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Chapter 11 Schools and Education

Social Problems in the News

“Baltimore Students Lead Rally for Better School Facilities,” the headline said. On a crisp fall day, some 240 students, teachers, and parents held a rally at City Hall in Baltimore, Maryland, to call for massive improvements in the city’s deteriorating schools. According to the news article, students displayed photos of decaying conditions in their schools and “spoke of horrific learning conditions: roaches, rodents, decaying roofs, rotting walls, sewage overflows, and inadequate heating and cooling systems.” A high school senior said, “It’s not that the teachers aren’t the best, because they are, and it’s not that the students are misbehaving. That’s not it. We have buildings that you can’t do anything with.” The president of Baltimore’s City Council agreed. “We owe it to our students to have state-of-the-art schools,” he said. “Our school buildings are conducive to our kids’ learning. If they go into school buildings that don’t have running water, where bathrooms aren’t functioning properly, with outdated furniture and no books in the library, then what do we expect from our kids?”

Source: Burris, 2011Burris, J. (2011, November 3). Baltimore students lead rally for better school facilities. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved from http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2011-11-03/news/bs-md-ci-rally-facilities-20111103_1_school-buildings-baltimore-students-city-schools.

Charles Dickens’s majestic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, begins with this unforgettable passage: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

These words are timeless, and they certainly apply to the US education system today. In many ways it is the best of systems, but in many ways it is also the worst of systems. It teaches wisdom, but its many problems smack of foolishness. It fills many people with hope, but it also fills many people with despair. Some students have everything before them, but many also have nothing before them. In the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth, students in one of America’s largest cities, Baltimore, attend schools filled with roaches and rodents and reeking of sewage. They are hardly alone, as students in cities across the nation could easily speak of similar ills. If Dickens were alive today, he might well look at our schools and conclude that “we were all going direct the other way.”

Education is one of our most important social institutions. Youngsters and adolescents spend most of their weekday waking hours in school, doing homework, or participating in extracurricular activities, and many then go on to college. People everywhere care deeply about what happens in our nation’s schools, and issues about the schools ignite passions across the political spectrum. Yet, as the opening news story about Baltimore’s schools illustrates, many schools are poorly equipped to prepare their students for the complex needs of today’s world.

This chapter’s discussion of education begins with an overview of education in the United States and then turns to sociological perspectives on education. The remainder of the chapter discusses education in today’s society. This discussion highlights education as a source and consequence of various social inequalities and examines several key issues affecting the nation’s schools and the education of its children.