Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Philosophy and Ethics/Equality

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What does equality mean in American education?

Americans have been trying to achieve equality in education for years, but, even in today’s society, some students have a greater opportunity than others to achieve academic success. For present and future teachers to understand the value and usage of equality, teachers should understand what equality means to education and why all students do not have the same opportunities.

What Does Equality Mean[edit]

To understand equality in education one must first understand the definition of equality. As defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the terms "equality,” "equal," and "equally" signify a relationship between a group of different objects, persons, processes or circumstances that have the same qualities in at least one respect, but not all respects. Thus, to say “that all men are created equal” is not to say that they are identical. Equality rather implies similarity but not sameness [1].

Equal Education Opportunity[edit]

Based on the Congressional Declaration of Policy, all children enrolled in public schools are entitled to equal educational opportunity without regard to race, color, sex, or national origin [2]. However, this is not the case in today’s American public schools. Factors such as social status, race and disability can determine the quality of education provided to students.

The High Cost of Pre-School[edit]

Social class can predetermine a child’s education from pre-school to college. The age at which children attend preschool is a time when their brains are developing at an incredibly rapid pace, laying a foundation of social skills, knowledge and self confidence that paves the way for success in kindergarten and beyond. A long term study completed at the Institution of Education, Birbeck, University of London and the University of Oxford called the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) looked at how pre-school affected three and four year olds. The study named key findings showing how pre-school affected these children. These included:

  1. Impact of attending pre-school:
    • compared to children not attending pre-school, pre-school enhances the overall development of the children attending
    • starting school at an earlier stage proves to enhance intellectual development
    • full time attendance to pre-school allowed for greater gains for the children
    • disadvantage students benefit greatly from having the pre-school experience
  2. Effects in quality and specific practices in pre-school
    • high quality pre-school enhances intellectual and social development
    • staff with better qualifications have children who perform better
  3. Importance of home learning
    • home learning is the most important factor in a child’s learning and social development, more important than social standing and family income

Children who attend a quality preschool are more likely to become good readers in elementary school, graduate from high school and attend college. These children are less likely to be put in special education classes or be held back a grade. As adults, they are less likely to need public assistance, such as welfare or financial aid and they are less likely to become arrested or incarcerated [3].

The cost of preschool is steep, ranging from $3,016 to $9,628 a year, depending on the state. This cost now consumes so much of families’ incomes that working parents are basing major decisions about their jobs and families on how much care they can afford. While this expense is hard on low-income earners, who might find all options priced out of reach, middle-class families are suffering as well. One family from Boston compared to the cost of childcare in their city to that of a second mortgage [4].

As a society, we cannot afford to postpone investing in children until they become adults, nor can we wait until they reach school age – a time when it may be too late to intervene.

—James Heckman, 2000 Nobel Laureate in Economics, University of Chicago

The majority of preschool age children already spend some time in child care and preschool settings, but the United States still does not have an established means to ensure the quality of these primarily private programs. As a result, many American children continue to enter school without adequate preparation to succeed in an academic environment. The longer children progress in school without learning basic skills, the wider their achievement gap grows, and the less likely they will be to catch up with their peers [5].

How America Measures Up[edit]

Industrialized countries around the world have embraced universal preschool, which provides free or affordable preschool to anyone interested. The purpose of this is to address poor performance in grade school. While only 57 percent of four-year olds are enrolled in center-based programs in the United States, at least 90 percent of four-year olds are enrolled in preschool programs in France, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The United States falls short in this comparison, with no national policy on preschool or any efficient means of monitoring and enforcing the quality of programs that are funded by the federal government. Providing universal preschool will help all children reach their full potential, regardless of family income (

Inequalities in Public Schools[edit]

Although public schools are free and every child can attend, there are still setbacks for children of a lower social class. According to Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (pgs. 499-500), the future of a child can be determined after only eight days in an elementary classroom. In the “Rist Research,” sociologist Ray Rist observed an African American classroom with an African American teacher and discovered that after only eight days in the classroom, the teacher felt that she knew the children’s abilities well enough to assign them to separate worktables. To Table 1, she assigned those considered to be “fast learners.” They sat at the front of the class, closest to her. The “average” students were placed at Table 2 and the “slow learners” at Table 3 in the back of the classroom.

This seemed strange to Rist so he decided to do some further investigating. He found that social class was the underlying basis for assigning the children to the different tables. Middle class students were placed at Table 1 and children from poorer homes were placed at the other two tables. The teacher paid the most attention to the children closest to her, less to Table 2, and least to Table 3. As the year went on, the children at Table 1 perceived that they were treated better and started seeing themselves as smarter. They became the leaders in class activities and even ridiculed children at the other tables, calling them “dumb.” Eventually, the children at Table 3 stopped participating in classroom activities. By the end of the year, the only children who had completed the lessons prepared for them were the children at Table 1.

The children’s reputations followed them in second grade when another teacher reviewed their scores and also divided her class into three groups, the “Tigers,” “Cardinals,” and “Clowns.” These groups were made up of the exact same students in the same groups from Tables 1, 2, and 3. Rist concluded that each child’s journey through school was determined by the eighth day of kindergarten. The labels given to these children by their kindergarten teacher set them on a course of action that could possibly affect the rest of their lives.

Equality in Special Education[edit]

Prior to 1973, students with special needs were not entitled to a fair and equal education. There was a large percentage of disabled students not receiving a quality education. Before federal legislature was enacted, federal statistics showed that, of the more than 8 million children up to age 21 with disabilities, only half of them were receiving an appropriate education. In addition, another 2.5 million were receiving an inappropriate education and 1.75, usually those students with severe disabilities, received no public education (Palmaffy 2). This was unacceptable. Every child should be entitled to a quality education without being discriminated against because of their disability. After the federal government and advocates for special education noticed the discrepancy, there were major changes made. They devised federal mandates such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Acts of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Those acts were huge stepping stones towards equality for special needs students. Everything is not perfect however. The majority of students with disabilities indicated that they had encountered barriers to their education. These barriers include: a lack of understanding and cooperation from administrators, faculty, staff, and other students; lack of adaptive aids and other resources; and inaccessibility of buildings and grounds (Getzel, Ipsen, Kegel, Martin, Ming, West 15). Luckily for the acts that were put in place, these students can fight for their rights. These acts are explained in further detail. Teachers and administrators should be aware of these acts to ensure equality among the special needs students.


IDEA stands for Individuals with Disabilities Education Acts, which was enacted in 1975. IDEA is an educational act that helps provide federal financial assistance to state and local education agencies to guarantee special education and related services to eligible children with disabilities (Henderson). The key word here is "eligible". Not all students with disabilities are covered under IDEA. The IDEA provides assistance to children between the ages of 3-21 who are determined by a multidisciplinary team to be eligible. In order to be eligible, the student must fall within one or more of the 13 categories of disability and who need special education and related services (Henderson). These various categories are spelled out in the legislature. The categories include: autism, deafness, deaf-blindness, hearig impairments, mental retardation, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, serious emotional disturbance, specific learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment. If a child falls under any these specific categories, they are covered under IDEA. There are some students with disabilities who do not meet the criteria for coverage under the IDEA. So what happens to those students? The answer to this question is that most of them are covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Section 504[edit]

Section 504 broadens the IDEA. All children who fall under the IDEA are covered by Section 504. However, not every child in section 504 falls under IDEA. Sometimes this situation can sound complicated. The reason behind this is that the IDEA is more specific. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-112) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disabling conditions by programs receiving or benefiting from federal financial assistance (Getzel et. al). This basically means that any organization receiving money from the federal goverment has to treat students with disabilities as an equal. They should be treated as equal as the students without disabilities. It is a civil rights law. As stated before Section 504 has more coverage for people with disabilities. Section 504 covers any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major activities, has a record of such an impairment, and is regarded as having such an impairment (Henderson). The major activities that they are referring to include: walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, caring for oneself, and performing manual tasks. Since this law was enacted, a lot of special needs students are receiving the education and related services that they require.

High Tuition Rates[edit]

After graduating from public school, many adolescents cannot afford to pursue their education because of high tuition rates. With 90 percent of the fastest-growing jobs requiring post-secondary education or training, a college education is fast becoming a necessity. Yet, as costs skyrocket, it is becoming increasingly difficult for middle and lower-income students to afford college [6]. As they have for the last ten years, college costs are rising faster than inflation, according to the report "Trends in College Pricing,” a non-profit association of 4,500 schools, colleges and universities. “Including room and board, the cost of attending a private college is $29,026 per year on average, and $12,127 at four-year public universities” [7].

The Issues of Diversity[edit]

Aside from social status, another factor determining equality in education is race. Today, schools and colleges can have "race-conscious" and "race-targeted" policies because diversity is important. Colleges strive to accommodate the needs of all ethnicities, but the people of one race may receive different opportunities than those of another race. For example, there are schools that give full financial aid to all minority students, regardless of need. Also, there are many scholarships that only apply to people of a certain race. Public funding should not be given to some and denied to others, simply because of their race.


Equality in education means that every child, teenager, and adult has the equal opportunity to learn. Every child should be entitled to a government funded preschool education, regardless of household income. America needs to take a step forward in ensuring that any social class can start learning as early as possible and be able to continue their education through college. Furthermore, financial aid should not be given to a race just to promote diversity but rather given to those who deserve and truly need financial help. Educators, society, and the government need to equally give their part in ensuring that the future of education is no longer subdivided by social class and race but rather directed to producing the full potential out of each and every student.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Mrs. Ramsey, a high school guidance counselor, is trying to help a student find scholarships to help them pay for college. Which scholarship would be available to the most students?
A. American Association of University Women (AAUW) (Applicant must be a female of at least 21)
B. American Indian Graduate Center Fellowship Grants (Applicant must be an American Indian graduate student)
C. AXA Achievement Scholarship Program in association with U.S. News & World Report (Must be well-rounded, determined to succeed and have achieved excellence outside the classroom. Must demonstrate that they care about their family and community.)
D. Associated General Contractors of Virginia Tidewater AGC Educational Scholarships (Applicant must be pursuing a construction related degree, a tradesman journeyman classification, business or engineering degree)

C. AXA Achievement Scholarship Program in association with U.S. News & World Report

Jamie is a three year old boy from a middle class family. His parents have decided not to enroll Jamie into preschool. What advice would be appropriate for Jamie's parents to change their decision?
A. The age at which children attend preschool is a time when their brains are developing at an incredibly rapid pace.
B. Children who attend preschool will have better friends.
C. Going to preschool will guarantee that their child will be accepted into the college of their choice.
D. Preschool will enable a child to be an honor student throughout their academic careers.

A. The age at which children attend preschool is a time when their brains are developing at an incredibly rapid pace.

A high school teacher Thomas Baker was having a discussion with another teacher debating the true meaning of equality. Mr. Baker would be right in saying:
A. The only students who are truly equal are twins.
B. Students may have similar qualities, but they are not the same.
C. All students are the same.
D. Students of the same race are equal to one another.

B. Students may have similar qualities, but they are not the same.

The U.S. made a code, "The Declaration of Policy," in efforts to ensure equality. What four factors make up this code of equality in American education?
A. sex, age, cultural diversity, and intelligence
B. sexual orientation, age, income, and national origin
C. income, color, cultural diversity, and age
D. race, color, sex, and national origin

D. race, color, sex, and national origin

Jimmey went to a preschool that was not academically qualified. However, Debbie attended a private preschool that was academically qualified. What is a disadvantage Jimmey has compared to Debbie?
A. Jimmey's education could be somewhat lower than Debbie's, making it harder for him to catch up.
B. Jimmey will not be able to succeed in school.
C. Jimmey will never be able to catch up to Debbie because her preschool education was much better.
D. Jimmey's peers will not like him as well as Debbie.

A. Jimmey's education could be somewhat lower than Debbie's, making it harder for him to catch up.

You have a special needs student in your classroom who as multiple disabilities. Which of his disabilities below are not covered under the IDEA?
A. mental retardation
B. speech or language impairment
C. serious emotional disturbance
D. paralysis

D. paralysis

What year was the IDEA enacted?
A. 1982
B. 1975
C. 1973
D. 1987

B. 1975

What section of the rehabilitation act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disabling conditions by programs receiving or benefiting from federal financial assistance?
A. Section 801
B. Section 270
C. Section 504
D. Section 601

C. Section 504

Which industrialized country does not provide preschool programs for at least 90 percent of its four year old?
A. France
B. Japan
C. United States
D. United Kingdom

C. United States

According to Sociology: A Down to Earth Approach, the educational future of a child can be determined in as little as ___________ by a teacher.
A. 90 minutes
B. 8 days
C. 5 weeks
D. 3 months

B. 8 days

The Smiths are a middle class family with two preschool aged children. What factor would most likely not be the major factor when deciding whether or not to put their children into preschool?
A. The cost of preschool
B. Children who attend preschool often have a better foundation for life
C. Their neighbors send their preschoolers to babysitters
D. If the staff of the preschool is certified

C. Their neighbors send their preschoolers to babysitters

What does EPPE stand for?
A. Early Provisions of Pre-School Education
B. Effective Provisions of Pre-School Education
C. European Provisions of Personal Education
D. Effective Provisions of Personal Education

B. Effective Provisions of Pre-School Education

What is the most important factor in a child's learning?
A. The home life
B. Family income
C. Qualified staff
D. Starting school earlier

A. The home life

What percentage of four-year olds are enrolled in center-based programs in the United States?
A. 52%
B. 47%
C. 78%
D. 57%

D. 57%

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal sample responses.

In the story mentioned before, what could the kindergarten teacher have done differently to prevent the fate of the children’s education?

In my opinion the kindergarten teacher should not have separated the children into groups based on her opinion of how fast her students could learn. The teacher only allowed two weeks of evaluating the students’ learning potential to make her decision on who learned the fastest. This is not an adequate amount of time to make such an important decision and who to give the most attention to. Although I think it’s good for teachers to know their students strength’s and weaknesses, I do not think the answer was putting the children who had the hardest time learning in the back of the class. However, it would also not be right to put the children who learn the fastest in the back. Instead one row made into a half circle surrounding the teacher would have been the best decision on her part. By doing this the teacher could equally give the children a chance to ask and answer questions and would help prevent children from labeling each other as “smart” or “dumb.” Furthermore, by having the slow learners in the front of the class with all the other students gives them the ability to hear and see better allowing them the chance to take in more information. By giving equal attention to students, the end results would be more positive for every student.

First off, I believe that separating the children into table groups dependent on what the teacher believed to be the quicker and slower learning children was an awful idea. This causes an immediate hierarchical atmosphere in the classroom giving the “smarter” children the feeling of more control and being better which could carry on throughout the rest of their childhood and adult life. If I, as he teacher, noticed after the first week of class that certain students were doing better than others I would pair them up with the slower students so they could help them. After a month or two if I noticed certain students still having trouble or bring their “partner” down I would bring them to the front of the classroom where they would have more attention and less distractions. The kindergarten teacher placing the “fast learners” in the front of the classroom and the “slow learners” in the back presents another problem to me. I would automatically place the children having difficulties in the front, near to me that way I would be there to guide them and hopefully stop them from acting up seeing that I believe they would feel as if they would get away with less being closer to the teacher. —Katelyn Wininger


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