Education Inequality: How Does Our School System Work to Keep the Poor Poor?



Education has always been an important part of America, but throughout history, education has often been provided inequitably to its people

Historically, education inequality has been used to oppress African Americans. Before the Civil War, the majority of African Americans were slaves, and many states had laws which explicitly outlawed the teaching of slaves (Noltemeyer et al). Following the Civil War and reconstruction, the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson opened the door for southern states to segregate many aspects of life, including schools. 

In the modern day, school inequality exists mostly as a result of the unequal wealth distribution in our country. A school’s quality and resources are largely determined by the socioeconomic status of the neighborhood it’s located in (Semuels). This disparity in school quality leads to a disparity in achievement between those who come from low-income homes and those who come from high-income homes (Garcia and Weiss). The gap in education and social mobility created by this inequality requires both individual and societal changes to be fixed.

Personal Interest

I wanted to cover this topic for a number of reasons. First, in 7th grade I did a research project on the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. This project was very interesting to do, and highlighted to me the role of educational inequality as a tool for racism in post-reconstruction America.

Another, more significant reason I wanted to look at this topic is the overabundance of high-education jobs in America. As someone interested in computer science, I’ve heard constantly about the lack of educated people in the workforce, how there’s a chronic lack of programmers and developers in the workforce today. Given the number of people who’ve obtained staggering wealth from technology, you would think that more people would be drawn to computer science or similar fields, and yet there still remains a shortage. This led me to look into that shortage, which led me to education inequality

The thing which has made me the most interested in this topic, however, is the incredible wealth inequality present in this country. The difference between rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods is incredibly pronounced, a phenomenon I’ve witnessed first hand living in the Bay Area. However, different neighborhoods having more or less money is an unfortunate consequence of capitalism. What really interests me is that the quality of schools also goes up and down with the wealth of the neighborhood. You would think that poorer communities would have better, or at least equal, schools in order to try to combat the wealth inequality, but instead they have schools with fractions of the resources that richer schools have. All these reasons are why I’ve chosen to research education inequality.

You can read my full interest essay here

Historical Background

Historically, the main inequality in education existed between African Americans and White Americans

Before the Civil War, African Americans were largely denied education due to their positions as slaves in many southern states (Noltemeyer et al). Outside of thoser states there were very few attempts to educate African Americans, with Oberlin College being the most notable, deciding in 1834 to admit students “regardless of color” (Waite). After the Civil War, Reconstruction began, bringing with it marginal improvements in the education of African Americans (Noltemeyer et al).

Following Reconstruction, the South pushed back against attempts to end discrimination by passing Jim Crow laws, which segregated many areas of American life along racial lines. Among these areas were schools, which were segregated under the pretense of “separate but equal”, a doctrine the Supreme Court uphelp in the 1896 case Plessy v. Ferguson (Noltemeyer et al). This segregation led to large gaps in the resources of schools, with some black schools being provided 4 textbooks per student, as opposed to the 31 given to some white schools (“Education Board to Discuss Charges of Race Inequities”). These and many more disparities were largely inforced by the states until 1954, when Brown v. Board of Education ruled that separate facilities were inherently unequal and thus unconstitutional (Noltemeyer et al).

If you want more information, I go deeper into the issues in my Historical Research Essay, which can be found here


What you need to know

In modern America, education inequality is largely the result of wealth disparities between communities, with schools in high-income areas receiving more money than schools in low-income areas. This is because most schools receive their funding from local property taxes, with very little subsidizing from the State or Federal Government (Semuels). While this works to provide schools with money, it means that wealthier towns can have significantly more resources than poorer towns (Semuels). This imbalance in funding can lead to huge gaps in achievement.

According to one study by the Economic Policy Institute, a child’s economic status is “one of the most significant predictors—if not the single most significant predictor—of their educational success” (Garcia and Weiss). The gap between low and high income students is created very early in the child’s education, and is maintained throughout their education (Garcia and Weiss). For example, two children, one from a rich family and one from a poor family, might begin their education at the same time. The rich child might pull ahead for any number of reasons, such as better teachers or materials, or the poor child might fall behind. This gap is then maintained throughout both children’s education, leading to underachievement from the poor child (Garcia and Weiss). 

This resource disparity even exists within school districts. The Center for American Progress found in one study that 4.5 million low-income students are in schools which receive $1,200 less per child than other, wealthier schools in the same district (Amerikaner). The cause of this is that school districts usually give a flat amount of money to each school in the district, regardless of how many students attend each school (Amerikaner).

Various attempts have been made to help this system, but the most significant one has been No Child Left Behind, or NCLB. This policy was designed to identify failing schools, which would then receive special attention. A school’s performance was determined by giving the students standardized tests in math and reading every year from grades 3 through 8, with additional tests required in high school (Zhao). 

This policy has many problems, all of which center around its focus on standardized tests. NCLB’s use of standardized tests can lead to score inflation, or the increasing of scores artificially. The focus on tests can lead teachers to change the curriculum, devoting more time to tested materials, or even the testing formats themselves, instead of what might benefit the students more (Koretz). Another problem is that NCLB only measures one data point on the distribution, the “proficient” performance standard. Teachers get credit for how many students pass that line, and so will focus on students near that point to the exclusion of lower and higher achieving students (Koretz).

If you want to read more about these issues, I go more in-depth, and address more topics, in my Present Problems and Solution Steps Essay, which you can read here

For Now

On An Individual (Micro) Scale You Should:

  • Educate yourself on the issues. Learn about your area’s public schooling systems. This is a problem which is highly localized and can vary wildly depending on where you live. Therefore, it’s important to know your area’s situation. Learn what laws are currently in the pipeline and what efforts are being made to help out local schools.
  • Write your state representatives. Let them know that you support a system which allows parents to enroll their children at any public school, not just the ones they live near. Also let them know that you support allocating state funds to high-poverty districts. This is a topic which requires large societal changes to fix, so it’s important to let your representative know that you care about this issue and that you believe all children deserve a good education. For more information and a pre-written script you can send to your representative, check out the Center for Education Reform’s advocacy page here

On A Societal (Macro) Level We Need To:

  • Allocate state and federal funding for public schools. The biggest problem with public schools is that a school’s resources are almost entirely dependent on the value of local property taxes. Often, it’s the schools with the least amount of money per student who need it most. Poorer schools need psychologists and counselors as much, if not more, than richer schools. We need states to allocate funds for higher-poverty and larger school districts in order to even the playing field
  • Determine school quality with feedback, not standardized tests. The current method for analyzing a school promotes an incredibly focused, cookie-cutter curriculum designed to teach kids what’s on the test, not what they need to know. We need to determine a school’s quality using other methods than standardized tests, such as student and parent feedback. For more information you can read a report from the Center for Education Reform here

Works Cited

My Works Cited can be found here


Now that you’ve read my research and my solutions, I’d love to hear any constructive feedback you have for me, in the form of a comment on this page!

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  1. April 24, 2020 by Elizabeth

    I completely agree with you about the inequalities in education and I really like how you also touched on the wealth gap as a whole. My research project was actually on a very similar topic!

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