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Can Education Eliminate Race, Class, and Gender Inequality?

Roslyn Arlin Mickelson and Stephen Samuel Smith





Parents, politicians, and educational policy makers share the belief that a “good education” is the meal ticket. It will unlock the door to economic opportunity and thus enable disadvantaged groups or individuals to improve their lot dramatically. This belief is one of the assumptions that has long been part of the American Dream. According to the putative dominant ideology, the United States is basically a meritocracy in which hard work and individual effort are rewarded, especially in a financial terms. Related to this central belief are a series of culturally enshrined misconceptions about poverty and wealth. The central one is that poverty and wealth are the result of individual inadequacies or strengths rather than the results of the distributive mechanisms of the capitalist economy. A second misconception is the belief that everyone is the master of her or his own fate. The dominant ideology assumes that American society is open and competitive, a place where an individual’s status depends on talent and motivation, not inherited position, connections, or privileges linked to ascriptive characteristics like gender or race. To compete fairly, everyone must have access to education free of the fetters of family background, gender, and race. Since the middle of this century, the reform policies of the federal government have been designed, at least officially, to enhance individuals’ opportunities to acquire education. The question we will explore in this essay is whether expanding educational opportunity is enough to reduce the inequalities of race, social class, and gender which continue to characterize United States society.


We begin by discussing some of the major educational policies and programs of the past forty-give years that sought to reduce social inequality through expanding equality of educational opportunity. This discussion highlights the success the failures of programs such as school desegregation, compensatory education, Title IX, and job training. We then focus on the barriers these programs face in actually reducing social inequality. Our point is that inequality is so deeply rooted in the structure and operation of the United States political economy, that, at best, educational reforms can play only a limited role in ameliorating such inequality. In fact, there is considerable evidence that indicates that, for poor and many minority children, education helps legitimate, if not actually reproduce, significant aspects of social inequality in their lives. Finally, we speculate about education’s potential role in individual and social transformation.


First, it is necessary to distinguish among equality, equality of opportunity, and equality of educational opportunity. The term equality has been the subject of extensive scholarly and political debate, much of which is beyond the scope of this essay. Most Americans reject equality of life conditions as a goal, because it would require a fundamental transformation of our  basic economic and political institutions, a scenario most are unwilling to accept. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “The genius of our country has worked out our true policy—opportunity.”


The distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome is important. Through this country’s history, equality has most typically been understood in the former way. Rather than a call for the equal distribution of money, property, or many other social goods, the concern over equality has been with equal opportunity in pursuit of these goods. In the words of Jennifer Hochschild, “So long as we live in a democratic capitalist society—that is, so long as we maintain the formal promise of political and social equality while encouraging the practice of economic inequality—we need the idea of equal opportunity to bridge that otherwise unacceptable contradiction.” To use a current metaphor: If life is a game, the playing field must be level; if life is a race, the starting line must be in the same place for everyone. For the playing field to be level, many believe education is crucial because it gives individuals the wherewithal to compete in the allegedly meritocratic system. In America, then, equality is really understood to mean equality of opportunity, which itself hinges on equality of educational opportunity.




In the past forty-five years, a series of educational reforms initiated at the national level has been introduced into local school systems. All of the reforms aimed to move education closer to the ideal of equality of educational opportunity. Here we discuss several of these reforms, and how the concept of equality of educational opportunity has evolved. Given the importance of race and racism in United States history, many of the federal education policies during this period attempted to redress the most egregious forms of inequality based on race.


School Desegregation


Although American society has long claimed to be based on equality of opportunity, the history of race relations suggests the opposite. Perhaps the most influential early discussion of this disparity was Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, published in 1944. The book vividly exposed the contradictions between the ethos of freedom, justice, equality of opportunity and the actual experiences of African Americans in the United States.


The links among desegregation, expanded educational opportunity, and the larger issue of equality of opportunity are very clear from the history of the desegregation movement. This movement, whose first phase culminated in the 1954 Brown decision outlawing de jure segregation in school, was the first orchestrated attempt in United States history to directly address inequality of educational opportunity. The NAACP strategically chose school segregation to be the camel’s nose under the tent of the Jim Crow (segregated) society. That one of the nation’s foremost civil rights organizations saw the attack on segregated schools as the opening salvo in the battle against society-wide inequality is a powerful example of the American belief that education has a pivotal role in promoting equality of opportunity.


Has desegregation succeeded? This is really three questions: First, to what extent are the nation’s schools desegregated? Second, have desegregation efforts enhanced students’ academic outcomes? Third, what are the long-term outcomes of desegregated educational experiences?


Since 1954, progress toward the desegregation of the nation’s public schools has been uneven and limited. Blacks experienced little progress in desegregation until the mid-1960s when, in response to the civil rights movement, a series of federal laws, executive actions, and judicial decisions resulted in significant gains, especially in the South. Progress continued until 1988, when the effects of a series of federal court decisions and various local and national political developments precipitated marked trends toward the resegregation of Black students. Nationally, in 1994-1995, 33 percent of Black students attended majority White schools compared with the approximately 37 percent who attended majority White schools for much of the 1980s.


Historically, Latinos were relatively less segregated than African Americans. However, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s there was a steady increase in the percentage of the Latino students who attended segregated schools. As a result, education for Latinos is now more segregated than it is for Blacks.


Given the long history of legalized segregation in the south, it is ironic that the South’s school systems are now generally the country’s most desegregated, while those in the northeast are the most intensely segregated. However, even desegregated schools are often resegregated at the classroom level by tracking or ability grouping. There is a strong relationship between race and social class, and racial isolation is often an outgrowth of residential segregation and socioeconomic background.


Has desegregation helped to equalize educational outcomes? A better question might be which desegregation programs under what circumstances accomplish which goals? Evidence from recent desegregation research suggests that, overall, children benefit academically and socially from well-run programs. Black students enjoy modest academic gains, while the academic achievement of White children is not hurt, and in some cases is helped, by desegregation. In school system which have undergone desegregation efforts, the racial gap in educational outcomes has generally been reduced, but not eliminated.


More important than short-term academic gains are the long-term consequence of desegregation for Black students. Compared to those who attended racially isolated schools, Black adults who experienced desegregated education as children are likely to attend multiracial colleges and graduate from them, work in higher-status jobs, live in integrated neighborhoods, assess their abilities more realistically when choosing an occupation, and to report interracial friendships.


Despite these modest, but positive, outcomes, in the last decade of the twentieth century, most American children attend schools segregated by race, ethnicity, and social class. Consequently, forty-give years of official federal interventions aimed at achieving equality of educational opportunity through school desegregation have only made small steps toward achieving that goal; children from different race and class backgrounds continue to receive segregated and, in many respects, unequal educations.


The Coleman Report


Largely because evidence introduced in the 1954 Brown case showed that resources in segregated Black and White schools were grossly unequal, Congress mandated in 1964 a national study of the “lack of availability of equality of educational opportunity for individuals due to race, color, religious, or national origin in public schools.” The authors of the subsequent study, James Coleman and his associates, expected to find glaring disparities in educational resources available to African-American and White students and that these differences would explain the substantial achievement differences between majority and minority students.


Instead, the Coleman Report, released in 1966, produced some very unexpected findings which became the underpinning for many subsequent educational policies and programs. The researchers found that twelve years after Brown, most American still attended segregated schools but that the characteristics of Black and White schools (e.g., facilities, books, labs, teacher experience, and expenditures) were surprisingly similar. Apparently, segregated Southern districts had upgraded Black educational facilities in the wake of the Brown decision. Coleman and his colleagues also found that variations in school resources had relatively little to do with the variations in students’ school performance. Instead, they found that family background influenced an individual’s school achievement more than any other factor, including school characteristics. Subsequent research has provided a better understanding of when, where, and how resources and school characteristics influence student outcomes.


However, at the time, the Coleman Report had dramatic and long-lasting effects. The report tended to deflect attention away from how schools operated and instead of focused public policy upon poor and minority children and their families as the ultimate sources of unequal school outcomes. Numerous observers concluded incorrectly that schools had little to do with Black-White educational differences because they paid insufficient attention to another of the report’s findings that implicated schools in inequality of educational outcomes. That finding showed that African-American and White achievement gap between Black and White first graders was much smaller than the gap between twelfth graders. This finding suggested that, at best, schools reinforce the disadvantages of race and class and, at worst, are themselves a major source of educational inequality.


Although published over thirty years ago, the Coleman Report remains one of the most important and controversial pieces of social research ever completed in the United States. One of its many lasting results was a redefinition of the concept of equality of educational opportunity. The report made it clear that putting greater resources into schools, in and of itself, was not necessarily associated with greater student achievement or with eliminating the racial gap in school outcomes. In other words, resource levels alone were no longer considered a satisfactory measure of equality of educational opportunity. As a result, the Coleman Report helped reconceptualize the notion of equality of educational opportunity. It became a matter of equality of educational outcomes, measured in terms of academic achievement (performance) and attainment (amount of schooling completed) irrespective of race, gender, and socioeconomic background. This goal has yet to be reached in the United States


Compensatory Education


A second outcome of the Coleman Report was widespread support of the compensatory education. Policy makers interpreted the finding that family background was the strongest predicator of students’ achievement as evidence of “cultural deprivation” among poor and minority families. This interpretation gave impetus to an education movement designed to compensate for the alleged cultural deficiencies of families that were neither middle class nor White, so that when so-called disadvantaged children came to school, they could compete without the passage of the handicaps of their background.


Beginning with the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, a series of educational programs offered low-income and under-achieving children developmental preschool followed by a host of individualized programs in math, reading, and language arts once they arrived in elementary school. Examples of compensatory education programs include:


  • Early childhood education such as Head Start
  • Follow Through, where Head Start children, now in elementary school, continue to receive special programs.
  • Title I (formerly called Chapter I), which provides language arts and math programs plus food, medicine, and clothing to needy children in primary schools
  • Guidance and counseling in secondary schools


Compensatory education programs have had a controversial history. Critics from the left charge that the underlying premise of compensatory education—that poor and minority families are deficient relative to middle-class White families—is racist and elitist. Critics on the right argue that compensatory education is a waste of time and money because the lower achievement scores of minority and poor children are due to their inferior intelligence. Policy critics charge that it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of compensatory education programs unless they are fully funded and implemented so that all eligible children receive services. Since the inception of compensatory education programs, less than half of eligible students have received services.


Despite criticism from such diverse quarters, the compensatory education movement survived the past thirty years. The Head Start program, for example, is currently embraced by a wide range of Americans who consider it a cost-effective strategy to help poor children do better in school. A growing body of research demonstrates the existence of both cognitive and social benefits from early childhood education for low-income and minority children. However, the achievement gaps between minority and White, and between working- and middle-class, children remain. Furthermore, evaluations of Title I and Follow Through have been unable to demonstrate unambiguous benefits. One must conclude that compensatory education, like desegregated education, has neither leveled the playing field nor eliminated racial or social class inequality in educational outcomes.


Human Capital Theory and Workforce Education Programs


The widely held belief that a good education is the meal ticket to reducing inequality receives its most sophisticated exposition in human capital theory, which holds that greater levels of education are investments in human beings’ productive capacities. People who are poor, according to this theory, have had inadequate investments in their education. Over many decades, numerous education and training programs have been implemented, but the school-to-work transition remains problematic for many noncollege-bound youth. During the last third of this century, specific programs linked to anti-poverty efforts were implemented and eventually scrapped for failing to provide low-income youth with what they needed. While the Comprehensive Education and Training Act (CETA) and its successor, the Job Training and Partnership Act (JTPA), two of the best known programs, gave skill training to low-income youth, the jobs needed to employ them were simply not there. Moreover, JTPA graduates were no more likely to obtain a job than those without such training.


A variety of workforce education programs exist today in America’s schools. These are attempts to provide broad-based technical skills to students, although they have not completely displaced the more traditional vocational education programs. However, current programs are of questionable value for reducing inequality for a number of reasons. First, there is a striking absence of brides from schools to workplaces. Other than tapping into their personal networks, youth usually do not know alternative options for obtaining jobs. Schools rarely have outreach programs, and employers who hire entry-level workers only occasionally check grades and transcripts. The federal government’s initiative for community-based one-step job centers, where potential workers and employers can match their availabilities via computerized databases, may prove useful in the future by providing the necessary bridges and pathways from school to work. But they are only in their infancy.


A second reason to question the utility of these programs is that the human capital approach views the problem of inequality as a lack of worker skill, not a paucity of well-paying jobs. The poor often have a great deal of skills and education. What they lack are well-paying jobs in which to invest their skills. In fact, many studies indicate there is an adequate match between skill requirements of current jobs and those possessed by the workforce. Rather, the complaints of most employers are that entry-level new hires lack a strong work ethic, a problem human capital theory does not address.


The third reason to question in utility of workforce development education for reducing inequality has to do with the changing nature of the post-industrial economy. There is little certain knowledge of what the restructuring and globalization of the economy will mean for future workers. It is entirely possible that workforce education will prepare people for jobs which have been relocated to Mexico, Thailand, or India. Certainly, there is already evidence of such a trend. And the relocation of these jobs has more to do with the cost of labor in these nations than with the education or skill levels of Americans. It is not surprising, then, that educational reforms based on human capital theory have not, and cannot, substantially narrow race, class, and gender differences in equality of opportunity in this society.


Title IX


Title IX of the 1972 Higher Education Act is the primary federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. It states, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefit of, or the subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Until Title IX’s passage, gender inequality in educational opportunity received minimal legislative attention. The act mandates gender equality of treatment in admission, courses, financial aid, counseling services, employment, and athletics.


The effect of Title IX upon college athletics has been especially controversial. While women constitute 53 percent of undergraduates, they are only 37 percent of college athletes. This is undoubtedly due to the complex interaction between institutional practices and gender-role socialization over the life course. Certainly, the fact that vast majority of colleges spend much more money on recruiting and scholarships for male athletes contributes to the disparities.


In spring 1997, the United States Supreme Court refused to review a lower court’s ruling in Brown v. Cohen that states in essence that Title IX requires universities to provide equal athletic opportunities for male and female students regardless of cost. Courts have generally upheld the following three-pronged test for compliance: (1) the percentage of athletes who are female; (2) there must be a continuous record of expanding athletic opportunities for females athletics; and (3) schools must accommodate the athletic interests and abilities of female students. As of the ruling, very few universities were in compliance with the law.


Gender discrimination exists in other areas of education where it takes a variety of forms. For example, in K-12 education official curricular materials frequently feature a preponderance of male characters. Male and female characters typically exhibit traditional gender roles. Vocational education at the high school and college level remains gender-segregated to some degree. School administrators at all levels are overwhelmingly male although most teachers in elementary and secondary schools are female. In higher education, the situation is more complex. Faculty women in academia are found disproportionately in the lower ranks, are less likely to be promoted, and continue to earn less than their male colleagues.


Like the laws and policies aimed at eliminating race differences in school progresses and outcomes, those designed to eliminate gender differences in educational opportunities have, at best, only narrowed them. Access to educational opportunity in the United States remains unequal for people of different gender, race, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.




Despite the failures of these many programs to eliminate the inequality of educational opportunity over the past 45 years, there is one indicator of substantial progress: measured in median years, the gap in educational attainment between Blacks and Whites, and between males and females, has all but disappeared. In 1997, the median educational attainment of most groups was slightly more than twelve years. In the 1940s, by contrast, White males and females had a median educational attainment of just under nine years, African American males about five years, and African American women about six.


However, the main goal of educational reform is not merely to give all groups the opportunity to receive the same quality and quantity of education. According to the dominant ideology, the ultimate goal of these reforms is to provide equal educational opportunity in order to facilitate equal access to jobs, housing, and various other aspects of the American dream. It thus becomes crucial to examine whether the virtual elimination of the gap in educational attainment has been accompanied by a comparable decrease in other measures of inequality.


Of the various ways inequality can be measured, income is one of the most useful. Much of a person’s social standing and access to the good things in life depends on his or her income. Unfortunately, the dramatic progress in narrowing the gap in educational attainment has not been matched by a comparable narrowing of the gap in income inequality. Median individual earnings by race and gender indicate that White men still earn significantly more than any other group. Black men trail White men, and all women earn significantly less than all men. Even when occupation, experience, and level of education are controlled, women earn less than men, and Black mean earn less than White men. It is only Black and White women with comparable educational credentials in similar jobs who earn about the same.


The discrepancy between the near elimination of the gap in median educational attainment and the ongoing gaps in median income is further evidence that addressing the inequality of educational opportunity is woefully insufficient for addressing broader sources of inequality throughout society.


This discrepancy can be explained by the nature of the United States political economy. The main cause of income inequality is the structure and operation of United States capitalism, a set of institutions which scarcely have been affected by the educational reforms discussed earlier. Greater equality of educational opportunity has not led to a corresponding decrease in income inequality because educational reforms do not crate more good-paying jobs, affect gender-segregated and racially segmented occupational structures, or limit the mobility of capital either between regions of the country or between the United States and other countries. For example, no matter how good an education White working-class or minority youth may receive, it does nothing to alter the fact that thousands of relatively good paying manufacturing jobs have left northern inner cities for northern suburbs, the sunbelt, or foreign countries.


Many argue that numerous service jobs remains or that new manufacturing positions have been created in the wake of this capital flight. But these pay less than the departed manufacturing jobs, are often part-time or temporary, and frequently do not provide benefits. Even middle-class youth are beginning to fear the nature of the jobs which await them once they complete their formal education. Without changes in the structure and operation of the capitalist economy, educational reforms alone cannot markedly improve the social and economic position of disadvantaged groups. This is the primary reason that educational reforms do little to affect the gross social inequalities that inspired them in the first place.




Educational reforms have not led to greater overall equality for several additional reasons. While race and gender gaps in educational attainment have narrowed considerably, educational achievement remains highly differentiated by social class, gender, and race. Many aspects of school processes and curricular content are deeply connected to race, social class, and gender inequality. But gross measures of educational outputs, such as median years of schooling completed, mask these indicators of inequality.


Not all educational experiences are alike. Four years of public high school in Beverly Hills are quite different from four years in an inner-city school. Family background, race, and gender have a great deal to do with whether a person goes to college and which institution of higher education she or he attends. The more privileged the background, the more likely a person is to attend an elite private university.


For example, according to Jacobs, women trail men slightly in representation in high status institutions of higher education because women are less likely to attend engineering programs and are more likely to be part-time students (who are themselves more likely to attend lower status institutions such as community colleges). Gender segregation in fields of study remains marked, with women less likely than men to study in scientific and mathematical fields. Furthermore, these is substantial race and ethnic segregation between institutions of higher education. Asian-Americans and Latinos are more segregated from Whites than are African-Americans. Whites and Asian-Americans are more likely to attend higher status universities than are African-Americans and Latinos.


These patterns of race and gender segregation in higher education have direct implications for gender and race gaps in occupational and income attainment. Math and science degree recipients are more likely to obtain more lucrative jobs. A degree from a state college is not as competitive as one from an elite private university. Part of the advantage of attending more prestigious schools comes from the social networks to which a person has access and can join.


Another example of persistent inequality of educational opportunity is credential inflation. Even though women, minorities, and members of the working class now obtain higher levels of education than they did before, members of more privileged social groups gain even higher levels of education. At the same time, the educational requirements for the best jobs (those with the highest salaries, benefits, agreeable working conditions, autonomy, responsibility) are growing. Those with the most education from the best schools tend to be the top candidates for the best jobs. Because people from more privileged backgrounds are almost always in a better position to gain these desirable educational credentials, members of the working class, women, and minorities are still at a competitive disadvantage. Due to the dynamics of credential inflation, educational requirements previously necessary for the better jobs and now within the reach of many dispossessed groups are inadequate and insufficient in today’s labor market. The credential inflation process keeps the already privileged one step (educational credential) ahead of the rest of the job seekers.


One additional aspect of the persistent inequalities in educational opportunities concerns what sociologists of education call the hidden curriculum. This concept refers to two separate but related processes. The first is that the content and process of education differ for children according to their race, gender, and class. The second is that these differences reflect and thus help reproduce the inequalities based on race, gender, and class that characterize United States society as a whole.


One aspect of the hidden curriculum is the formal curriculum’s ideological content. Anyon’s work on United States history texts demonstrates that children from more privileged backgrounds are more likely to be exposed to rich, sophisticated, and complex materials than are their working-class counterparts. Another aspect of the hidden curriculum concerns the social organization of the school and the classroom. Some hidden curriculum theorists suggest that tracking, ability grouping, and conventional teacher-centered classroom interactions contribute to the reproduction of the social relations of production at the workplace. Lower-track classrooms are disproportionately filled with working-class and minority students. Students in lower tracks are more likely than those in higher tracks to be assigned repetitive exercises with low levels of cognitive challenge. Lower-track students are likely to work individually and to lack classroom experience with problem solving or other independent, creative activities. Such activities are more conductive to preparing students for working-class jobs than for professional and managerial positions. Correspondence principle theorists argue that educational experiences from preschool to high school are designed to differentially prepare students for their ultimate positions in the work force, and that a student’s placement in various school programs is strongly related to her or his race and class origin. Critics charge that the correspondence principle has been applied in too deterministic and mechanical a fashion. Evidence abounds of student resistance to class, gender, and race differentiated education. This is undoubtedly why so many students drop out or graduate from high school with minimal levels of literacy and formal skills. Nonetheless, hidden curriculum theory offers a compelling contribution to explanations of how and why school processes and outcomes are so markedly different according to the race, gender, and social class of students.




In this [essay] we have argued that educational reforms alone cannot reduce inequality. Nevertheless, education remains important to any struggle to reduce inequality. Moreover, education is more than a meal ticket; it is intrinsically worthwhile and crucially important for the survival of democratic society. Many of the programs discussed in this essay contribute to the enhancement of individuals’ cognitive growth and thus promote important nonsexist, nonracist attitudes and practices. Many of these programs also make schools somewhat more humane places for adults and children. Furthermore, education, even reformist liberal education, contains the seeds of individual and social transformation. Those of us committed to the struggle against inequality cannot be paralyzed by the structural barriers that make it impossible for education to eliminate inequality. We must look upon the schools as arenas of struggle against race, gender, and social class inequality.



1. What are the beliefs, assumptions, and misconceptions associated with the idea that a good education will lead to economic opportunity?

2. Distinguish between equality, equality of opportunity, and equality of educational opportunity.

3. According to Mickelson and Smith, has educational reform been successful in reducing social inequalities? Why or why not?

4. What factors perpetuate educational inequality?