Understanding Equal Educational Opportunity

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In “Understanding Equal Educational Opportunity; Social Justice, Democracy, and Schooling”, Howe (1997) Dug deeply into the complex idea of equality of educational opportunity. He revealed many restraints and problems that need to be understood if that basic democratic principle is to serve us in our quest to provide an education that keeps the future open for our kids. He argued for the necessity of distributing justice and democracy. Where, justice gives everyone an active voice in looking for their needs. In the book, Howe (1997) wrote about various equal educational issues of gender, multiculturalism, segregation, testing and school choice.

Howe (1997) stated equal educational opportunity is significant for equal educational outcome. His thought was to ban all barriers such as racial barriers and the availability of equal opportunity to females and handicapped. He emphasized the divisions between educational resources, the rich and the poor, the city and suburbs, and the funding and facilities offered in predominately African Americans and White schools.

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He also stated the ideals of equality in educational opportunities were not defined in the formal system of equal educational institutions, rather though a system of educational opportunities of ‘equal worth’. Howe (1997) explored the interaction between all individuals and their respective educational opportunities, and he argued that all individuals should have a voice and recognition.

Gender issues were also discussed in the book. He argued that current societal role was determined by gender segregation existing in schools prior to the last decade. That means, schools gendered their students towards expected societal norm and expectations, pushing female towards domestic work for females and male into the work force. Females lacked the opportunity to climb professional mobility in a way that continues to affect experiences today. He further concluded that not all females were aware that there was a problem that needed to be fixed, and for those who were aware are by no means univocal. Although gender segregated classrooms began to combine in this century, this step was not taken as an academic reform due to the lack of funding.

Howe (1997) mentioned the critical notion of ‘gender inequality as choice’ where individuals in the system act in that establishes the inequality between genders. He believed teachers and educators held higher expectation for boys than girls, particularly in science and math. By contrast, females were not similarly encouraged, challenged, or advised to pursue excellence in these aspects of their academic education.

This is comparable to what is happening in some countries in the Middle East, where boys receive more encouragement and advice about further their education and ensuring their admission and success in their schooling and university education. Further, boys are better exposed to more information about the job market and receive great opportunities in terms of attending workshops or orientations. In comparison, these kinds of orientation and opportunities are not equally offered for girls. Both in the Middle East and the U.S., as discussed by Howe, these levels of inequality result in significant consequences that perpetuate systems of inequality.

Howe (1997) drew upon Mortimer Adler’s criticism of multiculturalism, where he argued the notion that children should be assimilated into traditional intellectual disciplines in order to “forge a unified democratic citizenry” (Howe, 1997, p.54). This idea stressed “A Nation at Risk (1983) has since been further used and supported in practice through government proposals that “emphasize more rigorous and uniform curricula, standards, and assessment grounded in the traditional discipline” (Howe, 1997, p. 55).

This approach advocated by past theorists embodies American exceptionalism, the idea that Americans have the best set of value, accumulation of wealth is a proof of superiority, every American has to be attuned and assimilated to the superior value system, and there is a distinct unique identity. Howe (1997), thus, used Taylor (1995) to argue that only “ethnocentric arrogance” could defend the view that the “traditional western canon” is the only foundation of artistic and intellectual worth. He further claimed a revised canon, studying cultures different from one’s own results in increased understanding.

Howe stated an entirely revised canon is not the only goal that can serve multicultural education, as feared by theorists such as Adler, but that can also be fostered though merely recognizing others in the canon or in accepting a partial canon better attuned to the culture of local communities (Howe, 2013). The melting pot is a model without recognition of the voice of the disadvantaged group.

The idea “”to keep American society whole”” as Arthur Schlesinger (1992) motioned is now being challenging by the ethnic interpretation. He also added that ethnicity’s militants the most important task for public education is to protect, strengthen, celebrate, and perpetuate identity. The advantage is to give their ethnic identity to fit in language and culture. The disadvantages are led to give up their culture and fit in the dominant society that will provide them with support to reach a high quality of life.

Howe motioned a participatory ideal to address this issue. He referenced Gutsmann (1987) to argue “democratic threshold” to instate democracy as the center of education. This would further an ideal where all children must be provided with equal opportunity to participate in their education empowering them to contribute as equals in a democratic process of conscious social reproduction (Howe, 1978).

The contribution of ‘equal worth’ what is necessitated by this approach in that children have to be treated according to their interests and their abilities. Howe extended this through Hirsch, saying that cultural literacy is one principle of Non-oppression required to protect marginalized groups and assure that all groups are authentically recognized. He also stated that schools are agents of socialization that establish the framework of oppression and thus hold the ability to transform it.

Howe also discussed segregation within schools with curriculum differentiation between special education, gifted education and general tracking within a school. The argument for this ability grouping is that students should be sorted into particular tracks determined by their abilities. It is argued that these divisions help all students transform meaningfully and also impact self-esteem, especially for the students who is from lower track.

I believe this approach to be problematic in that the low ability groups will be demoralized, and students will feel ashamed and stigmatized causing a lowered self-esteem, which will narrow their chances to succeed and flourish in schools. Children learn from each other when they interact differently, the more different they are, the more they will learn from each other. Definitely not when they are segregated according to their similar abilities.

Howe advocated for the use of more fair and efficient tests. He stated that tests should measure abilities and talents and not birthrights and privileges. He argued tests given nowadays are not fair because they actually test the lack of opportunity not the lack of ability, capitalizing on factors more greatly determined by parents’ education or income. Furthermore, some tests are biased to a particular group, for example, the SAT uses sports questions, tending to disadvantage women test takers who have not been as culturally encouraged to develop a knowledge of sports.

Standardized tests and assessments connected to No Child Left Behind (NCLB) also reveal significant biases particularly harmful to second language learners. Some of these tests are culturally biased and favor individuals possessing knowledge not equally held across cultural groups. These biases in testing can result in significant consequences, especially among already socially marginalized groups. Standardized tests determine college admissions and school funding which ultimately shape the evolution of social circumstances and opportunities held by all students within the system. Thus, tests must be fair and efficient, so not to perpetuate existing social inequalities.

Shields (2013) presented a very similar argument to Howe in that they both advocate for greater equality in education, although her book more directly addresses the processes and the operations inside the classroom as tools to transform the system. Her writing is based on case studies and her ideas are directed towards action and what educators must do to combat inequality perpetuated by education.

She argued the importance of educators’ roles in pursuing academic excellence and social justice. Shields (2013) stated that transformative leadership begins with questions of justice and democracy and critiques inequitable practices, and advocates for both individual and public good. Transformative leadership links education with hope, liberation, empowerment and social justice

Shields (2013) argued that even though teachers are limited by their resources and available methodologies, they can still maintain the ultimate goal to teach students to be good citizens, even as they try to comply with the standards of their jobs and teach for the tests. She also argued against the deficit thinking and she criticized the fact that teachers do not have the freedom to interpret classroom material unless it is ordered from principles, administrators, or higher authorities. Teachers are forced to balance a loyalty towards passing test scores and keeping their jobs.

By giving people the opportunity to attain equal resources, social justice through education will arguably eliminate oppression. Teaching social justice will come up with lead to learn how to distinguish the differences between people in terms of their backgrounds, various needs and abilities. Equity is not giving similar treatment to everyone and acting as if there are no differences at all. It might for teacher to understand background to teach students, however, not possible to know all backgrounds and culture that his/her students have. Finding space in which students can reflect is needed.

Shields (2013) focused on several ideas key themes including equity, inclusion, and social justice. She addressed shortcomings in the current education system and considered the necessary balance between testing and curriculum. She explored ways we can strive to change our belief system and build meaningful relationship that build upon students’ strengths.

Shields (2013) argued that in order to repair education public system in the U.S., educators and schools must confess that inequality still exists in society and consequently affects education in public schools. The effects and practices of inequality are numerous, but the problem is significant exacerbated by the allocation of local school district funding that disadvantages poor and minority students. Educational funding is being allocated depending on politics, property wealth, and any number of other factors that have little to do with the needs of students (Shields, 2013)

Urban teachers engage in social justice through their teaching and have to ensure that their students not only succeed academically but also socially. Learning to embrace one’s unique personal and social identity is a legitimate way to realize equity. It is important to not pretend that we are all the same because that view inherently ignores the contributions offered by the diverse experiences and perspectives existing across society. If we deny that these differences exist, we run the risk of losing sight of acknowledged injustices and historical power inequalities.

Howe (1997) and Shield (2013) support equal opportunity and they build their arguments and their ideas on the themes of democracy, social justice, equality. It values cultural differences in order to look for and reassure equal educational opportunities for all students. It combats the prejudice and bias in schools through the promotion of democratic principles of social justice. Multicultural education through the school practices, policies and organization in order to achieve high level of academic achievement. Students will be supported to develop and improve positive self-concept if they were provided by knowledge about cultures and contributions of diversity groups.

Many federal and local compatibility issues are mentioned by both books. While both Howe and Shields are advocates for major change in the education system, they do not always agree in their analyses or on a preferred course of action. That is neither surprising nor desirable given the large size of the problem. What is most encouraging is that the logic of their arguments points towards similar policy conclusions. Together, both Shields and Howe make valuable contributions to the discussion over how to fix the U.S. public school system.


  1. Howe, K. (1997). Understanding Equal Educational Opportunity Social Justice, Democracy, and schooling. Teachers College, Columbia University.
  2. Shields, C. (2013) Transformative Leadership in Education Equitable change in an uncertain and complex world. Routledge New York.
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Understanding Equal Educational Opportunity. (2021, Oct 15). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/understanding-equal-educational-opportunity/