continually increased their investment in the quality of education for students with disabilities. The Act’s reauthorization, coupled with No Child Left Behind, added requirements and guidance for states and school districts. Until that point in time, students with intellectual or other disabilities had been steadily improving their achievement, graduation rates, and success in post-high school endeavors. However, significant disparities existed (and persist today) based on race, ethnicity, and also on geography. Beyond the quality of education for students with disabilities, the disparity was often most noticeable in the classification of those students. States varied on which disabilities received services, and how much support was provided.

Many students with dyslexia, ADHD, and other disorders are either not diagnosed, not taken seriously, or not given as much support as they require in order to succeed. This can extend into adulthood. For example, ADHD was for years considered only a children’s disease, something that people “grew out of.” But the disorder can impact people at any age, something that many educators and even some doctors are not aware of.

No Child Left Behind’s focus on standards and standardized testing extended to students with disabilities as well. A core goal was that students with disabilities would work toward the same standards and take the same tests (with accommodations, if needed) as did students without disabilities. The outcomes were mixed. Test performance for students with disabilities increased, but so did drop outs. There was also evidence that some schools were less welcoming to students with disabilities, as a way to increase average scores (National Council on Disabilities 2004).

In general, programs have improved to the point that students with disabilities are graduating from high school at a national average of about 73 percent. This is lower than the average graduation rate for students in all populations, which is 88 percent, but it is a vast improvement over previous decades (NCES 2020). However, several issues remain. First, students from lower-income and areas and states with lower education budgets still are offered far fewer services; they graduate high school at a much lower rate than the average. Second, because identification remains a major gap, many students with disabilities may be in the “mainstream” population but are not supported as well as they should be. Even when this group gets to college, they may be starting with a lower level of preparation (Samuels 2019).

School Choice

As we have seen, education is not equal, and people have varied needs. Parents, guardians, and child advocates work to obtain the best schooling for children, which may take them outside the traditional environment.

Public school alternatives to traditional schools include vocational schools, special education schools, magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools, early college schools, and virtual schools. Private school options may include religious and non-religious options, as well as boarding schools. In some locations, a large number of students engage in these options. For example, in North Carolina, one in five students does not attend a traditional public school (Hui 2019).

Homeschooling refers to children being educated in their own homes, typically by a parent, instead of in a traditional public or private school system. Proponents of this type of education argue that it provides an outstanding opportunity for student-centered learning while circumventing problems that plague today’s education system. Opponents counter that homeschooled children miss out on the opportunity for social development that occurs in standard classroom environments and school settings.

School choice advocates promote the idea that more choice allows parents and students a more effective educational experience that is right for them. They may choose a nontraditional school because it is more aligned with their philosophy, because they’ve been bullied or had other trouble in their neighborhood school, or because they want to prepare for a specific career (American Federation for Children 2017). School choice opponents may argue that while the alternative schools may be more effective for those students who need them and are fortunate enough to get in, the money would be better spent in general public schools.

Remote and Hybrid Schooling

The COVID-19 pandemic was among the most disruptive events in American education. You likely have your own stories, successes, failures, and preferences based on your experiences as students, parents, and family members. Educators at every level went through stages of intense stress, lack of information, and difficult choices. In many cities and states, families, school districts, governments, and health departments found themselves on different sides of debates. Countless arguments raged over attendance, mental health, instructional quality, safety, testing, academic integrity, and the best ways to move forward as the situation began to improve.

College students and their families went through similar disruptions and debates, compounded by the fact that many students felt that the high costs of particular colleges were not worth it. Overall college enrollment dipped significantly during the pandemic (Koenig 2020).

At the time of this writing, the sociological and educational impact of the pandemic is difficult to assess, though many are studying it. Overall data indicates that most outcomes are negative. Students underperformed, stress and mental health problems increased, and overall plans and pathways were interrupted. Perhaps most damaging was that the pandemic amplified many of the other challenges in education, meaning that under-resourced districts and underserved students were impacted even more severely than others. On the other hand, once instructors and students adapted to the technological and social differences, many began to employ new techniques to ensure more caretaking, connection, differentiated instruction, and innovation. Most agree that education will be changed for years following the pandemic, but it might not all be for the worse.

Bilingual Education

New issues of inequality have entered the national conversation in recent years with the issue of bilingual education, which attempts to give equal opportunity to minority students through offering instruction in languages other than English. Though it is actually an old issue (bilingual education was federally mandated in 1968), it remains one of hot debate. Supporters of bilingual education argue that all students deserve equal opportunities in education—opportunities some students cannot access without instruction in their first language. On the other side, those who oppose bilingual education often point to the need for English fluency in everyday life and in the professional world.

waTCH IT

There are academic and professional benefits to being bilingual, which has also pushed for dual-language learning in the United States. This TED talk explains some of the benefits of multilingualism.

Think It Over

  • Is busing a reasonable method of serving students from diverse backgrounds? If not, suggest and support an alternative.

Try It

glossary

Head Start program:
a federal program that provides academically focused preschool to students of low socioeconomic status
No Child Left Behind Act:
an act that requires states to test students in prescribed grades, with the results of those tests determining eligibility to receive federal funding

Contribute!

Did you have an idea for improving this content? We’d love your input.

Improve this pageLearn More


  1. Downey, D., Von Hippel, P., & Broh, B. (2004). Are Schools the Great Equalizer? Cognitive Inequality during the Summer Months and the School Year. American Sociological Review, 69(5), 613-635. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3593031