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The Impact of Socio-Economic Background on Schooling Opportunity

Is school the great equalizer of social inequities? In this article, I will explore how the opportunities and experiences of schooling can vary across identity variables and how that may complicate our understanding of the role of school in addressing the inequalities in American society.

Douglas Downey and Dennis Condron identified the potential for schools to compensate for inequalities in society. In response, Prudence Carter argued that learning, attainment, and achievement cannot be understood in a vacuum or limited to school alone and that there is a need for understanding the range of experiences and realities of the students’ lives in order to battle existing inequalities. Students’ multiple identities—across multiple demographic variables such as race, class, gender, and sexuality—impact their life chances and experiences. Several studies have specifically explored the impact these demographic variables have had on students’ educational experiences and, subsequently, the educational attainment and achievement of students (Robinson and Espelage; Charles and Bradley; Lareau; Reardon and Owens).

Demographic variables can impact the experience and attainment of students. While school can play a compensatory role in battling inequalities in society, there are more factors to consider. For example, studies conducted by Annette Lareau and Sean Reardon and Ann Owens show how social and cultural capital provides supporting resources which assist students in their journeys of educational attainment. This could include parents connecting students with internships, helping them with their homework, or teaching them how to advocate for themselves in the classroom. For example, Lareau identifies the differences across social class categories (middle vs. low socioeconomic status) in parent involvement and attitudes towards their children's education. She concludes that “parents transmit advantages to their children in patterns that are sufficiently consistent and identifiable” (Lareau 772).

On the other hand, Reardon and Owens adopt a more structural and geographic take on social and cultural capital in their study of segregation in the American schooling system. They argue that schools have resources which can aid students in attainment and achievement—these resources are not limited to physical structure (facilities, textbooks, etc.) but also include the social capital of the parents of the enrolled student and the characteristics of their peers. When there is economic or class segregation of neighborhoods and students attend schools with other students belonging to their social class, the social and cultural capital is unevenly divided between schools. Thus, existing inequalities are furthered as students from lower-resource backgrounds are the ones who have the most difficulty accessing the kind of social and cultural capital to support their academic endeavors.


Works Cited

  1. Charles, Maria and Karen Bradley. “Indulging Our Gendered Selves? Sex Segregation by Field of Study in 44 Countries.” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 114, no. 4, 2009, 924-976.

  2. Downey, Douglas B., and Dennis J. Condron. "Fifty Years since the Coleman Report Rethinking the Relationship between Schools and Inequality." Sociology of Education, vol. 89, no. 3, 2016, 207-220.

  3. Lareau, Annette. “Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families.” American Sociological Review, vol. 67, no. 5, 2002, 747-776.

  4. Prudence L. Carter. (2016). "Carter Comment on Downey and Condron." Sociology of Education, vol. 89, no. 3, 2016, 225–226.

  5. Reardon, Sean and Ann Owens, “Sixty Years After Brown: Trends and Consequences of School Segregation.” Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 40, 2014, pp. 199-218.

  6. Robinson, Joseph P. and Dorothy L Espelage. “Inequities in Educational and Psychological Outcomes Between LGBTQ and Straight Students in Middle and High School.” Educational Researcher vol. 40, no. 7, 2011, 315-330 **[cw: discussion of suicide and suicidal thoughts]

Last Fact Checked on May 28th, 2021.


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