Hot Topics in Education

Learning Outcomes

  • Consider legal and equality concerns in education

When Americans are asked about their opinion of public education on the Gallup poll each year, reviews are mixed at best (Saad 2008). Schools are no longer merely a place for learning and socializing. With the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling in 1954, schools became a repository of politicized legal action that is at the heart of several issues in education.

Equal Education

Until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, schools had operated under the precedent set by Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, which allowed racial segregation in schools and private businesses (the case dealt specifically with railroads) and introduced the troubling phrase “separate but equal” into the U.S. lexicon. Brown overruled this, declaring that state laws establishing separate schools for Black and white students were, in fact, unequal and therefore unconstitutional in light of the 14th Amendment (which guarantees equality before the law).

While the ruling paved the way toward civil rights, it was also met with opposition in many communities. In Arkansas in 1957, the governor mobilized the state National Guard to prevent Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower, in response, sent members of the 101st Airborne Division from Kentucky to uphold the students’ right to enter the school. In 1963, almost ten years after the ruling, Governor George Wallace of Alabama used his own body to block two Black students from entering the auditorium at the University of Alabama to enroll in the school. Wallace’s desperate attempt to uphold his policy of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” stated during his 1963 inauguration (PBS 2000), became known as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.” He refused to grant entry to the students until a general from the Alabama National Guard arrived on President Kennedy’s order.


Click on this link ( to watch a video showing footage of the Little Rock 9, the students who the National Guard was sent to prevent Black students from entering Little Rock Central High School. This next video is an interview with one of the Little Rock 9 students discussing her experience.

Armed National Guardsmen escorting Black students up the outside stairs of a brick high school building.
Figure 1. President Eisenhower sent members of the 101st Airborne Division from Kentucky to escort Black students into Little Rock Central High School after the governor of Arkansas tried to deny them entry. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army)

Presently, students of all races and ethnicities are permitted in America’s schools, but there remains a troubling gap in the relative quality of education they receive. The long-term socially embedded effects of racism—and other forms of discrimination and disadvantage—have produced a range of challenges for many students. Those from wealthy families and those of lower socioeconomic status do not receive the same opportunities. This is the result of many factors, including the policy wherein economic resources are dependent on local property taxes, which results in wealthier neighborhoods having higher quality schools. In demographic and sociological literature, this is often referred to as cumulative advantage or disadvantage.

Today’s public schools, at least in theory, are positioned to help remedy those gaps. To help ensure universal access, this system was legally mandated to accept and retain all students regardless of race, religion, social class, and the like. Moreover, public schools are held accountable to equitable per-student spending (Resnick 2004). Private schools, usually only accessible to students from high-income families, and schools in more affluent areas generally enjoy access to greater resources and better opportunities. In fact, the strongest predictors for student performance include socioeconomic status and family background. Children from families of lower socioeconomic status often enter school with already acquired learning deficits, and must overcome these obstacles alongside their institutionally assigned responsibilities. These patterns, uncovered in the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, are still relevant today, as sociologists generally agree that there is a great divide in the performance of white students from affluent backgrounds and their nonwhite, less affluent counterparts. The Coleman Report, commissioned in accordance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, found that the racial and social demographics of schools, along with the student’s home and family life, had a greater effect on student learning than the quality of the school institution itself.

Despite these shortcomings in equal access to education, which have been well-established by academic research, it is important to note that schools do narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. Research shows that it is often the non-school environment that presents the greatest inequality, and that schools, despite being unequal in quality and opportunity, present a smaller inequality than what is seen in students’ homes. This conclusion is drawn from the evidence that the gap in cognitive skills grows mostly during the summer months, when students are not attending school and when their progress is exclusively dependent on the home environment and the resources there.[1]

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Head Start

The findings in the Coleman Report were so powerful that they brought about two major changes to education in the United States. The federal Head Start program, which is still active and successful today, was developed to give low-income students an opportunity to make up the preschool deficit discussed in James S. Coleman’s findings. The program provides academic-centered preschool to students of low socioeconomic status.


The second major change brought about after the release of the Coleman Report was less successful than the Head Start program, and has generated a great deal of controversy. With the goal of further desegregating education, courts across the United States ordered some school districts to begin a program known as “busing.” This program involved transporting students to schools outside their neighborhoods (and therefore to schools they would not normally have the opportunity to attend) in an effort to balance racial diversity. This policy was met with substantial public resistance from people on both sides, whether dissatisfied with white students traveling to inner city schools, or minority students being transported to schools in the suburbs.

No Child Left Behind

In 2001, the George W. Bush administration passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires states to test students in designated grades. The results of those tests determine eligibility for schools to receive federal funding. Schools that do not meet the standards set by the act risk funding cuts. Sociologists and teachers alike have contended that the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act is far more negative than positive, arguing that a “one size fits all” concept cannot apply to education. The act’s rationale for funding also seemed backwards. If students at a school are not performing as well as they might, shouldn’t those very schools be the ones eligible for increased government funding?

Teaching to the Test

The funding implications of the No Child Left Behind Act have led to the phenomenon commonly called “teaching to the test,” wherein a curriculum narrowly focuses on preparing students to succeed on standardized tests, but fails to address broader educational goals and learning concepts. At issue are two approaches to classroom education: the notion that teachers impart knowledge that students are obligated to absorb, versus the concept of student-centered learning that seeks to teach children not facts, but problem solving abilities and learning skills. Both types of learning have been valued in the U.S. school system. The former, to critics of “teaching to the test,” only equips students to regurgitate facts, while the latter, to proponents of the other camp, fosters lifelong learning and transferable work skills.

Bilingual Education

New issues of inequality have entered the national conversation in recent years regarding bilingual education, which attempts to give equal opportunity to minority students through offering instruction in languages other than English. Though it is actually an old issue (bilingual education was federally mandated in 1968), it remains a controversial one. Supporters of bilingual education argue that all students deserve equal opportunities in education—opportunities some students cannot access without instruction in their first language. On the other side, those who oppose bilingual education often point to the need for English fluency in everyday life and in the professional world.


There are academic and professional benefits to being bilingual, which has also pushed for dual-language learning in the United States. This TED talk explains some of the benefits of multilingualism.

Common Core

“The Common Core is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade.” Included in the list of standards is that they be evidence-based, clear, understandable, consistent, aligned with college and career expectations, include the application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills, and are informed by other top-performing countries (The Common Core State Standards Initiative 2014).

The primary controversy over the Common Core State Standards, or simply the Common Core, from the standpoint of teachers, parents and students, and even administrators, is not so much the standards themselves, but the assessment process and the high stakes involved. Both the national teachers’ unions in the United States initially agreed to them, at least in principle. But both have since become strongly critical. Given a public education system that is primarily funded by local property taxes, rather than by state and federal funds distributed to all schools equally, we see a wide disparity in funding-per-student throughout the country, with the result that students in schools funded by affluent communities are clearly better off than those who are not–even when the schools being compared are located just a few miles apart. As such, broad standards for academic performance that do not account for inherent disadvantages in the education system hurt certain groups of students.

What gets measured?

Much has been said about the quality, usefulness, and even accuracy of many of the standardized tests. Math questions have been found to be misleading and poorly phrased; for instance, “Tyler made 36 total snowfalls with is a multiple of how triangular snowflakes he made. How many triangular snowflakes could he have made?”

Some of the essays had questions that made little sense to the students, or to adults, for that matter. One notable test question in 2014 that dominated the Internet for a time was about “The Hare and the Pineapple.” This was a parody of the well-known Aesop fable of the race between the hare and the tortoise that appeared on a standardized test for New York’s eighth-grade exam–though with the tortoise changed into a talking pineapple. With the pineapple clearly unable to participate in a race and the hare winning, “the animals ate the pineapple.” “Moral: Pineapples don’t have sleeves.”

At the end of the story, questions for the student included, “Which animal spoke the wisest words?” and “Why did the animals eat the talking fruit?” Evidently, this question is problematic and rather confusing, leading students to underperform based on standard measures.

Think It Over

  • Is busing a reasonable method of serving students from diverse backgrounds? If not, suggest and support an alternative.

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[glossary-term]Head Start program:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]a federal program that provides academically focused preschool to students of low socioeconomic status[/glossary-definition]

[glossary-term]No Child Left Behind Act:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]an act that requires states to test students in prescribed grades, with the results of those tests determining eligibility to receive federal funding[/glossary-definition]

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  1. Downey, D., Von Hippel, P., & Broh, B. (2004). Are Schools the Great Equalizer? Cognitive Inequality during the Summer Months and the School Year. American Sociological Review, 69(5), 613-635. Retrieved from


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