What Should We Get Out of Education?

We live in a stratified and unjust world. Laborers in nearly every global industry face horrible conditions and receive wages that can not be justified by any humane reasoning. Marginalized people face brutalization at the hands of the state and systemic obstacles to opportunity. As the nation turns to interrogate systems of oppression and seeks ways to reimagine them, we must do the same with our education system.

The United States’ education system is one of the strongest and earliest mechanisms of this marginalization. A child’s socioeconomic status is one of the highest predictors of their academic success, one 2012 study showed. There is little evidence that any progress has been made towards equity in this regard, as the statistical correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement has grown over the last 25 years by nearly 40 percent.

In a country where children of color are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts, systemic racism reproduces through our schools. On average, 43 percent of funding for public schools comes from local property taxes. As a result, resources get channeled to neighborhoods with already high property values, neighborhoods that are primarily white due to the confluence of redlining, white flight, segregation, both de facto and de jure, 

Though many solutions have been proposed and enacted –from the Common Core to No Child Left Behind — inequality remains. But, reforms to the system are based on different perceived purposes and values of education and demand that we ask: What is the true purpose of education?

Historian of education David Labaree identifies three primary goals of education in America. 

The first is social mobility; under this paradigm, education is a private good meant to help an individual climb the ladder of our economic structure. The second is social efficiency; education is a public good meant to prepare a population for a diverse set of jobs with a diverse set of necessary skill sets. The third is democratic equality; education is a public good meant to maintain and uphold democratic society by providing everyone with critical thinking skills and a sense of empathy for others. 

The democratic equality model holds inequality and the acceptance of hierarchical society to be problematic. So if we want to make education truly function as a great equalizer, democratic equality must become the value we prioritize. Additionally, understanding socioeconomic equality as being inherent in this goal is vital to fulfilling the liberatory promise of education. Without this recognition, power imbalances are inevitable.

According to Labaree, social mobility has historically dominated the priorities of American education, as evidenced by the stratification of our education systems. These stratifications present themselves in a myriad of ways: advanced or honors tracks, gifted programs, standardized testing, admission to elite schools and others abound.  

All of these distinctions amplify the “exchange value” of education — that is, the value an individual can get in exchange for their academic credentials —  and minimize the “use value” of education, the skills and knowledge acquired from an education. Labaree points out that the emphasis on “exchange value” advantages those already at the top of the hierarchy and doesn’t necessarily translate to creating better-educated people. 

There is a multitude of institutional barriers to education reform; property tax is one of the most blatant. In 1973, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez came before the Supreme Court. Demetrio Rodriguez and the other plaintiffs argued that, through the use of property taxes, the funding scheme of the San Antonio Independent School District systematically disadvantaged people of color and poor people in the district and, therefore, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

However, in a 5–4 decision, the court ruled in favor of the San Antonio Independent School District, holding not only that education is not safeguarded by the Equal Protection Clause, but that the scheme of funding, though “concededly imperfect,” did not demonstrably disadvantage any particular class. 

This court case remains the precedent in federal courts, despite multiple similar plaintiffs winning their cases at state supreme courts — for example, New Jersey (Abbott v. Burke), Kansas (Gannon v. Kansas), California (Serrano v. Priest), and even Texas (Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby), where the original case took place. If this decision was challenged and reversed, it could direct funding toward creating an equitable system of education in this country. 

Right now, in Massachusetts, the NAACP is helping a group of thirteen parents sue the state for the right to an equitable education. Please contribute, volunteer, spread the word, assist in any way you can. Suits like these can create long-lasting material benefits for marginalized communities, but they are the first of many steps.  

Education should not be an area divided by winners and losers. It is a site of peoples’ growth and socialization, for both the good of themselves and others. Unfortunately, creating this vision of education is intertwined with systemic racial and socioeconomic overhauls, two goals that could take lifetimes to achieve if they’re even possible. 

At the moment, the nation stands at a crossroads. The president is forming a commission to create a “patriotic curriculum” meant to combat the rise of critical race theory in education. At the same time, his administration disingenuously threatens to revoke funding from institutions like Princeton when they acknowledge these systemic barriers. All the while, the gap between marginalized and privileged students will continue to grow due to the pandemic. 

The institutions that govern us are unjust, and all of us become complicit in them, not by choice but by simply existing. Our choice lies in what we do about it, and if education is a question of values, of what we strive to be, then, as Amherst students, who are we? What do we fight for?

In the end, no matter what the intended purpose of education may be, education — not just what we teach or how we teach, but who gets access to it and what quality of education they get access to — is key to how we construct our values as a society. At this current juncture, it is necessary to recenter our educational reform efforts around the promotion of democratic values, not just social mobility. If education ever has a chance of becoming a great equalizer, this restructuring of values must happen first.