Educational Inequality in America: Race and Gender

Education Inequality: Definition and Background       

Educational Inequality is about the disparity of access to educational resources between different social groups. Some examples of these resources include school funding, experienced and qualified educators, books, technologies and school facilities such as sports and recreation. Educational inequality in America are often the result of some of the following factors:

  • Government policies
  • Choice of school
  • Family wealth
  • Residential location
  • Parenting style and choices
  • Implicit bias towards a student’s race, ethnicity and gender

While there are many more factors that contribute to the existence of inequality in the American education system, the broader problems created as a consequence are among the biggest problems faced by America and Americans today. For example, research indicates a direct correlation between education inequality, income inequality, crime rates and prison populations, homelessness, and unemployment. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Educational inequality is hard to quantify. Measuring educational efficacy and the success and fairness of the education policy may vary between countries and states. In the United States, grades, GPAs, various test scores, college entrance and completion statistics, and dropout rates are some of the common statistics that form the basis of educational research.

It is important to note that these statistics are often measures of individual performance and abilities and may not always be indicators of the fairness of the education system. To see the bigger picture in terms of efficacy, most scholars agree that factors beyond academic performance – achievement of learning objectives, learning of skills, fairness of opportunities, and professional life readiness and capabilities – should also be considered.

It can be argued that these factors are more important in terms of measuring the disparity in the quality of education, as academic performance tends to be a reflection of a student’s capabilities instead of the result of policies and social problems. There are visible differences in the quality of education available across economic, racial, and gender lines.

There are calls to reform education systems all across the world. However, this has been a slow and difficult process due to social, cultural and economic practices that are deeply rooted in history. This has made the inequality considerably difficult to eradicate.

A good education is about more than just academic and professional performance and opportunities. It is an important part of moving forward towards becoming a more civilized and humane society. It is also ethically important.

Education should also be about creating awareness of the plight of others and about creating an inclusive and peaceful world that is devoid of injustice and discrimination.

Education Inequality: Facts and Statistics

  • The US spends more on education than other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The US, on average, spent 39% more on elementary and secondary education than other OECD countries. However, this extra spending doesn’t always translate to better educational outcomes.
  • By 2022, a 33% growth in the number of Hispanic students enrolled in public schools is expected comparison to  2011, whereas the overall number of non-white students is expected to grow by 44%. For an education system designed to prioritize white students, this exponential increase could prove to be disastrous.
  • Graduate rate figures from 2012:
    • 69% of Black students
    • 73 % of Hispanic students
    • 86% of Caucasian students
    • 88% of Asian students
  • More than 90% of students from low income backgrounds rely on their school as the primary source of high speed internet access. Because of unequal funding, nearly 40 million students do not have access to high speed internet in school. With internet becoming an essential part of modern learning, this disparity has far reaching consequences.
  • What is the importance of education as a prerequisite for good career opportunities? Nearly 85% of current and 90% of new jobs require some degree of education.
  • Only about half of the students that enroll in a 4 year college degree are expected to graduate within 6 years of enrollment.
  • Black students are more likely to be held back in formal schooling. Figures from 2011-12 indicate that 34% of all students held back in grade 9 were Black. In general, Black students are nearly 3 times more likely to be held back than their white peers. They’re also more likely to drop out of high school.
  • Black American students are three times more likely to be suspended and expelled. While they only make up 16% of school enrollment, they account for nearly 32% of in-school suspensions, 42% of out-of-school suspensions and 34% of expulsions.
  • Schools serving a higher number of minority students tend to have less-experienced, worse paid and less-qualified teachers.
  • In many cases there is direct correlation between race, residential location and quality of education. Black children are much more likely to live in low-income households and neighborhoods than their white and Hispanic peers. Almost 25% of Black parents report living in unsafe neighborhoods in comparison to 7% of white parents.
  • 16% of Black students drop out from high school in comparison to 8% of white students.
  • In the age group of 16 to 24, only 56% of Black students are likely to enroll in a 2 or 4 year college course in comparison to 66% of white students. More Black students tend to drop out of college or take longer to complete graduation.
  • Male students largely outnumber female students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. Gender based stereotypes, dissatisfaction with teaching approaches and lack of encouragement and self-confidence are some of the main contributors.
  • Gender based discrimination is often systematic and goes beyond graduation. Gender norms, networking trends, parenthood and other social factors are significant contributors. For example, only 9% of nurses are male while only 4% of women work in sheriffs’ departments.
  • College degree completion rates are lower for non-white American women than their white peers, and are higher than their male counterparts. However, the quality of education, attitudes towards education and the opportunities available to women are not on the same level as men.

Education Inequality: Gender

Many, if not most, women face inequality and gender-based discrimination in some form at some point in their lives. As a result, a lot of women are unable to lift themselves out of poverty and improve or change their living conditions. Most women in many parts of the world are still dependent on male family members (fathers, brothers, husbands and sons) for their economic well-being.

Numerically, in North America, Latin America, Caribbean and other western nations, girls are as likely as boys to enroll in and complete schooling. In fact, figures from the United States show that female students are nearly 8% more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than their male peers. This, then begs the question – Is gender based inequality in the United States a thing of the past? No. Inequality exists, but it is more complicated than in other parts of the world where women are still fighting for the right to education.

As stated previously, boys/men are more likely to be interested in and to excel at STEM subjects. However, studies between 1998 and 2011 indicated that there were no differences in the average math tests scores based on gender for kindergarten students. But a significant gap starts to emerge in favor of male students by the 2nd or 3rd grade. This makes it quite obvious that there is something going on in schools that contributes to this.

Looking deeper, it becomes clear that one of the contributing factors to this is the beliefs and attitudes towards the genders of their students. Studies found that when boys and girls belonging to the same race and achieving equal scores were compared, the teachers rated the boys as more mathematically skilled. This can also be interpreted as that for a girl willing to be seen as equally capable, she had to perform as well as a boy and has to be seen working harder than him. Research shows that the aforementioned increase in the gender gap in STEM subjects between kindergarten and 3rd grade accounts for nearly half of the perceived gap growth.

While various reputable studies indicate differences in the educational strengths and weaknesses of boys and girls – for example, girls are stronger at writing while boys seem to be better at mathematics – these negative attitudes tend to harden the gaps. As a result, there is a lot of stereotyping which may hinder educational progress.

Another, often disregarded, factor is the discriminatory attitudes of parents. America is a multi-racial and multi-ethnic society with a rich diversity in the cultural backgrounds of the populace. Some American households, where budget is a factor, may give more preference to the education of one gender over the other: typically male over female. There are also, often, restrictions over what academic subjects, courses of degrees a male or female student should follow.

Some argue that these cultural differences may contribute to inequality in the American education system, but should not be treated as the consequences of a failing system. However, this is where I’d like to add a brief definition of the phrase ‘education system.’

The education system is a term that encompasses all formal and informal sources of learning, grooming and growth… and it starts at home. Government policies fail to recognize these informal institutions as a part of the system and, therefore, miss out on the bigger picture. No policy is complete or will offer a complete solution without taking parents and the family unit on board.

That’s still not the end of the story. Girls and women in schools and colleges are constant victims of harassment and discrimination. There are frequent controversies in regards to what constitutes appropriate school or college attire – usually directed towards women.  Social practices, such as the stigma around a girl or woman having multiple sexual partners, while a male student is often lauded for the same, also contribute to the inequality that is rife in educational institutions.

History of Racial Inequality in American Education

President John F. Kennedy (1962) described education in the United States as an integral and unifying force behind the American way of life. He said that education is the greatest investment a society can make in itself, and is its own reward. However, education, like many other aspects of American society has a turbulent history.

1. Colonial Era and Slavery

The history of education in America is closely linked with religion. Teaching children to read the bible and learn about Puritan Christianity was the earliest form of education in the United States. The primary purpose of the earliest formal education was to try to assimilate, conform and convert indigenous people into European values, religions and standards.

This process included teaching the natives new languages in an effort to force them to give up their own traditions, cultural practices and even their language This continued well into the 20th century when indigenous children were forced to attend boarding schools in an effort to assimilate entire communities into mainstream American society.

However, education was also used as a weapon to suppress some segments of society. For instance, African-Americans were prevented from learning to read and write so that they did not learn to question and challenge the status-quo. This fear was especially prevalent in the American South, leading to strict laws prohibiting even the most basic education for slaves.

Some religious groups often attempted to form schools for African Americans. However, this was met with opposition.

2. Civil War and Reconstruction

In comparison to many of the Southern states, attitudes towards the education of minorities and, in particular, African Americans were much more progressive. However, it wasn’t until the Reconstruction Era (after the end of the Civil War) that Black Americans started to gain access to widespread formal education.

Despite the many challenges, the newly freed African Americans sought education as a priority and as means of socio-economic progress and empowerment. However, even then the educational system wasn’t devoid of inequality. While the number of Black students enrolling into educational institutions increased manifold, there was immense inequality in terms of academic and employment opportunities between the different races.

3. Jim Crow Laws

The formal abolition of slavery did not result in an abolition of discrimination targeted towards Black Americans. While slavery was deemed unconstitutional, states were free to enact laws that allowed them to prevent equal opportunities for African Americans.

In this era of segregation, which lasted until the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century, Black schools often received less funding than schools meant for white children. This meant that Black students had access to worse facilities, lesser resources and, often, inexperienced and unqualified teaching staff.

This had far reaching consequences for American society and, especially, for African Americans. This meant higher dropout rates, disparity in employment opportunities and higher crime rates especially in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

4. Civil Rights Movement and Integration

The desegregation of the American education system was one of the driving forces behind the Civil Rights Movement. The disparity in the allocation of academic resources, and the discrimination faced by Black students resulted in the creation of various student organizations that played an integral role in the passing of anti-discriminatory laws.

5. The Problems of Today

While there is no doubt that the education system, and American society as a whole, has come a long way towards ending discrimination and injustice, the problems are far from over. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination are still prevalent in the American education system. The following sections of this article will highlight the facts, statistics, and the numerous problems with the current education system and propose some well researched solutions.

How to Eradicate Education Inequality

It is a cliché to say that young people are the future. However, a lot needs to be done to help secure a good future for them. Therefore, if inequality persists and reforms are slow to materialize, this future may be in jeopardy. Disadvantaged students, or those that are discriminated against, are two and half times more likely to be low performers on exams. With the numbers female students and students from minority groups on the rise, this lack of performance is likely to grow in a system designed to favor those from privileged backgrounds.

The problem with the American education is not the lack of resources, but the unwillingness or inability (sometimes both) to apply them constructively. Here’s a list of suggestions that may help eradicate the plague of education inequality:

  1. Intent – The first step in bringing about change is to recognize the need for changes and then be willing to do what is necessary.
  2. Clear Objectives and Strategies – There needs to be a well-thought process of learning at the federal level. The policy makers need to understand why reforms are needed. It is only with this clarity, will they be able to set clear and achievable goals and be able to plot the best possible course towards achieving them. Inclusion of subjects such as Sex Education and Gender Studies are examples of some steps in the right direction.
  3. Standardization and Equalization – Standardization, such as of curriculum, testing, and facilities, and accountability – holding all schools and institutions to the same standards and regulations – can help bridge the gaps. The distribution of resources should be equitable, if not equal, and proportionate, across schools and institutions. However, standardization should also be applied at an individual level. Students should be held to the same standards and given the opportunities to enjoy the same advantages regardless of race, gender, economic status etc.
  4. Teachers and Teaching Methods – The role of teachers as leaders of changes in the education system should be recognized. Not only should they be involved in the process of reforming the system, but their value to the system needs to be appreciated. Most teachers today are overworked and underpaid. Some teachers are inexperienced or unqualified. Often they are found teaching subjects out of their zones of expertise. Also, Teachers need to be trained and retrained to stay on par with the latest teaching methods in the world. They should also be trained about subjects such as harassment and discrimination.
  5. Troubled Neighborhoods – There should be a special emphasis on schools in areas with high rates of crime. The schools should be safeguarded, however, I believe that a high quality education can be the biggest safeguard of all.
  6. Bring Parents on Board – While PTAs exist and play an important role in the education system, policy makers need to recognize the roles of parents as informal educations. This can be a significant contributor to the end of inequality in the American education system.


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