Problems in United States Education

Amongst the many social problems, the research indicated that education is one that directly effects the future of society. Education is “defined as the social institution by which society transmits knowledge-including basic facts and job skills, as well as cultural norms and values-to its members” (Macionis, 2015).


In history, society saw no reason to educate women, African Americans, and other minorities in fear that literacy would bring about union within the groups and possible rebellion. It was not until the 1800s during the Industrial Revolution that illiteracy first became defined as a social problem. By the year 1918, every state had a law requiring children to attend school until the completion of eighth grade, or age 16, whichever was first. Since then, education in the United States has increased steadily. By the year 2005, the majority of American adults had graduated high school or had a diploma equivalent (Macionis, 2015). Dorius (2012) described this as the Western Model of Mass Education and the World Education Revolution. He reported rising literacy rates, an increase in enrollment rates, a decrease in dropout rates, and improvement in math and science achievement since this revolution.

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In history, men and women followed completely different educational plans. Males were often encouraged to take woodworking and mechanics courses while females would be steered into home economics, typing, and other courses that would prepare them to be homemakers or clerical workers. Higher education also looked different for the two genders. Men often entered into sciences and mathematics while women most often majored in languages and social sciences. The textbooks also portrayed the two genders very differently, with women working in the home and men working outside the home. Furthermore, most teachers inside schools were women and most of the administrators were men (Macionis, 2015). While research indicates that both genders performed equally in mathematics and science, sexist attitudes were very prevalent in early schooling contexts.

Males were encouraged to participate in topic specific discussion while females were expected to withhold (Hughey, 2015). In 1972, Congress passed the Title IX of the Educational Amendments, which banned sex discrimination in education and required schools to receive federal funding to provide equal programs for students of either gender (Macionis, 2015). The amendment was later renamed No Child Left Behind, which requires states to have educational standards. The act holds school districts accountable for testing students on the standards and the students’ test scores (Gamson, Mcdermott, and Reed, 2015).


Although the United States has the highest share of citizens with college degrees, basic literacy in reading, mathematics, and science in the United States ranks below 13 countries including Japan, The United Kingdom, Canada, and Czech Republic. Another measure of academic performance is the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT). The SAT measures verbal and mathematic levels of knowledge. The average test scores have steadily decreased since 1967 (Macionis, 2015).

The Effect of Race, Ethnicity, and Class

Race, ethnicity, and class often affect academic performance as well. Latino and African Americans score an average of 200-300 points lower than white students. Many things can cause this inequality, including the fact that African American children are more likely to be raised in a single parent home with less access to educational resources. Children of Latino descent often enter school with minimal English speaking ability. Racial stereotype play a large part due to the lack of faith in the groups’ academic ability. African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans have an especially high rate of dropping out of high school.

For students who speak English secondarily, dropout rates are also extremely high (Macionis, 2015). The research indicates that in a sample of African American school-age children, the majority of them were experiencing significant financial stress. The results also demonstrate that ethnic differences in children with disruptive behavioral problems often come from single family homes (Pearl et al. 2012). In schools, immigrant dense neighborhoods often become immigrant dense classrooms. In turn, there may be fewer positive social externalities from their classmates and this may divert the teachers’ attention from other students. Schools in immigrant dense neighborhoods will usually lack the proper resources for students with English as a second language. Minority children may appear to perform on a lower level than the higher status students, which could cause teachers to categorize them from the start (Galster, Santiago, and Stack, 2016).

Income Level in Relation to Education

Another factor affecting students is their income level. Low-income students often have access to less educational resources than students from high-income families. Research indicated that there are tremendous variances in academic performance based on income level. It is also indicated that high-income children learn at a faster rate than children from low-income families. The largest learning gap is present during the summer months when children are home from school. The dropout rate for students from families with higher incomes is much lower than students from low income families (Macionis, 2015). Income inequality is defined as the outcome of resources being unequally distributed among residents. The research indicates that an increase in education enrollment will lead to an increase in wages as compared to less educated people due to the absorption of skills by technology, resulting is a future increase in income inequality (Arshed et al. 2016).

Dropping Out

While there are many benefits of schooling in the United States, the unfortunate truth is that many students do not finish school at all. Dropping out is defined as quitting school before earning a high school diploma. Official Government Statistics indicate that around 10 percent of the United States’ population between the ages 16 to 24 have left school prior to obtaining their diploma. As opposed to 1960’s dropout rate of 14 percent, the percentage has steadily decreased throughout the years (Macionis, 2015).


One form of inequality in schools includes tracking. Tracking is described as a practice used in schools that assigns students into different educational groups based on their learning level. Schools place students with different capabilities into groups with students of the same capabilities. The purpose of tracking is to avoid holding faster learners back. For example, if a student is already familiar with the current material, they would be able to be moved on to other class content. Supporters of tracking believe that it is a very positive method. It is believed that students feel very proud of their accomplishments, which is something that they would not have the opportunity to do in other learning programs. Unfortunately, tracking also has critics. The critics of tracking feel that the program discriminates against slower learners. Critics believe that it is unfair to students to be categorized by learning ability.

Another thing that the critics have brought to light is the fact that students who come from families with different incomes, races, and other backgrounds are not on the same playing field because they have not been able to experience the same type of learning (Macionis, 2015). Research indicated that for teachers, tracking is a valuable tool to combat challenges such as teaching in classrooms with large student numbers with diverse backgrounds and the difficulties of being attentive to individual student needs (Ansalone, 2010).


The Structural-Functional analysis indicates that the operation of society depends upon schooling. Structural-functionalists believe that teaching a wide range of knowledge to students will enable them to become more productive as adults. When the United States economy transitioned from farming to industry, responsibility also transitioned from the parents to trained teachers. In the structural-functional analysis of education, schooling functions as an important system of social placement. Schools are responsible for developing talents and abilities within a person to find an appropriate job. It is indicated that education makes employment opportunities more readily available.

In history, school has proven to be a form of social mobility for people looking for a better life. With the United States’ cultural diversity, schools provide varying cultural education. Schools are responsible for helping integrate students into multiculturalism. Some concealed funtions of the school is to provide child-care for working parents and occupying young people who come from rough homes. Education is viewed as as a major social institution. Critics of the structural-functional approach believe that the reality of schooling is different for everyong and some people view it as a more positive experience than others. (Macionis, 2015).


The symbolic-interaction approach helps to understand how people experience the school system. This approach also allows researchers to take a deeper look into how school officials categorize students by academic ability, for example, “gifted,” or “average.” Labels are used to categorize students based upon individual performance; however, other factors such as race, gender, and social class also play a huge part in students’ performance. The above mentioned labels also effect the future of the students’ educations. The symbolic-interaction approach defines tracking as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is indicated that the symbolic-interaction analysis provides a “street-level” view of schooling and education. Unfortunately, larger social forces are not factored into this approach (Macionis, 2015).


  1. Ansalone, George. 2010. “Schooling, Tracking, and Inequality.” Journal of Children and Poverty 7(1):33–47.
  2. Arshed, Noman, Awais Anwar, Nabeela Kousar, and Samra Bukhari. 2017. “Education Enrollment Level and Income Inequality: A Case of SAARC Economies.” Social Indicators Research 140(3):1211–24.
  3. Dorius, Shawn F. 2012. “The Rise and Fall of Worldwide Education Inequality from 1870 to 2010.” Sociology of Education 86(2):158–73.
  4. Galster, George, Anna Maria Santiago, and Lisa Stack. 2016. “Elementary School Difficulties of Low-Income Latino and African American Youth: The Role of Geographic Context.” Journal of Urban Affairs 38(4):477–502.
  5. Gamson, David A., Kathryn A. Mcdermott, and Douglas S. Reed. 2015. “The Elementary and Secondary Education Act at Fifty: Aspirations, Effects, and Limitations.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 1(3):1–29.
  6. Hughey, Matthew W. 2015. “Educational Inequality.” Humanity & Society 39(4):476–78.
  7. Pearl, Amanda M., Brian F. French, Jean E. Dumas, Angela D. Moreland, and Ron Prinz. 2012. “Bidirectional Effects of Parenting Quality and Child Externalizing Behavior in Predominantly Single Parent, Under-Resourced African American Families.” Journal of Child and Family Studies 23(2):177–88.
  8. Macionis, John J. 2015. Social Problems. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson.
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