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November 12, 2001

A Special Issue of Sociology of Education Addresses Education Policy Issues

Washington, DC - A central concern of modern educational systems worldwide is inequality. Since education is a key institution providing access to the resources of a society, inequality to education in terms of access, resources, and outcomes has far-reaching implications.

This theme is explored in articles by some of the leading sociological experts on education in a special issue of the Sociology of Education (SOE), entitled “Currents of Thought: Sociology of Education at the Dawn of the 21st Century” published recently by the American Sociological Association. The special issue of SOE, supported by a grant of the Spencer Foundation, examines the immediate past, current trends, and future directions of studies focused on the social context of education.

The “stocktaking” reflects the diversity, richness, and dynamic quality of the sociological study of education. The issues discussed include: how do educational systems in advanced societies vary in processes to move students into labor markets? What is the relationship of state-supported education credentialing systems to labor markets and economic expansion? How do state policies, such as local tax structures, produce inequality in education? What are the consequences of black -white inequalities in U.S. educational systems? Who fails and who succeeds in America's schools? How does class, gender, race or other social constructs determine choices and outcomes?

In the lead article, “Alan C. Kerckhoff (Duke University) examines processes which shape students' entry into the labor force in Germany, France, Great Britain, and the United States. He reviews recent research on educational systems in these countries and shows how very different education and credentialing systems, result in different processes through which young people get sorted into categories of educational achievement. The educational systems are described according to several dimensions, including stratification (for example, defined as “higher” or “lower” in secondary schools), standardization (the degree to which the quality of education meets a national standard), the degree of vocational specificity of the credentials they award, and student choice. In order to understand the factors that affect the movement of students through school and into the labor force, Kerkoff's discussion emphasizes the need to examine the trajectories that young people follow during a full “transition period” rather than a single move from school to work.

Pamela Barnhouse Walters (Indiana University) highlights the crucial role that state policies have played in historically institutionalizing inequality. Walters argues that some groups have access to more or better educational opportunities, which is in part due to state policies. For example, the reliance on local taxes as the primary source of school funding and the sanctity of local school-district boundaries have been among major obstacles to eliminating racial inequality when direct state policies shifted in the direction of greater racial equality.

Maureen Hallinan (University of Notre Dame) discusses sociological contributions to an understanding of black and white inequality in education over the past several decades. She outlines political, cultural, and ideological differences in black-white schooling, which can guide further research on access to schooling, educational opportunities in schools and outcomes of schooling. Carol L. Schmid (Guilford Technical Community College), reviews major factors contributing to the uneven absorption and educational achievement of the new second generation, who come primarily from Asia and Latin America. Factors include “external factors,” such as economic opportunities, racial and ethnic status, and group reception and “intrinsic factors,” such as human and social capital, family structure, community organization, and cultural and linguistic patterns. Although about one in five individuals under 18 is either an immigrant or has parents who are immigrants, this population is a neglected segment of the school population.

Other articles focus on the implication of structural and cultural factors on educational institutions and organizations, methodological approaches that enhance understanding of educational processes and policies, critiques of critique of research on cultural capital theories (which hold that the socially privileged enjoy greater academic success) and an exploration of sociological assumptions for the future or direction of education and inequality in the 21st century. Four sociologists provided reflections and discussions on the 9 articles. These commentaries add further perspective to the issues discussed by the 9 contributing authors.

*** For further information or a copy of the extra 2001 issue of the Sociology of Education, contact Johanna Ebner at the American Sociological Association's Public Information Office, (202) 383-9005 x320; pubinfo@asanet.org.

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