Social Class Influence on Education Equality

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There is a growing concern internationally that increase, and diversification of types of students has a significant role in the outcome of education. Consequently, there has been an increased interest among researchers, who have conducted a series of investigations on the impact of social class on educational outcomes. The perspective of social class studies in education concentrates on how race/ethnicity and sex/gender are intertwined in educational success or failure.

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In a multi-ethnic society, the issue of identity is based on how socially determined factors interact to define a person’s sense of belonging; how a person sees himself or herself through his or her mirror; how he or she is treated by other ‘different’ people of the larger society. Swan Report (1985) acknowledges that almost everybody in society has experienced prejudice in one way or the other in the society. The three most common and significant factors in the social construct determine an individual’s identity and subsequently determines his or her educational success. They are race/ethnicity and sex/gender, and how they are intertwined social class of the society. This paper seeks to investigate how these two social constructs interact to impact the educational outcome of individuals in the wider societal setup.


In modern society, the terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity have been on several occasions associated with many issues that define individuals or groups of individuals’ success or failure in the wider context of societal setup. The two terms have been used interchangeably to group individuals as either belonging to an ‘ethnic group’ or ‘race’. The main problem is that the so-called ethnic groups have been found to exhibit a particular level of flexibility or elasticity that it may become a little bit difficult to develop a common definition.

In several situations, the two interchangeable terms are defined depending on the user’s application, and what motivates their usage. In the context of educational success or failure, the terms have been applied to explain the variance in performance of learners what opportunities are available to them, accessibility of these opportunities, achievements or measure of success, the availability of role models.

There are various ways, both positive and negative, where ethnicity/race is used to define an individual’s academic success or failure (Tettey & Puplampu 2006, p. 28). The negativity comes in when a particular ethnic group is presented as either academically inferior as compared to other ethnic groups. In most cases, such a description does not take into consideration other issues such as deprivation, favoritism to other ‘superior’ ethnic groups, and shortage of role models due to historical injustices that have developed into inequality in the field of academics and career development.

The other usage is hinged on the ability of individuals from different ethnic groups to relate to each other as well as how they find their identity in terms of the experience of the wider society. In this context, the positive aspect of ethnic value comes in the dimension of the societal value of diversity and its richness that define the world’s remarkable identities (Tettey & Puplampu 2006, p. 28). The third construct is hinged on the basis that ethnicity or race can be used to connote what invoked the whole concept of its usage, thus leading to either positive or negative interpretation. Lastly, it is possible to argue that ethnicity or race is being used to define the political direction for a particular group of individuals.

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In other words, its usage is based on the need to define socio-political and economic agendas for society. Even though there has been a significant increase in the number of good performances in education across ethnic groups, the minority groups comprised of African- Caribbean, Pakistani and Bangladeshi have not matched the performance of the mainstream ethnic groups (Gillborn & Mirza 2000).

Ethnic Identity Model

The ethnic identity model has been suggested to help ease the problem of lack of identity to motivate the ethnic minority (African Americans) in society. In a study conducted by Dyer (2005), findings indicated that 90% of participants acknowledged the role of mentors in helping them climb to the senior position of management. However, just a half of the respondents said they shared a racial identity with their mentors and just 20% of the principals said they had no mentors when they were rising into their present positions (Dyer 2005, p.31). Most of the African American female principals who responded to their questions stated that with the reducing number of fellow African American principals, there are even few other senior people with whom they can share their ethnic identity to help develop their career further.

Ethnicity has been found to form the basis for social struggle among groups. Tettey & Puplampu (2006, p.28) states that ethnicity in modern society, “whether intentionally or unintentionally, looms large in the dynamics of group solidarity and the process that give rise to, or sustain, social conflict and inequalities”. Critics have continued to allude to the fact that educational inequalities have not only persisted but to some extent, have increased, thanks to the ethnic/racial discrimination in the area of schooling and career development. Weedon (2004) observes that it will only be possible to use the term ‘British’ as a sign of united culture when it becomes more inclusive.

Theory of Racial Identity Development

Theory of Racial Identity Development fronted by William Cross, states that once an ethnic group realizes their potential by coming off the banner of their racial identity, to strongly look for an opportunity to learn about the history and culture, supported by same race counterparts, they will move into the next stage known as “internalization” which symbolizes a sense of security (Earlandson & Zelner 1997, p.64). He further notes that this kind of self-actualization is helpful in the establishment of ones’ connection to help build a strong network for further support (p.65).

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However, the challenge has been to use race/ethnic identity, particularly now that there is a more interracial group of individuals in modern society. In this case, it may be difficult to identify who belongs to which group. This is because the definition of race and ethnicity is always connected to some biological and socially constructed ideologies. So what makes one identify that this is a white, red, or black person, considering the ethnic mixing that has been seen in recent years across the globe, especially in developed nations. As Gould (1993) observes, most categorizations of racial identity are done based on the skin color and other related phenotypic features of individuals. However, complications arise when the mixed race emerges, with medium features of both sides of the race.

Gender/ Sexual Identity

While studies involving race and ethnicity, and social class are somewhat tricky as they are in most cases used interchangeably, gender and sexual identity are clearer in terms of differences. While sexual identity is based on the physical features of a person, gender is more of a social construct that defines an individual’s ability and beliefs (Harder & Waldo 1983). Women have suffered the brunt of gender inequality, traditionally linked to their ability to carry out duty pegged on sexual identity.

The schools have been rooted on the broader base of sexual identity, a context that had to be renegotiated in the latter years. In this perspective, women have been continuously shaking the traditional stereotypes’ wrath of discrimination against their innate leadership ability as well as their ability to reach the zenith of academic excellence. Harder & Waldo (1983) claim women, in general, have not been thought of as having innate qualities that are perceived as indigenous to achieve more in education, let alone leadership abilities. However, empirical studies have proven otherwise. It has been established that well-educated women leaders are more concerned by the needs of individuals in specific organizations they head, and show personal concern to the education of the needy (King 2005).

Leithwood (1993) postulated that women leaders are nurturing and show deep concern to human relationships, more than just the scientific traditional organizational tasks. However, as Gaine & George (1998, p.45) state, the fact that women have less power makes them obliged to be more polite, hence denying them the opportunity to express their strength. In other words, any form of aggressiveness in women will always be misinterpreted as either rudeness or disrespect to their male counterparts.

Theoretical Explanation

Societies vary in terms of social classifications involving gender roles- the role of women and men. These roles define the need to separate what entails ‘a woman’, as distinct from what entails ‘a man’. For women, their roles are usually prescribed in lesser esteem as compared to that of men, which are regarded as more superior in every complex societal set-up, including academic goals (Roughgarden 2005). This subsequently means that men command more power, politically, socially, and economically.

For example, when the resources are available for education initiatives in society, the most powerful group tends to dominate the whole process of its distribution and usage. This leaves the poorer group in the society to share what they have, even though it may be insufficient. The other aspect is the fact that society treats sex and gender as both social constructs and natural phenomena. This leads to roles and duties prescriptions that further entrenches the belief of ability and inability tags for different gender groups.

Darwin’s Theory of Sexual Selection

In Darwin’s theory on sexual selection (Roughgarden 2005, p.6), he identifies three claims that link male and female. The first is that species are related to each other by having a common ancestry. The second is that natural selection is what changes species and they become what they are due to nature. And lastly, “males and females obey universal templates- the males ardent and the females coy” (Roughgarden 2005, p.6). However, other theories like Super’s Development Theory are based on how the gender and sex constructs can be used to advance the education and career of the disadvantaged in society, notably women.

Super’s Development Theory

Super’s Development Theory explains changes in career-related behaviors, education, and attitudes, with a lot of emphasis on the process and the content of career decision-making (Gould 1993). Similar to the general development concept, education and career development are taken to be continuous undertakings that are dynamic and lead to many psychological and social factors interactions (Fry 2002). In this case, a career is defined as a series of vocational stages that entail growth, exploration, establishment, maintenance, and decline; hence providing the framework of specific career-related tasks including behaviors and attitude, to be mastered or accomplished (Fry 2002).

The theory explains specific aspects of career development which include:

  1. the concept of career maturity, which refers to a person’s ability to meet the demands of vocational tasks appropriate to one’s age or life situation;
  2. the implementation of the self-concept in the development of vocational identity;
  3. career patterns, or the occupational level and sequencing of jobs; and
  4. role saliency, that is, the relative importance of the worker, students, sportsman, homemaker roles for individuals (Ntiri 2001; Fry, 2002).

To further fill the gap between gender/sex in educational achievements, it is important to identify how super’s theory can be expanded to make it more relevant and help understand the changes that have occurred in society as far as education and gender are concerned. In this case, I suggest that one particular way in which this theory can be expanded in line with the aforementioned is through examining the extent to which ethnic and gender identity formation becomes a developmental task in itself, which subsequently affected the process of resolving more directly about education and training tasks. According to Ferara (2005), one of the central aspects of identity development among late adolescents is the selection of occupational identity, which is driven by educational goals and objectives.

Mentorship has also been identified as the best way to help develop educational differences. This is particularly critical when there’s a need to develop professionalism among female educators (Ntiri 2001). This subsequently made education stakeholders review the educators’ approach to management teaching as well as the learning process to establish the methodology for ensuring that all students get success for their efforts in education equally (Edwards 1999).

Moreover, portfolios have been applied by various successful educators because of their ability to help in the adoption of reflective practice (Kaufman 2001). These reflective practices help improve professionalism through redefinition and emphasis on self-awareness as well as expansion of the knowledge and understanding of the challenges that come with school management (Brown & Irby 1997).

Social Class

Social Class is a term used to describe the hierarchy that exists in society in terms of the economic, social, and political class (Tettey & Puplampu 2006). In many cases, social class has presented a subject to be analyzed by the academicians as it tends to affect the people more than any other societal factor. In the field of social or political science, class designates powerful against the powerless in society (Tettey & Puplampu 2006). These are further separated by the ability to access material wealth that lifts social status.

Social class has long been an issue within the educational sector. It has made several researchers, theorists, and social analysts develop various theoretical constructs to define and explain the connection between the two. In the sociological concepts, some research scholars have observed that social class has undergone several changes, either as being dismissed as not important or very important in the search for societal order.

Still, it is the most widely applied ideology in the search for societal order; success, and failures in the social and educational system. Although the salience of social class may fluctuate in the search for a policy and academic discourse, studies suggest that there has been an increased gap between a broader section of the society, who have different access to economic resources (money and means of production), academic qualifications and life chances about health (Roughgarden 2005; Tettey & Puplampu 2006).

However, still, education is historically perceived positively about how it has liberated the global community. But the continuous widening of the gap in terms of equitable participation, coupled with lifelong complexity in the learning process, and long-held historical aspects of sociological theories have set the pace in identifying the loopholes in the system- how education can play a critical role in the reinforcement of inequalities about class. Take for example the case of higher education. By its definition, higher education is never open for everybody and is not compulsory. This makes it exclusive, albeit instinctively, to a few who have socio-economic means to pursue it.

Moreover, the university system itself has historically played a key role in reproducing social class inequalities. For example, when Egerton and Halsey (1993, cited in Archer, Hutchings & Ross 2003, p.5) analyzed the historical higher education trend in the UK in the 20th century, they came up with three distinguishable characteristics of this phenomenon. They are a period of massive growth and expansion, there was a significant movement towards gender equality and balance, and there was very little movement towards social class equality (Archer, Hutchings & Ross 2003, p.5).

The exclusion was the norm in the past centuries as far as higher education is concerned. Built into the system, this trend has persisted to date. For example, until the early 20th century, the system of education in Britain was that only Latin and Greek were necessary for University admission. It, therefore, followed that university admission was pegged on the need to admit only those who attended specific schools, which were small in number (Archer, Hutchings & Ross 2003, p.5). This was a social exclusion, perpetuated by social inequality.

In the field of education research, social class issues have concentrated on areas that relate to compulsory schooling years, that is, basic education. In this category, it has been noted that children from working-class families have persistently encountered lower rates of attainment, and more importantly, are less likely to proceed to post-basic education. For instance, Gould (1993) outlines how young people from various and different social classes attend different institutions of learning, attain different qualifications and grades and follow different paths in the post-basic educations learning process.

This could be explained by the fact that at all stages within the path of education, the young working-class are paid less, face poor working conditions, receive limited resources, do not go for more prestigious degrees, and experience lower-status trajectories in society. Researchers have concentrated on certain theoretical models to explain and recommend the way forward in developing equality in the education sector, considering the inadequate social models.

Functional Theories

This theory regards education as a critical element within social class reproduction. In other words, education forms a part of the stages that sort out individuals according to class differences (Tettey & Puplampu 2000). This is in contrast to Max’s and Weber’s separate theories which have over the years been used to emphasize the inequality that exists within the process of class reproduction and identification of the differences. However, it is critical to observe that functional theory may give a view that the working class has been painted as poor and lazy people who are comfortable with the little that they get.

On the other hand, education has been presented as one process of gaining success in society, with social status fronted by material wealth as the ultimate reward. This has inevitably assumed the role of structural inequality in society, and assuming that one can only be considered successful when he or she attains the most prestigious academic qualifications. It is important to note that Functional theory defines social class in the dimension of Darwinian Theory that social class is brought about by natural selection in the modern economy of the world.


The social constructs of class, race, and ethnicity, and gender and sex, have been in existence from time immemorial. Several changes have occurred that relate to social aspects of the society as well as national systems transformations. This has led to a change given these theoretical aspects of society together with their applications.

Ethnicity and race have been applied when defining an individual’s academic success or failure. However, there’s always a problem when it comes to when a particular group is presented as ‘academically disable’. Such a description would rely wholly on the level of educational achievement. The other application may be based on how different ethnic groups relate to each other as well as how they find their identity in terms of the experience of the wider society.

This brings a positive aspect of diversity. Again, ethnicity may be used depending on how it has been used to define the feeling of how it has been used. This may involve political ideology that defines the process of race and ethnic reproduction in an educational setting. Gender and sex have also been applied in the social aspects of education. While women have been regarded as having a minimal innate ability to achieve higher in education and career, men have been associated with high ranking academic and career achievement. This has been attributed to the deprivation women have encountered in hands of their male counterparts.

Lastly, the social class as defined by the historical structure of the society has also defined the educational progress of different members of the society at different levels. While the working class and their children are occupying the lower level of the educational pyramid, the property owners shaped by politics, economic, and social hierarchy have been found to dictate the upper echelon of the society-the apex of the pyramid where they are enjoying higher social status.

Reference List

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Brown, G., & Irby B. (1997), The principal portfolio. Thousand Oaks. Corwin Press.

Dyer, S. (2005), Leadership and Diversity in Louisiana: A Case Study. V.22 no.5 p38.

Earlandson, D., Zelner L. (1997), Leadership laboratories: Professional development for the 21st century. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the University Council for Educational administration.

Edwards, A. (1999), Favorite Quotations that Inspired Excellence: The Black High School Principals of Booker T. Washington High School. The Southern History of Education Society, Annual Meeting, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Ferara, P. (2005), Hard Work, Education Help Hispanics Advance in Oregon’s Workforce. Work Source Oregon, Employment Department.

Fry, R. (2002), Latinos in Higher Education: Many Enroll, too Few Graduate. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center.

Gaine, C., & George, R. (1998), Gender, ‘Race’ and Class in Schooling. A New Introduction. London. Routledge.

Gillborn, G., & Mirzam, H. (2000), Educational Inequality: Mapping Race, Class, and Gender. OFSTED.

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Harder, M., and Waldo, K. (1983), Women as educational leaders: the theories behind the facts. Action in Teacher Education, 5, 35-40.

Kaufman, J. (2001), Trading Places: Where Black Have More Than Whites, Racial Tension Erupts— in a Leafy Maryland Suburb, African-Americans Want Bigger Role in Politics, Wall Street Journal, Eastern Edition.

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Ntiri, D. (2001), Access to Higher Education for Nontraditional Students and Minorities in a Technology-Focused Society. Urban Education, Corwin Press. 36, pp. 129 – 144.

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