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18.1.2: Sociopolitical Contexts of Education

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    Although educational policies and practices are sometimes viewed as if they existed in a vacuum, separate from the larger social, political, and cultural contexts, one of the central tenets of multiculturalism asserts that educational decision-making is heavily influenced by each of these contexts. In particular, many scholars of multicultural education point to the importance of the sociopolitical context of education in the modern era as educational policies and practices are increasingly becoming politicized. Given the political nature of educational decision making, the educational policies and practices implemented at national, state, and local levels reflect the values, traditions, and worldviews of the individuals and groups responsible for their design and implementation, which inherently makes education a non-neutral process, though it is often seen as such. Understanding the sociopolitical context of education allows for a critical analysis of educational policies and practices in an effort to reduce educational inequalities, improve the achievement of all students, and prepare students to participate in democratic society.

    In the field of multicultural education– and across the social sciences– the sociopolitical context refers to the laws, regulations, mandates, policies, practices, traditions, values, and beliefs that exist at the intersection of social life and political life. For example, freedom of religion is one of the fundamental principles of life in American society, and therefore there are laws in place that protect every individual’s right to worship as they choose. In this instance, the social practices (ideologies, beliefs, traditions) and political process (laws, regulations, policies) reflect each other and combine to create a sociopolitical context that is, in principle, welcoming to all religious practices. There are similar connections between the social and the political in the field of education. Given that one of the main purposes of schooling is to prepare students to become productive members of society, classroom practices must reflect– to some extent– the characteristics of the larger social and political community. For example, in the United States, many schools use student governments to expose students to the principles of democratic society. By organizing debates, holding elections, and giving student representatives a voice in educational decision making, schools hope to impart upon students the importance of engaging in the political process. The policies and practices that support the operation of student government directly reflect the larger sociopolitical context of the United States. Internationally, the use of student government often reflect the political systems used in that country, if a student government organization exists at all. However, sociopolitical contexts influence educational experiences in subtler ways as well.

    Throughout the history of American education, school policies and practices have reflected the ideological perspectives and worldviews of the underlying sociopolitical context. As stated above, schools in democratic societies often have democratic student government organizations that reflect the political organization of the larger society, while similar organizations cannot be found in schools in countries that do not practice democracy. Similarly, if a society shares a widespread belief that some groups (based on race, class, language, or any other identifier) are inherently more intelligent than another, educational policies and practices will reflect that belief. For example, as the United States expanded westward into Native American lands during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Americans shared the widespread belief that Native Americans were inherently less intelligent and less civilized than white Americans. This belief system served as a justification for the “Manifest Destiny” ideology that encouraged further westward expansion. Not surprisingly, the larger sociopolitical context of the time influences educational policies and practices. In large numbers, young Native Americans were torn from their families and forced into boarding schools where they were stripped of their traditions and customs before being involuntarily assimilated into “American culture”. These Native American boarding schools outlawed indigenous languages and religions. They required students to adopt western names, wear western clothes, and learn western customs. While from a contemporary perspective these schools were clearly inhumane, racist, and discriminatory, they illustrate how powerful the sociopolitical climate of the era can be in the implementation of educational policies and practices. Educational policies today continue to reflect the larger social and political ideologies, worldviews, and belief systems of American society, and although instances of blatant discrimination based on race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, or any other identifier have been dramatically reduced in recent decades, a critical investigation into contemporary schooling reveals that individuals and groups are systematically advantaged and disadvantaged based on their identities and backgrounds, which will be explored in more depth in subsequent sections of this (book/class).

    The role of social institutions in educational experiences are another key consideration in developing an understanding of the sociopolitical contexts of education. The term social institutions refer to the establish, standardized patterns of rule governed behavior within a community, group, or other social system. Generally, the term social institutions includes a consideration of the socially accepted patterns of behavior set by the family, schools, religion, and economic and political systems. Each social institution contributes to the efficiency and sustained functionality of the larger society by ensuring that individuals behave in a manner that consistent with the larger structure, which allows them to contribute to the society. Traffic regulations offer an example of how social institutions work together to create and ensure safety and efficiency in society. In order to reduce chaos, danger, and inefficiency along roadways in the United States, political institutions have created laws and regulations that govern behavior along public roads. Drivers found in violation of these regulations face punishment or fines that are determined by the judicial system. Furthermore, families and schools– and to some extent religions organizations– are responsible for teaching young people the rules and regulations that govern transportation in their society. The streamlined and regulated transportation system produced by the aforementioned social institutions allows economic institutions to function more efficiently. Functionalist Theory is a term used to refer to the perspective that institutions fill functional prerequisites in society and are necessary for social efficiency as seen in the previous example.

    However, Conflict Theory refers to the idea that social institutions work to reinforce inequalities and uphold dominant group power. Using the same transportation example, a conflict theorist might argue that the regulations that require licensing fees before being able to legally operate a vehicle disproportionately impact poor people, which would limit their ability to move freely and thereby make it more difficult for them to hold and maintain a job that would allow them to move into a higher socioeconomic class. Another argument from the conflict theorist perspective might challenge institutionalized policies that require drivers to present proof of citizenship or immigration papers before being allowed to legally operate a vehicle. These policies systematically deny the right of freedom of movement to immigrants who entered the United States illegally, thereby limiting their civil rights as well as their ability to contribute to the American economy. Both the Functionalist Theory and Conflict Theory perspectives can contribute to a nuanced understanding of contemporary educational policies and practices by providing contrasting viewpoints on the same issue. Throughout these modules these perspectives will inform the discussion of educational institutions and how they influence– and are influenced by– other social institutions.

    Much like educational policies and practices, the rules and regulations set by social institutions do not exist within a vacuum, nor are they neutral in regard to the way they impact individuals and groups. Institutional discrimination refers to “the adverse treatment of and impact on members of minority groups due to the explicit and implicit rules that regulate behavior (including rules set by firms, schools, government, markets, and society). Institutional discrimination occurs when the rules, practices, or ‘non-conscious understanding of appropriate conduct’ systematically advantage or disadvantage members of particular groups” (Bayer, 2011). Historical examples of institutional discrimination in abound in American history. In the field of education, perhaps the most well known example of institutionalized discrimination is the existence of segregated schools prior to the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. During this era, students of color were institutionally and systematically prevented from attending white schools, and instead were forced to attend schools that lacked sufficient financial, material, and human resources. Institutional discrimination in contemporary society, however, is often subtler given that there are a plethora of laws that explicitly prevent discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or any other identifier. Regardless of those laws, social institutions and institutionalized discrimination continue to disadvantage non-dominant groups, thereby advantaging members of the dominant group. Use housing as an example, homeowner’s associations are local organizations that regulate the rules and behaviors within a particular housing community. If a homeowner’s association decides that only nuclear families can live within their community and create a bylaw that stipulates such, the practice of allowing nuclear families and denying non-nuclear families becomes codified as an institutionalized policy. While the policy does not directly state that it intends to be discriminatory, it would disproportionately affect families from cultures that traditionally have households that include aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and other extended family members, a practice that is common in many Asian, African, and South American communities. Although hypothetical, this example represents an example of the subtle ways in which institutional discrimination surfaces in contemporary society.

    A more concrete example of institutionalized discrimination can be drawn from the housing market in New Orleans as homes were being rebuilt in the aftermath Hurricane Katrina. While the Lower Ninth Ward– a mostly black neighborhood– was among the most damaged neighborhood in New Orleans, just down river the St. Bernard Parish neighborhood– which was mostly white– was also heavily damaged. By 2009, most of St. Bernard Parish had been rebuilt, while the Lower Ninth Ward remained unfit for living. As families began moving back into the neighborhood, elected officials in St. Bernard Parish passed a piece of legislation that required property owners to rent only to ‘blood relatives’. In effect, the policy barred potential black residents from moving into the area and served to maintain the racial makeup of the neighborhood prior to Katrina. After several months of implementation, the policy was legally challenged and was found to be in violation of the Fair Housing Act in Louisiana courts. In 2014, the Parish agreed to pay approximately $1.8 million in settlements to families negatively affected by the policy. This example illustrates how institutionalized discrimination surfaces in contemporary society. Throughout the modules, instances of institutional discrimination in schools, as well as in American society as a whole, will be critically analyzed in order to develop an understanding of how educators can work to reduce inequality and promote academic achievement for all students.

    A basic understanding of social institutions and institutional discrimination helps inform this course’s approach to key educational issues in the field of multicultural education. As the student body in American schools becomes increasingly diverse, it becomes increasingly important for future teachers to know and understand how students’ identities might impact their educational experiences as well as their experiences their larger social and political settings. While there are many issues facing education today, Nieto and Bode (2012) identified four key terms that are central to understanding sociopolitical context surrounding multicultural education. These terms include: equal and equitable education, the ‘achievement gap’, deficit theories, and social justice.

    The terms equal and equitable are often used synonymously, though they have vastly different meanings. While most educators would agree that providing an equal education to all students is an important part of their mission, it is sometimes more important to focus on creating equitable educational experiences. At its core, an equal education means providing exactly the same resources and opportunities for all students, regardless of their background. An equal education, however, does not ensure that all students will achieve equally. Take English Language Learners (ELLs) as an example. A group of ELL students sitting in the same classroom as native English speakers, listening to the same lecture, reading the same books, and taking the same assessments could be considered an equal education given that all students are receiving equal access to all of the educational experiences and materials. The outcome of this ostensibly equal education, however, would not be equitable. The ELL students would not be able to comprehend the lecture, books, or assessments and would therefore not be given the real possibility of achieving at an equal level, which is the aim of an equitable education. Equity refers to the educational process that “provides students with what they need to achieve equality” (Nieto & Bode, 2012, p.9). In the case of the ELL example, an equitable education would provide additional resources– perhaps including ESL specialists, bilingual activities and materials, and/or programs that foster native language literacy– to the ELL students to ensure that they are welcomed into the classroom community and are given the opportunity to learn and succeed equally. Working towards educational equality by providing equitable educational experiences is one of the central tenets of multicultural education and will be a recurring topic throughout these modules.

    A second key term that is crucial in understanding multicultural education is the ‘achievement gap’. A large body of research has documented that students from racially and linguistically marginalized groups as well as students from low-income families generally achieve less than other students in educational settings. Large scale studies of standardized assessments revealed that white students outperformed black, Hispanic, and Native American students in reading, writing, and mathematics by at least 26 points on a scale from 0 to 500 (Nieto and Bode, 2012; National Center for Educational Statistics, 2009). Though usage of the term has changed over time, it often focuses on the role that students themselves play in the underachievement, which has drawn criticism from advocates of multicultural education because it places too much responsibility on the individual rather than considering the larger sociopolitical and sociocultural contexts surrounding education. While gaps in educational performance no doubt exist, Nieto and Bode (2012) suggest that using terms such as “resource gap”, “opportunity gap”, or “expectations gap” may be more accurate in describing the realities faced by marginalized students who often attend schools with limited resources, limited opportunities for educational advancement or employment in their communities, and face lowered expectations from their teachers and school personnel (p.13). Throughout this (book/course) issues related to the achievement gap’ and educational inequalities based on race, class, gender, and other identifiers will be viewed within the larger social, cultural, economic, and political contexts in order to create a more holistic and systematic understanding of student experiences, rather than focusing purely on the individual.

    Historically in educational research, deficit theories have been used to explain how and why the achievement gap exists, but since the 1970s, scholars of multicultural education have been working to dismantle the lasting influence of deficit theory perspectives in contemporary education. The term ‘deficit theories’ refer to the assumption that some students perform worse than others in educational settings due to genetic, cultural, linguistic, or experiential differences that prevent them from learning. The roots of deficit theories can be found in 19th century pseudo-scientific studies that purported to show ‘scientific evidence’ that classified the intelligence and behavior characteristics of various racial groups. The vast majority of these studies were conducted by white men, who unsurprisingly, found white men to be the most intelligent group of human beings, with other groups falling in behind in ways that mirrored the accepted social standings of the era (Gould, 1981). Though many have been disproved, deficit theories continue to surface in educational research and discourse. Reports suggesting that academic underachievement is a product of cultural deprivation or a dysfunctional relationship with school harken back to deficit theory perspectives. Much like the ‘achievement gap’, deficit theories place the burden of academic underachievement on students and their families, rather than considering how the social and institutional contexts might impact student learning. Deficit theories also create a culture of despondency among educators and administrators since they support the idea that students’ ability to achieve is predetermined by factors outside of the teacher’s control. Multicultural education aims to disrupt the prevalence of deficit theory perspectives by encouraging a more nuanced analysis of student achievement that considers the structural and cultural contexts surrounding American schooling.

    The fourth and final term that is central to understanding the sociopolitical context of multicultural education is social justice. Throughout these modules, the term social justice will be employed to describe efforts to reduce educational inequalities, promote academic achievement, and engage students in their local, state, and national communities. Social justice is multifaceted in that it embodies the ideologies, philosophies, approaches, and actions that work towards improving the quality of life for all individuals and communities. Not only does social justice aim to improve access to material and human resources for students in underserved communities, it also exposes inequalities by challenging and confronting misconceptions and stereotypes through the use of critical thinking and activism. Finally, in order for social justice initiatives to be successful, they must “draw on the talents and strengths that students bring to their education” (Nieto and Bode, 2012, p.12). This allows students to see their experiences represented in curriculum content, which can empower and inspire students– not only to excel academically– but also engage in activities that strengthen and build the community around them. These key components of social justice permeate throughout the field of multicultural education.

    In order to develop a holistic understanding of educational experiences, these modules will interpret and analyze educational policies and practices through a lens that considers the sociopolitical contexts of education. By recognizing the role that social and political ideologies have over educational decision making, multicultural approaches to education aim to reduce educational inequalities, improve the achievement of all students, and prepare students to participate in democratic society.