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International Issues of Social Mobility of Underprivileged Groups

Equality Education and Equity, Significant Educational Interventions

Children of lower socioeconomic status (SES) groups tend to perform worse in school than upper SES groups, and they tend to stay in school for a shorter time. In addition, these children tend to be underrepresented in higher education. These patterns exist regardless of region of world, sociopolitical system, and level of economic development of a country. This article examines the universality of these observations. It also discusses exceptions to these general tendencies and promising interventions that enable children of lower socioeconomic groups to overcome barriers to progress in school.

Equality Education and Equity

The theme of education and social mobility of underprivileged groups is integrally related to issues of social equality and equity. Equality, according to Martin Bronfenbrenner, refers to the numerical distribution of a good or service (such as income, land, or years of schooling), whereas equity refers to judgments concerning the fairness or justice of that distribution. The sociological study of equality of educational opportunity and outcomes usually focuses on the relationship between stratification–the hierarchical ordering of people on such dimensions as wealth, power, and prestige–and the amount and type of schooling available to different social groups. According to Ann Parker Parelius and Robert James Parelius, it is widely assumed that "'equality of opportunity' exists when each person regardless of such ascribed characteristics as family background, religion, ethnicity, race, or gender, has the same chance of acquiring a favorable socioeconomic position" (p. 264).

It should be noted that equal educational opportunity does not necessarily imply that people will end up equal but simply that an individual's socioeconomic position will be the result of a "fair and open contest–one in which the winners are those who work hardest and demonstrate the most ability" (Parelius and Parelius, p. 264). In the debate over inequality, one critical question concerns the degree to which advantage is passed on from one generation to another. For example, if the social-class standing of a family is high in terms of income, occupational status, and educational attainment, will the family's offspring have greater access to the highest levels of a school system? And what is the effect of family socioeconomic position on the relationship between level of schooling attained and subsequent income and occupational status? Christopher J. Hurn noted in 1993 that if a society's education system is truly meritocratic (that is, based on ability and not on ascriptive factors such as social class, gender, and ethnicity), then (1) the correlation between individuals' educational attainment (how far one goes in school) and future occupational status should increase over time; (2) the correlation between students' educational attainment and their parents' socioeconomic status should decrease over time; and (3) the correlation between parents' SES and their offspring's SES should also decrease.

Evidence strongly supports the proposition that, around the world, education increasingly is becoming the strongest determinant of occupational status and the type of life chances individuals experience. Evidence does not, however, support the thesis that the relationship between family background and how far one goes in school and what one learns is decreasing over time. Indeed, the relationship between family SES and school success or failure appears to be increasing since the 1980s as the result, in part, of public policies that tend to decentralize and privatize education. While primary education has expanded to near universal coverage of the relevant age group, access to the levels of education that are most important for social mobility and entry into the most modern and competitive sectors of the increasingly globalized economies remain elusive for all but elites. Consequently, the relationship between parents' SES and their children's SES has shown little evidence of changing over time.

Significant Educational Interventions

Moreover, comparative longitudinal studies of factors influencing what is learned in school and level of educational attainment suggest that as societies industrialize and modernize, social class increasingly plays a significant role in determining educational outcomes. This finding does not discount the importance of school-based factors in determining how well students, especially those living in conditions of poverty, fare in school. Well-designed interventions aimed at improving the quality of instruction can make a difference. These include quality preschool and early childhood programs with supplementary nutrition and health care services; more adequate school infrastructure so that poor, rural, and indigenous children have the same amenities (school desks and chairs, electricity, running water, and toilets) enjoyed by their more advantaged peers in urban and private schools; a flexible academic calendar responsive to the socioeconomic context of schools in different regions of a country; sufficient supplies of textbooks and culturally sensitive as well as socially relevant curricular materials in the appropriate languages; teaching guides matched to transformed curricula; student-centered, more active pedagogies that involve collaborative work as well as personalized attention to each child; significantly improved pre-service and in-service teacher education and professional development programs and opportunities; incentive pay for teachers working under difficult conditions and, generally, more adequate remuneration and social recognition of the importance of teaching; and, importantly, greater participation of teachers, parents, and communities in the design of education programs to meet their self-defined needs.

For female students, who are often the most discriminated against with regard to access to schooling and the types of curricula that lead to high-status jobs, a complementary set of interventions would include placement of schools closer to their homes, female teachers and administrators as role models, opportunities to be taught separately where appropriate, academically challenging curricula, waiver of tuition and book fees, and, in some cases, monetary incentives to families to compensate for lost income or opportunity costs borne by them. In some cases, agencies working to promote greater school participation rates by females have employed a variety of outreach activities and media, including extension agents and sociodramas performed in communities, to counter notions that religious doctrine or cultural traditions prohibit the education of daughters.

Intangible factors such as school culture (the values propounded by school personnel and student peer groups) also are significant. Bradley Levinson's ten-year study of a Mexican junior high school, for example, documents how the egalitarian ideology of the 1910 Revolution enters the discourse and practices of school personnel and is appropriated by students. The belief that Todos Somos Iguales ("We Are All Equal") strongly shapes interactions between students and, contrary to much U.S. and European social and cultural reproduction theory, overrides the forces that would stratify students by social class, ethnicity, and gender. Elizabeth Cohen and associates' research on "equitable classrooms" under-scores the importance of multidimensional and complex instruction that demand high levels of performance of all students and encourages the use and evaluation of multiple abilities. In such classrooms, "the interaction among students is 'equal-status,' that is all students are active and influential participants and their opinions matter to their fellow students" (Cohen, p. 276). Similarly, effective schools research indicates that an overall ethos of high expectations and a climate of respect have a positive impact on the achievement of lower SES students.

Problematic Reforms: National Standards and High-Stakes Examinations

Along with greater respect accorded to students and the knowledge and values they bring to school, teacher expectations and general curricular standards are important factors in raising student performance. The worldwide trend to establish national standards in core academic subjects and hold schools and individual teachers and students accountable for them through systematic testing may contribute to higher test scores for disadvantaged groups. These efforts, however, are fraught with serious problems and may, instead, lead to greater failure for the intended beneficiaries of these reforms. While standards may be uniformly applied to all students, the resources to accomplish heightened expectations usually are not equally available. The standards themselves may be questioned as to whose knowledge and values are represented; the language in which tests are administered is a particularly significant issue in multilingual, pluralist societies. Generally, there is widespread criticism that the tests constrain the professional autonomy of teachers to determine what is in the best interest of students, often involve a dumbing down and narrowing of what is taught, and tend to be a one-size-fits-all strategy for educational improvement.

Cultural and Social Capital

As indicated above, educators concerned with educational interventions that are culturally sensitive and contextually appropriate take into account the so-called cultural and social capital of their students, families, and communities. The term cultural capital refers to the knowledge, linguistic skills and speech codes, and modes of behavior that students bring to school, whereas social capital refers to the networks of support and resources that families and their children can draw upon to interact successfully with various public agencies such as schools. The failure of students from lower socioeconomic groups and ethnic minorities to succeed in school often resides in the mismatch between the expectations of state curricula and school personnel and what students actually know and value. Education systems must build upon this individual and local knowledge while expanding it so that students, with a heightened sense of their own identity and efficacy, also can participate in the larger society in ways beneficial to themselves and others.

The significance of social capital and how to mobilize it has received substantial attention since the late 1980s. Ways to strengthen the social capital of lower SES families include enabling closer and more systematic involvement of teachers with parents (rather than only when problems arise), arranging for parent-teacher conferences to take place at convenient locations and times, making information about the workings of the education system and individual schools available in the home language, and focusing on the strengths of the children and what they can do. In the absence of other social-service agencies in rural areas and depressed urban neighborhoods, schools necessarily must offer a number of educational and social services, such as extended day care, recreational facilities and sports programs, health programs (including inoculations and birth-control information), and literacy and adult education classes.

Neoliberal Economic and Education Policies

Unfortunately, as noted by such authors as Robert Arnove, Joel Samoff, Fernando Reimers, and Maria Bucur, the full panoply of interventions and reforms is rarely implemented. Reform efforts usually are piecemeal, haphazardly implemented, and inadequately funded. Furthermore, current neoliberal policy initiatives that are being uniformly initiated around the world are likely to widen the gap between academic achievement (what students learn in school) and the educational attainment of the rich and the poor. The term neoliberal derives from the neoclassical economic theories expounded by the major international donor agencies, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as by national governments that pursue economic and social policies that give priority to the workings of market forces. The theories are based on writings of the classical economists Adam Smith (1723–1790) and David Ricardo (1772–1823), who believed the role of the state consisted in establishing the conditions by which the free play of the marketplace, the laws of supply and demand, and free trade based on competitive advantage would inevitably redound to the benefit of all. Government policies based on these notions have led to a drastic reduction in the state role in social spending, deregulation of the economy, and liberalization of import policies. The educational counterparts of these policies have included moves to decentralize and privatize public school systems.

Initiatives to decentralize national education systems most commonly involve transfer of a number of previously centralized functions (such as hiring of teachers) to local levels of government along with greater responsibility for the financing of education. At the same time, in many countries, a core national curriculum is established, and, increasingly, national standards, systematic testing, and various accountability measures are introduced. In countries with dramatic differences in wealth by regions, these policies tend to exacerbate the availability and quality of schooling. Comparisons of test scores between more-advantaged urban areas and depressed rural areas, and between elite private schools and poor urban schools, reveal a growing gap between children of upper and lower socioeconomic strata. Moreover, cost-recovery measures are usually introduced, which means that previously free services are no longer provided. Parents, for example, must pay for textbooks, school uniforms, special classes, and equipment (usually related to computers and the learning of a foreign language). These fees, in countries where a majority of the population is living in poverty, may drive children out of the school system. Frequently, parents must choose between paying school fees and buying food, clothing, and medicines. Sometimes, the principal incentive for sending children to school is the milk or a hot meal that will be provided. Various measures facilitating the creation and subsidization of private education further widen the gap between the rich and the poor, as well-to-do families are encouraged to send their children to private schools, thereby eroding the base of support for public schooling.

Higher Education and Stratification

At the higher education level, postsecondary education has become so integrally linked to individual economic well-being that it is now deemed one of the "essential components of cultural and socioeconomic development of individuals, communities and nations" (United Nations Development Programme, p. 2). As such, the higher education degree credential, over time, has become the principal entry point into the most modernized sectors of the economy and middle or upper-class status. Nevertheless, as countries around the globe contend with issues of increased demand for, and access to, higher education institutions, financially sustaining those institutions has become a dilemma for all societies. As a result, while the costs of higher education in many countries traditionally involve no or minimal tuition fees, policy reforms increasingly shift the costs of higher education to students and their families. Ironically, at the very moment when historically marginalized groups have begun to gain access to higher education, the neoliberal move to decentralize and privatize education has become most prominent. Such reform initiatives have frequently led to student as well as faculty seizures of higher education facilities, public protests, and occasionally violent demonstrations.

One reason for this opposition to reform is that despite the diverse histories of, and demands, cultures, and clients for, higher education throughout the world, dissimilar nations are increasingly connected by their policy decisions without sufficient local adaptation. For higher education, the 1990s was a period of financial crisis around the world. These financial pressures have led to surprisingly similar reforms for higher education. Oftentimes, policy solutions of industrialized nations (e.g., the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia) become the prevailing model used by other nations facing the same fiscal pressures. The most widespread financial reform mechanism involves increasing tuition and fees at the same time that financial-aid systems of grants and student loans are introduced. Student loan programs exist in more than fifty countries. Because student loan programs are costly to administer, they often compete with grants for governmental program support. As loan programs are introduced, grant programs are frequently reduced.

The conflict between student loans, which must be repaid by the student, and outright grants, which do not need to be repaid, is contested by policy analysts. Some researchers support charging students and their families for an increasing share of the cost of higher education because keeping tuition prices low through governmental support mainly benefits high-income students. Other analysts assert that the high cost of tuition discourages minority and low-income students from even considering college attendance. Most researchers agree that the enrollment of high-income students in tertiary education does not change because of price. Shifting the costs of higher education to students and their families has also served to stratify educational opportunities by institution type such that the students from high and middle-income backgrounds increasingly seek degrees from more prestigious universities, while low-income students increasingly enroll in the less prestigious institutions and vocational institutions.

More than adequate financial support is important for low-income and nontraditional students to succeed in higher education. Equally crucial for student success are a welcoming environment; a variety of support services; adaptation of academic calendars, curricula, and pedagogy to the characteristics of students; and flexible class schedules and modalities for delivering instruction. Taking into account the cultural and social capital of students from diverse backgrounds as well as their financial resources constitutes a major move toward more inclusive and equitable higher education systems.

The Need for Poverty Reduction: International Data

While the association between levels of educational attainment and lifetime earning streams is substantial and becoming stronger, economic policies can alleviate the dramatic wage differences between those who have a higher education and those who do not. Stephen Nickell and Brian Bell note that comparative data (from Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom) point out that wage policies and efforts made to provide high-level skills to those not receiving a higher education can lead to more equitable systems of income distribution.

Ultimately, public policies related to poverty alleviation are critical to overcoming the gap between the rich and poor within and between countries. Lyle V. Jones draws attention to the strong correlation between poverty levels, school expulsions and suspensions, and achievement scores in the United States, Germany, and Japan to underscore the point "that within every one of the nations that participated, poverty is related to achievement…. Based on these findings, there can be little basis for surprise when we discover that the U.S. [with more than double the level of children living in poverty] may lag behind Japan, Germany, and some other countries in average school achievement in mathematics"(p. 8).

Unfortunately, current national development and economic policies based on the application of market forces to the provision of social services, and especially education, have led to an expansion and deepening of poverty not only within countries but also between countries and large regions of the world. While certain countries have successfully integrated into the global economy, many countries have not. Among those excluded from the so-called benefits of international market forces and policies of privatization and decentralization are large sectors of Africa, Latin America, Russia and eastern Europe, and Asia. The poorer the country, the greater is the probability that a higher percentage of children will never even enter or complete primary education. For example, in 1990 Marlaine E. Lockheed and Adriaan M. Verspoor found that in thirteen countries with low gross national product the median dropout rate was 41 percent compared with 14 percent for seven upper-middle-income countries. More recent research, summarized in 2000 by the International Institute of Educational Planning as a ten-year follow-up to the 1990 Jomtien, Thailand, international conference on "Education for All," found that "the lower the national income, the greater the inequalities in education within a country," with "the differences between rich and poor, between center and periphery, between men and women, generally greater…the poorer the country" (Hernes, p. 2). While enrollment figures are important indicators of access to schooling, they do not reveal high dropout and repetition rates, especially among disadvantaged groups. Instead, educational attainment and years of schooling have been identified as the key factors in determining subsequent occupational attainment, income, and SES, particularly in highly industrialized countries. Therefore, Table 1 demonstrates the disparity in educational attainment and years of schooling for different regions of the world by income group. Education systems and teachers most frequently bear the brunt in cost reductions in social spending, resulting in the erosion of previous gains for the poorest and most marginalized sectors of the society and an undermining of public schooling relative to that of the private sector.


The relationships among family background, educational achievement and attainment, and subsequent life chances are obviously complex. Research that clarifies these relationships must take into account the interaction among contextual (macro-level) as well as local institutional (micro-level) variables. At the level of national comparisons, promising research needs to be conducted along the lines of explaining how certain countries, such as Finland, that excel in international tests of academic achievement, are able to do a good job with all students.

Over time the meaning of equality of educational opportunity has changed significantly. If one thinks of equal educational opportunity in relation to a race or contest, the initial conceptualization was to ensure that all students started the race on fairly comparable terms and, subsequently, that they would attend schools with similar resources and a common curriculum. Students who were disadvantaged would have early intervention programs to bring them up to par. More recent conceptualizations emphasize the outcomes of the education process–that is, the ability of schools to develop to the fullest the potential of students with different backgrounds and talents. In 1972 Torsten Husén referred to this new definition of equal educational opportunity in these terms: "every student should have an equal opportunity to be treated unequally" (p. 26). What this seemingly paradoxical principle means is that every single student should receive an education that is personally appropriate and beneficial. It also implies that more resources are likely to be required for those who are most disadvantaged–just as more costly, intensive care in a hospital is required to remedy a critical health situation. As John Rawls noted, given the years and decades of neglect and often discrimination faced by lower SES groups, ethnic minorities, and females, principles of redistributive justice would require that greater resources be dedicated to achieving maximum benefits for them. Without such idealism, it is unlikely that current trends toward greater inequalities and inequities in the economic, social, and educational spheres will be reversed.



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