The level of educational inequality among minorities and the poor in the United States, while showing significant levels of improvement over the last two decades, continues to exhibit gaps and deficiencies in relation to race/ethnicity and social status. Particular concerns lay in the effectiveness, or lack thereof, regarding issues over school funding, teacher interaction, and school curriculum.
Two theories present differing schools of thought regarding the role education plays in American society. Closely resembling the functionalist or order perspective in sociology, the traditional view asserts that education provides the opportunity for upward mobility in society. This idea stems from the belief that education puts people in various professions with success depending upon their abilities and motivation. Capabilities and knowledge determine how far one goes rather than his or her background, which Farley identifies as characteristics achieved versus characteristics ascribed. The other view, more closely aligned with the conflict perspective of sociology, contends that education cannot correct the social and economic inequalities in existence today and rather than providing opportunities for upward mobility, "â€¦education reflects and reinforces the social inequality in society" (Farley, 2012 p. 395).
School funding presents a mixed bag of issues surrounding inequalities in the educational system. Education funds, for the most part, come from state aid and local property taxes. The value of property within communities determines the amount of tax revenue raised. Therefore, wealthier communities owning property of greater value than those living in low-income areas, generate significantly more revenue for the funding of education. While categorical grants bolster the amount of funding allocated to schools primarily located in large cities that have a large minority population, the higher costs associated with educating poor children offset the additional funds, resulting in significantly lower per-pupil spending compared to wealthier schools (Farley, 2012 p. 398-399). Although the quality of minority schools in terms of facilities, size of classes, availability of programs and teacher education level account for only a small portion of the variance in student's achieved knowledge, studies revealed that such factors account for ten to fifteen percent of the variance in black student achievement and ability as compared with the two to six percent variance for white students (Farley, 2012 p. 400).
The 1964 Civil rights Act mandated an exploration regarding the quality of minority students received. The study, named the Coleman Report, identified two factors that explain how much students learn. Background factors such as parents' education, the size and makeup of families, educational resources in the home, where students lives (urban or rural) and the interest of parents in their child's education account for fifteen to twenty percent of the variation in student learning. Of greater significance, the attitude of students explains fifteen to twenty percent of the variance in black students compared to twenty-five to thirty percent for white students. Coleman's report concluded that neither more money nor better facilities can solve all of the problems American students face, particularly minority students (Farley, 2012 p. 402). The greatest need in regard to improved learning in minority and impoverished students is in "â€¦more attention to cultural, attitudinal, and interactional factors and the role they play in the learning process (Farley, 2012 p. 402). The interaction between teachers and their student contributes significantly to this end.
Cultural deprivation and cultural bias, aligned with the functionalist and conflict perspectives, respectively, constitute two interpretations derived from findings in the Coleman Report that associate factors from both background and culture with learning. While currently discredited, to some degree, among social scientists, society still supports the idea that the cause of substandard performance of minority children entering kindergarten or the first grade is due to cultural deprivation. Children living in homes without the simplest forms of technology or reading materials and whose parents place little, if any, emphasis on "book learning" suffer from poor work habits and undeveloped skills. Such underachieving children do not have a positive self-image or much interest in school and believe they have no control over their environment. Those subscribing to this view contend that the best way to correct the problem lies in attitude adjustment wherein disadvantaged students develop a positive self-image and believe they hold control over their own environment by conforming to the attitudes and beliefs of their primarily white, privileged peers (Farley, 2012 p. 402). This follows the functionalist view in that minorities need to assimilate in order to fit in with the dominant group, more specifically whites.
Conflict theorists contend that the difficulty lies with the educational system rather than the characteristics of minority students. According to Farley, schools reflect the biases of middle-class whites, expecting minority students to adopt certain values, habits and attitudes, effectively demanding conformity (Farley, 2012 p. 403). One primary area that demonstrates white bias that penalized minority students until recent years was the lack of representation or stereotypical presentation of minorities in school materials. Many argue that while greater emphasis on cultural diversity has shown an increase in multicultural classroom materials, "â€¦they are still Eurocentric; that is they give undue emphasis to European historical and cultural influences or describe other groups from the standpoint of the European experience" (Farley, 2012 p. 404). The lack of accurate and/or equal representation of minorities in classroom materials affects every student through reinforcing stereotypical beliefs of majority students while damaging the self-image of minority students as well as how they perceive their own racial or ethnic group (Farley, 2012 p. 405).
The influence of teachers through the expectations they place on children in their classrooms significantly impacts the student performance. Teachers often expect more of some students and less of others. Those who base student expectations on the basis of race and color negatively impact performance through "self-fulfilling prophecy" wherein student achievement or lack thereof, corresponds to teacher expectations (Farley, 2012 p. 406). Research indicates that teachers often change the way in which they interact with students in response to the belief they are disadvantaged. For example, teachers are more willing to provide extra direction or walk students they perceive as disadvantaged through exercises, thereby limiting their problem solving and higher-order thinking development. According to Farley, studies show that dramatic achievement in student performance takes place when teachers believe disadvantaged children are capable of developing higher-order thinking and problem solving and teach from that vantage point. Additionally, experiments confirmed that teacher expectations do impact the performance of students by showing greater teacher expectations resulted in minority and low-income children not only achieving the same problem-solving skills as middle-class, white children, but in some cases surpassing them (Farley, 2012 p. 407).
In 1968 Jane Elliot, a small-town, Iowa, third grade teacher to all white children decided that just talking about race did not eliminate prejudice and discrimination. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elliot initiated a program that gave her students a small, but highly effective taste of how it feels to be discriminated against. She segregated the class between those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes, instructing the children that people with blue eyes are smarter, cleaner and better than people with brown eyes. Children with brown eyes wore a collar to make them easily distinguishable. Brown eyed children could not play on the playground equipment. They could not drink directly from the water fountain; they must use a paper cup. Additionally, blue eyed children received an extra five minutes at recess, went to lunch first and sat in the front of the classroom. Brown eye children could not play with blue eyed children. Elliot made the experience very real by stressing the inadequacies of those with brown eyes throughout the day. For example, if a child failed to do something immediately upon being told, Elliot berated the child, telling the class how he/she demonstrated they were not as good as blue eyed people. The following day, she reversed their roles. While many did not greet Elliot's program with enthusiasm, the experiment proved to have life-long effects on her students (A Classroom Divided). Although this program might seem effective for "white only" classes on the surface, the lesson demonstrates its relevance in every classroom by teaching tolerance regardless of any cultural, racial, religious, physical, or other differences in people.
Elliot's experiment produced results that coincide with Farley's discussion over the concept of the "looking-glass self" wherein the beliefs of people in regard to themselves are based on messages received from others. Elliot administered math, reading and spelling tests two weeks before the exercise, on each day of the exercise and again two weeks later. She indicated that, almost without exception, the children scored higher on the day they were on the top and lower on the day when they were on the bottom. They then maintained a higher level for the rest of the year after going through the exercise. This unexpected result points to children realizing their own self-worth and responding to that discovery (A Classroom Divided). The importance of self-esteem and believing in one's ability to control their environment cannot be overstated, particularly among minorities and the poor.
Issues revolving around race, while improving on some fronts, continue to negatively impact the education, and ultimately the lives, of minority and impoverished children. The causes of and solutions to these problems require changes in the educational system that recognizes the value of all races and cultures, teaching from a multicultural stance rather than maintaining a white, middle-class standard that demands the assimilation of all non-whites and the poor. Quality education for minorities and the poor require not only the same standards of education under which primarily white schools operate, but also multicultural curriculum that equally emphasizes all races/ethnicities, and teacher interaction that places the same expectations on every student, regardless of their race, ethnicity or social class.