Responding to Educational Inequality

Educational Policy Perpetuates Inequities

Educational Policy Perpetuates Inequities

Key Findings

  • Policies have insufficiently accounted for structural factors and their impact on educational opportunity. 
  • Policies often prescribe universal interventions that obscure the particular needs of racial and other marginalized groups. 
  • Schools have been underfunded, exacerbating resource inequities and leaving schools susceptible to vulnerable funding streams.
  • Policymakers utilize a narrow and often insufficient research base in crafting and implementing educational policy. 

To effectively mitigate educational inequities, policies must be developed and enacted with deep understandings of how race and class impact our educational system. To date, educational policies have generally been crafted with minimal regard to broader factors and patterns, leaving them to perpetuate inequities despite their aim to alleviate disparities. In particular, educational policies perpetuate inequities by neglecting to address the impact of socioeconomic factors on schools, students, and communities. They also fail to alleviate disparities by advancing universal educational strategies to address complex environments and students, by maintaining inadequate funding practices, and by utilizing a narrow research base to inform the creation and an enactment of educational remedies.

Policies Ignore the Impact of Broader Social and Economic Patterns.

Researchers have documented how patterns of social and economic disadvantage impact educational achievement, school quality, and the advancement of educational equity, reducing opportunities for rich learning experiences, and limiting access to high quality teaching (Basch, 2011; Duncan, 2011; Jencks & Phillips, 1998; Lareau, 2003; Nasir et al., 2016; Rothstein, 2004). This disadvantage is highly racialized and operates in accordance with the existence of white privilege (Bernal, 2002; Ladson-Billings, 2006; Parker & Lynn, 2002; Solorzano & Yosso, 2001; Tate, 1997). For instance, Rucker Johnson, a Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster member and Professor of Public Policy, finds that poor health and limited parental resources (e.g. low income, lack of health insurance, inconsistent access to job opportunities) reduce educational attainment and worsen labor market and health outcomes in adulthood (Johnson, Kalil, & Dunifon, 2012; Johnson & Schoeni, 2007.). Johnson and his colleagues present strong evidence that illustrate the negative effect of economic marginalization of families and educational outcomes. 

Educational policies have continued to leave broader, structural patterns of disadvantage unaccounted for, thus employing narrow understandings of educational problems and applying inadequate policy remedies. Zeus Leonardo, a Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster member and Professor of Education, highlighted the consequences of excluding these factors in his analysis of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), arguing that the law’s emphasis on subgroup performance is tantamount to recognizing a problem without “locating the source of the problem” (Leonardo, 2007). Noting the continued socioeconomic obstacles facing communities of color including health disparities and labor market discrimination, he argues that NCLB erroneously situates educational achievement disparities as a problem of the educational apparatus, ignoring broader factors that necessarily impact the conditions in which schools exist and students live. 

Policies advance universal solutions to complex problems.

Accompanying a neglect of broader factors impacting schools and students is the prescription of universal interventions to address school improvement. Universal approaches are colorblind and assume that educational opportunities and inequities are experienced uniformly, obscuring variation within groups and the particularities of disadvantage experienced along racial, gender, and economic lines (Gutiérrez, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 2011; powell, 2008). john a. powell, the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and Professor of Law, African-American, and Ethnic Studies, suggests that policymakers frequently opt to use categories or criteria that capture an array of marginalized groups without reference to race or other factors in developing policies to alleviate inequity. In particular, he notes the frequent use of income-related criteria in lieu of race, a decision that assumes that such an approach will disproportionately benefit some racial groups, and not others (powell, 2008). The use of income-based criteria in educational policies have not served to address racial disparities. For example, the use of social class to achieve economic and racial school integration has not yielded substantive demographic integration (Reardon, Yun, & Kurlaender, 2006) and has often served the interests of those with social advantages (Lipman, 2008). Thus, while people from marginalized racial groups are more likely to be poor, policies that are inattentive to the particularities of racial disadvantages miss the mark in mitigating inequities in schools.

Schools are inadequately funded.

Wide disparities in educational spending contribute to the poor quality of learning environments experienced by some low-income and minority students. A recent commissioned report, co-chaired by a Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster member and Professor of Law Christopher Edley Jr., highlights the consequences of unequal funding and documents how funding disparities exacerbate schooling inequalities. Students in high-poverty districts and schools receive less funding than low-poverty districts and schools (The Equity and Excellence Commission, 2013), with some regional variation; this funding disparity results in less access to high quality teaching and facilities.

While increased funding alone does not always translate into school quality (Grubb, 1997), equitably funding schools and policies is fundamental to providing robust educational opportunities for all students, including students of color, English-language learners, and students with special needs who are often concentrated in high-poverty districts. Increased resources means enhanced quality teaching, strong curriculum, and the ability to implement programs and strategies that can meet the needs of students and communities (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Overall, adequate and fairly distributed school funding is “an essential precondition for the delivery of a high-quality education in the 50 states” (Baker, Sciarra, & Farrie, 2010). As schools and key educational policies continue to be underfunded, resource-deficient schools are increasingly faced with decisions regarding how to invest funds, often at the expense of these greater fiscal investment in inputs that can facilitate robust learning environments. 

The persistence of inadequate school funding is increasingly problematic given the turbulent, financial contexts facing our schools. Political and economic factors that resulted in the economic downturn of 2008 pushed states to consider further cuts to school budgets, leaving many school and district officials susceptible to vulnerable funding sources. Janelle Scott, a Professor of Education and a Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster member, interrogated this pattern by exposing the growing prominence of philanthropic groups and foundations in supporting educational reforms and institutions. While these foundations provide the necessary investment for reform and school sustainability, she argues their investment nonetheless represents a funding source that is susceptible to economic downturn, potentially leaving resource-deficient schools and communities to cope with greater fiscal disinvestment if or when the money runs out (Scott, 2009).

Using a narrow research base to inform policy leaves key factors unaddressed.

Despite the pervasiveness of educational inequality and the scholarship documenting it, policymakers rely on a narrow research base to create and enact educational policies. For instance, much attention has been given to scientifically based practices, or “what works” in schools as measured by their impact on academic achievement. However, the utility of this research can be limited, due to its emphasis on generalizability, its negligence of the role of context, and its marginalization of other forms of research that inform policy knowledge (Berliner, 2002; Biesta, 2007; M. Dumas & Anderson, 2014; Erickson & Gutiérrez, 2002).

Kris D. Gutierrez, a Professor of Education and Race, Diversity, and Educational Policy Cluster member, takes on this issue (in a piece co-authored with William Penuel), and notes that studies of what works or traditional approaches to design based research often ignore “what works, under what conditions, and for whom,” thus obscuring variation in schools, communities, and student experiences that necessarily impact how schools work and how students learn (Gutiérrez & Penuel, 2014). They argue that a study’s relevance should be assessed on its ability to transform practice. They note policymakers should utilize rigorous research on “what works” that systematically addresses the fundamental questions of “Who is doing the design and for what purposes? How can research and practice inform one another? Who benefits from the design interventions? and What are the unintended consequences of the change?” (Erickson & Gutiérrez, 2002). Neglecting the specific mechanisms through which outcomes for teachers and students are achieved within particular contexts is one key way that policymakers employ a narrow research base, which neglects critical, contextual factors that impact students and schools. 

Beliefs regarding student ability, and knowledge impact teachers’ instructional practices, which can impede students from engaging in deep learning.