The effects of class, gender and ethnicity on achievement

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Throughout our lives, we learn in different settings. This process of learning is simply termed as education. We learn in formal or informal settings. Formal education takes place in schools while informal education takes place everywhere, including at home. Education is not only a learning process but also a significant aspect of the social structure. Previously, studies have been carried out on educational achievement and established that class, gender and ethnicity are major factors affecting educational achievement. These effects can be explained from both the functionalist and Marxism perspective. Functionalists view education in regards to its function in the society, implying a non conflict societal view. According to the functionalists, the main tasks of schooling include social control, economic training, social selection and transmission of various cultural values. The functionalist view emphasizes that very person benefits from functions of the educational system. However, the Marxism approach differs. The Marxism approach views education as part of a system that reproduces and legitimizes societal divisions as well as inequalities.

Class and achievement

Initially, education was available only for the powerful and wealthy. Children of the working class were able to access basic education in church schools. According to Biddle (2014), the type of schools children attend as well as the education they receive is highly dependent on their background. Children of a high social class are enrolled in expensive public schools, which are aimed at nurturing talent and developing qualities of good leadership necessary for labour reproduction (Biddle 2014, p.10). Children of the middle class are enrolled in less prestigious and less expensive schools. Children of the lower class attend cheap public schools, which mainly aim at teaching basic numeracy and literacy (Biddle 2014, p.12). Once the children are done with primary school education, only children of the upper and middle class have the ability to proceed to secondary school. Children of the lower class have to rely on aid form government and other sponsors, an aspect that further creates social divide.

According to Marxism, this social divide in education reproduces and legitimizes societal divisions as well as inequalities. From the Marxism view, social class will continue affecting educational achievement because children of the high and middle class will continue being enrolled in better schools and have better achievements, compared to children of the lower class values dominant classes and devalues skills and knowledge of the lower class.  From the functionalist view, education is a tool for social control which in turn benefits capitalism. Hence, according to this view, if the upper and middle class have the capability of enrolling their children in better schools and have better educational outcomes, it’s all for the society’s good.

Gender and achievement

Studies show that girls perform better and score better grades than boys in schools (Voyer & Voyer 2014, p.23). In addition, girls have a higher high school completion rate compared to boys. Achievement tests also show that girls perform better in spelling, general knowledge, writing and literacy tests. For example, an international test which was administered on 4th grade students in about 35 countries showed that girls outscored males (Voyer & Voyer 2014, p.30). Though the findings did not show any difference between boys and girls in 4th grade mathematics, boys started outscoring girls in 4th grade science exams. In general terms, girls have a higher verbal ability compared to boys in high school but lose ground after 4th grade in mathematical and science abilities. These differences in science and math achievement further have an impact on the career choices of both boys and girls. In essence, more boys are enrolled in science and math related careers while girls opt for other careers, especially those that utilize their vocal abilities.

Furthermore, according to Voyer and Voyer (2014), there is a shortage of women in technical, engineering, math and science fields. Even women who choose careers in science often choose biological sciences as opposed to physical sciences, computer science, engineering and mathematics. On the other hand, very few males choose social science careers and instead, opt for careers in physical sciences, engineering, computer science and mathematics.

From the Marxism perspective, gender will always be a major cause of inequality. Differences in cognitive skills and abilities by virtue of being male or female will always results in differences in educational achievements between boys and girls, and hence different career choices. In this sense, there are careers that will always be viewed as “male” and others as “female”. Feminist have come up in a bid to fight this form of inequality between males and females. Feminist theories aim at fighting for equality between men and women because it is believed that males have more opportunities compared to females. From the functionalist perspective, educational achievement by virtue of being either male of female is all for the benefit of the society.

Ethnicity and achievement

According to Kao and Thompson (2003), an ethnic group is defined as a group of people, who have certain significant similarities which have an impact on their behavior, identifies them and differentiates them from other ethnic groups. Ethnicity has a major impact on achievement, among other factors such as gender and social class. Many schools are multicultural but differences can be observed for ethnic minorities. Studies show that students from certain ethnicities perform poorer than others. From the Marxism perspective, students from ethnic minorities have lower educational achievements compared to students from major ethnicities. Currently, Black Caribbean boys achieve the lowest grades.

Failure or success may be influenced by factors within the classroom and the school as well. Teachers as students may unintentionally turn out as racists since they have stereotypes about certain ethnicities. If a teacher has low expectations of students from a certain ethnic minority, it is likely to affect the students’ achievement (Kao &Thompson 2003, p.418). For instance, if teachers label Black Caribbean boys as “not bright”, they have already made a prediction about their educational outcomes and since they have low expectations, automatically, they will always expect below average work. The teachers are also less likely to motivate or encourage these students because they have already labeled them as failures.

Moreover, although schools have been obliged to implement the anti racists policy, a high percentage of white high school teachers has conflicts with Caribbean and African pupils (Kao &Thompson 2003, p.430). In turn, these pupils may find no point in working hard if their teachers are racist. These students develop an anti school sub culture that has a set of attitudes, values and behavior that opposes attitudes, values and behavior supported by the school.

Ethnic minorities often have different backgrounds and cultures. They study English as a send language. In many schools, all learning is done in English language. Since they have difficulty in English, it also becomes hard for them to learn other disciplines (Kao &Thompson 2003, p.431). Teachers sometimes mistake difficulty in language as inability. Hence, such students end up being penalized in tests. In addition, they experience difficulty in communicating to the teachers.

Factors outside the school also affect educational achievement. Children from ethnic minorities are often socially disadvantaged. Mostly, they live in poor and overcrowded houses, while their family members are unemployed. If parents are unemployed, they are less likely to have interests in their children’s achievement because they are more focused on finding employment (Kao &Thompson 2003, p.435).  In addition, if the parents are unemployed, it means they are less likely to spend money on taking their children to good schools and buying learning materials such as textbooks (Kao &Thompson 2003, p.436). This material deprivation faced by children of poor ethnic minorities limits them from having high educational achievements.

From the functionalist perspective, students from major ethnicities enjoy higher educational achievements. There are minimal stereotypes attached to them. Their parents can afford to take them to the best schools and buy necessary learning materials. Moreover, their teachers have high expectations on their educational achievements and therefore, they have to work hard to meet these expectations.

Without any doubt, class, gender and ethnicity have major effects on educational achievement. The functionalist approach only considers the positive side of these effects while the Marxism approach considers the negative side, which emphasize on inequality. However, in order to attain balanced achievement for both sides, the negative aspects emphasized by the Marxism perspective need to be reduced.

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  1. Biddle, B., 2014. Social class, poverty and education. Routledge.
  2. Kao, G. and Thompson, J.S., 2003. Racial and ethnic stratification in educational achievement and attainment. Annual review of sociology29(1), pp.417-442.
  3. Voyer, D. and Voyer, S.D., 2014. Gender differences in scholastic achievement: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin140(4), p.1174.
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