The expansion of education has always been closely linked to the ideals of democracy in the United States. Reformers value education for the opportunity i affords individuals to develop their capabilities and aptitudes. As importantly education has also been seen as a means of creating social equality (Bell, 1976 Galbraith, 1985). Access to education, it has been argued, could help to reduce disparities of wealth and power. Has education, in fact, proved to be a "great equalizer" in this way? A great deal of the research suggests at best modest outcomes. Indeed, education has tended to express and reaffirm existing inequalities rather than actively working to change them.
Studies of Inequalities in American Education
In the 1960's James Coleman undertook a massive investigation of schooling across the United States to measure the pervasiveness of inequalities resulting from differences in race, ethnic background and religion (Coleman, 1966). Coleman found that a large majority of children were in schools that effectivel segregated blacks from whites. Almost 80% of schools attended by white students contained only 10% or less of black students. Coleman had also supposed that hi results would show that compared to predominantly white schools, black schools had worse facilities, larger classes and inferior buildings. Surprisingly, however, the results showed far fewer differences in the infrastructures of resources than had been anticipated. Coleman and his associates therefore concluded that the material resources provided by schools made little differenc to educational performances; the decisive influences were the backgrounds of pupils- white or black. Still, some very significant evidence indicated that students from deprived backgrounds having close friendships with those from mor favorable and affluent circumstances were likely to be more successful educationally.
Subsequent research by Jencks (1972) reviewed the empirical evidence accumulate on education and inequality. The Jencks study reaffirmed the Coleman conclusion that (1) educational and occupational attainment are governed mainly by family background and non-school factors, and (2) that on their own, educational reforms can have only minor effects on existing inequalities. These views remai pervasive and persuasive (Oakes, 1985).
Research on School Environments
The publication of Coleman's influential work, and that of Jencks, have been challenged on methodological grounds. Coleman's study covered pupils at a singl point in time; it was not set-up to analyze change. Other longitudinally sensitive research efforts show that the school environment is more relevant to academic performance than Coleman or Jencks allowed. Rutter and Gilles (1984) looked at developmental tasks of a group of pupils over a period of several years. The survey results indicated that schools do indeed matter and have impact upon the academic development of children. Factors which the Coleman and Jencks studies largely ignored such as the quality of teacher - pupil interaction, a climate of cooperation and empathy between teachers and students and well organized course preparation were found to be significant in academic growth and success among students.
These findings should not be taken only to mean that social realities prior to, and outside of school, are not decisive in perpetuating inequity and academic failure. Actually, the components of the schooling experience which Rutter's work highlights are often the very elements intensified in schools catering to well motivated students that also provide decent compensation and support for their teachers. These aspects of the school experience help to explain just why schooling tends to maintain inequalities and asymmetrical rates of success and failure rather than serving to diminish the effects of class and racial differences.
Rutter's conclusions, along with those working in higher educational institutions (Pascarella, 1984, 1986; Tinto, 1975, 1982), suggest that differences in school organization and atmosphere can affect academic achievement one way or the other. …