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Chapter Summary


Like family, education ranks highly among social institutions vital to society. Education as a social institution is responsible for transmitting knowledge, skills, and cultural values in a formally organized structure. Because of its importance at both a micro- and macrolevel, when the education system falls short of its ideals and objectives it results in a social problem.

Sociologically education is addressed from one of the three major sociological perspectives or a combination of the three. Functionalists believe education is one of the most important social institutions because it contributes to the smooth functioning of society. It provides individuals with opportunities for personal fulfillment and upward social mobility. Based on the functionalist perspective, when the manifest functions of education fail social problems develop. Some of the manifest functions of education include socialization, transmission of culture, social control, social placement, and change and innovation. In addition to these manifest functions are latent functions. These latent functions may be unintended but benefit the individual as well as society. Among latent functions are child care for school age children, keeping teenagers out of the full-time job market, and serving as matchmaking institutions at the high school and college levels.

Conflict theorists believe that instead of reducing social inequality, the education system actually perpetuates inequality based on class, race, and gender. It reproduces existing class relationships primarily because of differing amounts of cultural capital students bring to the classroom. An important part of this perpetuation of inequality is the existence of a hidden curriculum that teaches students to be obedient and patriotic. This produces values that uphold the status quo in society and transforms students into compliant workers. It manipulates the masses and permits the upper class to maintain their power in society.

Symbolic interactionists believe that education is an integral part of the socialization process. It stresses the personal relationships students form with peers and teachers. Positive relationships result in personal success for the student. Negative relationships result in students being labeled as “losers.”

There are a number of social problems confronting the educational system in the United States and the public that is served by this system. Among them are unacceptable high rates of illiteracy, problems associated with immigration and a need for increased diversity, violence, unequal opportunities based on race, class, and gender, financing school programs, and enforcing affirmative action programs.

On the average, one in four adults in the United States is functionally illiterate. Minorities are grossly misrepresented. Forty-four percent of adult African Americans and 56 percent of Latinos/as qualify as being functionally illiterate. Whether or not this illiteracy problem is directly related to U.S. immigration or the result of poor schools is debated. Educating immigrants, however, is another difficult task for the educational system. Over 18 percent or some 47 million Americans speak a language other than English at home. This problem is especially severe in states with high levels of immigration including California, Texas, New York, and Illinois.

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka states were permitted to establish “separate but equal” school systems, one for white students and one for minority students. The desegregation and integration of schools as required by the Brown decision was slow in progressing. High student-teacher ratios and a lack of financial resources in inner city schools results in a lesser quality of education for the predominantly African American and Hispanic students attending them. This is complicated by fewer Latino/a children being able to attend preschool programs such as Head Start.

School violence results in about 50 students a year being killed on school grounds and three million criminal charges filed annually at schools. Suggestions for reducing school violence include requiring higher student standards, establishing a school uniform to eliminate competition among students for fashion clothing and jewelry, and establishing school police forces.

Adequate financial support is often closely tied to resolving many social problems. Problems in education are no exception. Schools are funded by state legislative appropriations and local property taxes. In economically depressed areas the tax base is lacking to generate sufficient funds to support quality school programs. Proposals to resolve inadequate funding all have problems of their own. These include the establishing of a voucher system and restructuring schools to reduce administrative costs.

Problems in higher education include financial issues. Soaring costs for tuition, books, and supplies prohibits some qualified students from attending college and making others choose an inexpensive university they can afford over a more specialized one that would more adequately meet their career goals. The role of affirmative action in higher education has long been an issue, but has recently been brought to national attention. Several cases charging reverse discrimination and favoritism to minorities were filed in California, Texas, and Michigan. Voters in California passed Proposition 209 that prohibits affirmative action in any form.

Education must be improved in the twenty-first century to improve its quality, especially for inner city students, African Americans, and Latinos/as. President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 that called for a greater accountability of the educational system. Its success will take years of analysis. Other non-academic issues in school that must be addressed include drugs in school, school violence, and weapons carried by students.

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