This sample education essay explores the issue of discrimination in education within the United States. Discrimination refers to the practice of providing preferential treatment, or denying equal treatment, for a given a person on the basis of his or her demographic characteristics. You would likely see a document like this as a personal essay or as an essay assignment in a sociology course.
Discrimination in public education
Broadly speaking, discrimination within the context of the public school system can be understood as reflecting discrimination within American society more broadly. For example, minority racial/ethnic populations within the United States disproportionately find themselves relying on state-provided welfare because they live in lower socioeconomic brackets; they also disproportionally tend to lack equitable access to social resources, such as healthcare (Richardson and Norris).
When this is translated to the context of education, students from minority populations—especially Blacks and Hispanics—often tend to struggle to achieve academic success. To a significant extent, this is a reflection of the less privileged backgrounds from which these students often emerge. For example, a child from an impoverished family would perhaps have been less likely to have his mother read to him on a regular basis, or more generally have his parents stress the value of a good education.
Schools reflect national standards
This has sometimes led into the actual structural discrimination within public schools. For example, Kohli has discussed the practice of tracking that has been utilized by some schools, which involves different students being placed on different educational paths over the years on the basis of the past academic performance. Kohli has summarized the problematic nature of this practice in the following way:
“Many education researchers have argued that tracking perpetuates class inequality and is partial to blame for the stubborn achievement gap in the U.S. educational system—between white and Asian students on one side, and black and Latino students on the other” (paragraph 5).
On the one hand, it is arguable that advanced students should be provided with advanced opportunities. The problem with systematic tracking, though, would be that underachieving students may get more or less abandoned by the educational system. Insofar as these students are more likely to come from certain demographic backgrounds than others, this would amount to a form of structural discrimination in education.
Minority students and teacher discrimination
Moreover, discrimination in public schools can also manifest in terms of differential treatment of minority students by teachers (relative to majority students), based at least partially on cultural expectations about how different “kinds” of students are likely to behave. For example, the comprehensive data compiled and presented by the U.S. Department of Education reveals teachers exhibit traits of unconscious prejudice and discipline black students more often than white counterparts.
To an extent, this issue may be propelled by a kind of dangerous symbiosis: on the one hand, Black students perhaps do misbehave more often, due to their negative expectations regarding the educational system; and perhaps teachers are also more sensitive to this misbehavior because they are essentially expecting it. The onus, though, to break this cycle would clearly fall on the teacher; and the failure to do so would produce discrimination.
Recent college protests
Recently, the news has been filled with reports of protests emerging on college campuses regarding the issue of racial discrimination. The Associated Press reported on the 9th of November 2015, for example, that at the University of Missouri:
“black students have complained of racial slurs and other slights on the overwhelmingly white, 35,000-student flagship campus of the four-college system” (paragraph 2).
Protesters at this university called for the resignation of the president of the system; and in fact, they actually got this, along with the resignation of the chancellor as well. The protest, though, would seem to have pertained not so much to racial discrimination within the educational system per se, as to the fact that leaders within the university were doing little to address the broader problem of a culture of racism and discrimination on campus. In any event, this kind of protest has emerged at several other campuses in the United States as well.
Regarding one of these protests, Hartocollis and Bidgood have reported the following:
“the students who gathered on Wednesday spoke of ‘microagressions’—tone-deaf slights directed toward minority students—and continuing difficulties of being a student of color on a contemporary college campus and encouraged their peers to raise awareness of them” (paragraph 17).
Again, the main issue here is not specifically that minority students feel that they are receiving a lower quality of education; rather, the issue is broader in scope and pertains to matters of respect and representation for minority students within the college campus setting. It thus opens up to the broader sociological problems regarding race that have plagued the United States for centuries.
Racially motivated police shootings and relation to school discrimination
In particular, it is worth considering the possible relationship between this recent wave of college protests against discrimination on the one hand, and the recent string of police shootings of civilians on the other. Notably, for example, the University of Missouri flagship campus is located just 120 miles away from the town of Ferguson, where Michael Brown, a young Black man, was shot to death by a police officer.
It is possible that these events have had the effect of sensitizing young people in the United States to issues of race: although the commonplace assumption is that the United States is now a post-racial society, events such as the shooting of Michael Brown starkly reveal that this is not the case. Sociology studies and research papers on the subject support this. One obvious reaction to the protesters on the college campuses would be, of course, that they are creating much ado about more or less nothing.
But from the perspective of the protesters, reaching such a conclusion would itself be indicative of the very racism and discrimination that they are protesting within education in particular and American society in general.
The issue of Affirmative Action and discrimination in American schools
When considering the relationship between discrimination and education, it is impossible to avoid a consideration of the concept of affirmative action and racism. Broadly speaking, affirmative action refers to the policy of establishing quotas that must be met within a given institution—such as a university—regarding the number of minority persons who are accepted into the institution.
For example, a given university may have the policy that a certain percentage of the student body must come from a Black racial/ethnic background. In practice, this can sometimes mean (for example) that a less objectively qualified Black student may gain access to a university over a more objectively qualified White student, due to the fact that the quota regarding Black students has to be met.
In principle, the policy of affirmative action can be understood as a form of providing reparations to people from minority backgrounds due to their historical treatment within the United States. As Cobb has put it:
“The unspoken divide between black people and white people—whether over reparations, affirmative action, or the question of paying N.C.A.A. athletes—comes down to a question of history” (paragraph 7).
Affirmative action in education is premised on the idea that due to their historical marginalization within the United States, people from minority backgrounds, and especially Blacks, may have a sociologically less equitable chance of making it into colleges and proceeding to meet with success within society. Therefore, quotas are established in order to offset this effect of historical discrimination and thus level the playing field.
In summary, this Ultius essay has consisted of a discussion of several aspects of the issue of discrimination in education within the United States. The essay began by considering discrimination within the public school system, proceeded to discuss the recent protests at colleges across the nation, and finally reflected on the concept of affirmative action and its relationship to discrimination in education.
An important conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion is that the relationship between discrimination and education in the United States is primarily a structural one. That is, contemporary discrimination is based not so much on individual-level malice against minority persons but rather population-level structural factors that predispose persons from minority populations to have diminished access to all the opportunities of the educational system.
Associated Press. “University of Missouri Race, Discrimination Protests Grow after Athletes Jump In.” NOLA. 9 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2015/11/university_of_missouri_race_di.html.
Cobb, Jelani. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Reparations.” New Yorker. 29 May 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/what-we- talk-about-when-we-talk-about-reparations.
Hartocollis, Anemona, and Jess Bidgood. “Racial Discrimination Protests Ignite at Colleges across the U.S.” New York Times. 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/12/us/racial-discrimination-protests-ignite-at- colleges-across-the-us.html?_r=0.
Kohli, Sonali. “Modern-Day Segregation in Public Schools.” Atlantic. 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/11/modern-day- segregation-in-public-schools/382846/.
Richardson, L. D., and M. Norris. “Access to Health and Health Care: How Race and Ethnicity Matter.” Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 77 (2010): 166-177. Print.
Sacks, David, and Peter Thiel. “The Case against Affirmative Action.” Stanford Alumni. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2015. https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=43448.
U.S. Department of Education. Civil Rights Data Collection. 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2015 http://ocrdata.ed.gov.