Educational Inequality can be a really challenging subject to teach. Many students are unaware of how unequal schools are in the United States. Some are surprised to hear that educational inequality in the United States has actually gotten worse since 1968. In my classes I have used an excerpt from Savage Inequalities
that highlights the stark differences between two school districts (P.S.79 and P.S.24). Kozol also does a great job of pointing out, in simple language, the complexities of the public education system and the consequences it creates in children’s lives.

After briefly talking about the general impressions of the article, we watch a short 9 min video where J. Kozol talks about his other book The Shame of the Nation. In the video he talks about a girl named Pineapple who lives in the South Bronx. The school district Pineapple lives in spends $11,000 a year on her public education, while a child in a affluent suburb 12 mins a way would receive $19,000 and a child in Manhasset New York receives $22,000 a year. I created a google map of these 3 districts to show students how close they were. I also created a presentation slide of the map.

Kozol sets students up with loads of information, but he is far less exciting for students than the clip I have from the Oprah Winfrey Show. Trading Schools is a clip about students from a affluent public school in the suburbs and a public inner city school switching schools for one day to see what life is like on the other side. Students loved this video and it really inspired conversation.

At this point in the discussion I like to present educational inequality as a tragedy of the commons. We discuss how there is a rational, if short sighted, motivation for parents to secure the best education for their children possible and sabotage the education of other children who will compete with their own when it comes time to apply for college or for employment. School districting is a tragedy of the commons because even if parents feel that they should send their children to public schools, as soon as they see another parent leveraging their class advantage by taking their child to a private school or moving to a more affluent school district that parent will almost certainly feel compelled to provide the same advantage to their child. The tragedy is that making the best decision for each individual child will perpetuate inequality of the educational system

Needless to say, discussing educational inequality can depress students and runs the risk of encouraging them to throw up their hands in defeat. However, heeding the advice of Hedley and Markowitz (2001) I like to finish this discussion by talking about solutions. I start by talking about reification and I implore the students to realize that “the school system” and “the government” are institutions that are controlled by humans. If we want to change these institutions we need only change the ideas, policies, and expected behaviors of our public leaders. I share with students that many communities across the country do not use school districts in this way and that many if not most nations across the world do not divvy up school funding this way. Students are encouraged to hear that a solution does not so much need to be developed, as a solution needs to adapted from one of the numerous examples of less unequal school districts

Educational Inequality exists to a large degree simply because it goes undiscussed in many circles of life or because it is blamed on the parents and students of low income neighborhoods. This presentation/discussion almost always outrages or at least challenges students to reexamine their worldview. For a sociology class, this discussion is excellent at showing how our social systems affect the life chances and behaviors of individuals.

Download Toolkit (200kb):
Handout/Fact Sheet on Educational Inequality
Discussion Questions
Video Links (.rtf file)
Presentation Slides

Frankenberg, Erica, Chungmei Lee, and Gary Orfield. 2003. A Multiractial Society with Segregated Schools: Are we Losing the Dream? Cambridge, MA: Civil Rights Project, Harvard University.