Socioeconomic Status and Education

Written by: Sarah Andre, Kim Aubry, Patty Battista, Dave Passero


Much attention has recently been given to the relationship between socioeconomic status and educational outcomes in lieu of the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Areas of concern center around funding, affluent schools vs. high poverty schools, and high drop out rates. In order to address the inequalities in our education system we need to look at the current state of education within all socioeconomic classes. Only through public knowledge can informed changes be implemented to create a public education system that affords equal opportunities for all.

Local, State, and Federal Funding


As a citizen of a country that is built on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness it is easy to assume that these rights give us free and guaranteed equal education. The fact is that there is not a right to an education nor is there guarantee that it is equal. The root-cause of educational inequity is complex, historically ingrained and multifaceted. The United States government was fashioned to aide those who own property, have money and possess power. James Madison wrote, in The Federalist No. 10 that:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights or property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a
uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and
unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from
the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different
interests and parties (1787).

Madison understood that the acquisition of property or money will divide the country.

Local Funding

States are traditionally responsible for financing education, but the accountability is dependent upon the systemic forces within individual districts. According to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, in 1995, property tax was responsible for 77 percent of local funding nationwide. Since property tax is the main source of revenue for public schooling the question arises: How does one determine property tax? According to the Advisory Commission property tax is determined by applying the local tax rate to the assessed value of ones property. As a result of the majority of public school finances being drawn from property taxes obvious disparities in district budgets occurs (Ornstein, 2006). In other words, “students who live in property-rich areas will have far more resources in their school than those who live in property-poor areas (Rayburn, 2004).

State Funding

State funding for public schools is mostly derived from sales taxes and personal income taxes (Ornstein, 2006). These taxes vary from state to state and are not equal. Schools are subject to the funds that the states have provided for them. Andrew Reschovsky (1994) explains in Fiscal Equalization and School Finance that the nations rapid industrialized growth at the turn of the 20th century caused severe variations in property wealth. Sales tax is now subject to the highs and lows of the United States economy and Wall Street. If a recession occurs then the sales tax revenue will decrease and vice versa. This issue creates a problematic distribution of revenue to schools from year to year. The second major revenue source for state funding is income tax. Income tax seems to be fairly equitable, according to Reschovsky, because of its inclusion of deductions and exemptions.

Federal Funding

Federal funding for public schools is a fairly new phenomena. According to Michael Heise, who published The Political Economy of Education Federalism, Title I of the Elementary and secondary Education Act focuses on the nation's poorest students, The Federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act serves disabled students and the most recent explosion of federal funding mushroomed with No Child Left Behind. NCLB, the infamous acronym, coerces states and schools to give into massive mandated standardized testing in order to receive Title I funding. “NCLB conditions Title I funding upon a state’s willingness to comply with NCLB requirements” (Heise, 2006). In exchange for a large percentage of money, the federal government demands annual testing in reading and math to demonstrate progress. Heise states that the federal government provides more than 12.7 billion in funds in exchange for measurable progress from year to year. This funding is very important to states and districts across the country, but even this large sum of money is not even close to the amount of funding that is taken on by local and state financing.

Affluent, Suburban Students

In recent years there has been much attention given to the developmental problems of socio-economically disadvantaged students. In contrast, there has been little consideration given to the unique psychosocial adjustment problems of affluent, suburban youth. The research findings discussed in this section show that this group is particularly vulnerable to anxiety and depression related to academic pressure and isolation from parents. In addition, these findings further demonstrate that the psychosocial adjustment problems of this group of students manifest themselves in higher incidences of substance abuse and academic dishonesty as compared with the national norm.

Luthar (2002) studied sixth and seventh grade students in an affluent suburban community. It was found that suburban youth who set excessively high standards for themselves are likely to experience high disturbance and distress. This was found to be equally true whether because of internal pressures of their own perfectionism or external pressures from their parents (Luthar, 2002).

Substance Abuse

According to McMahon (2006), previous research has shown a link between social anxiety and the use of alcohol by college students, but very little is known about substance abuse among teens living in affluent social settings. McMahon (2006) studied students attending a high school that served three affluent, suburban towns. He found that physiological manifestations of anxiety were consistently related with more substance abuse. The findings also suggest that depression may increase vulnerability to alcohol and drug use, but persistent substance use does not contribute to an exacerbation of depressive symptoms. In addition, there was no evidence that substance use was associated with any notable change in either school behavior or academic performance. Instead, findings in this study are consistent with the position that deterioration of school behavior and academic performance typically occurs before the escalation of substance abuse (McMahon, 2006).

Academic Dishonesty

Another question for researchers is whether academic pressures cause advanced placement, suburban students to utilize academically deceitful means in order to remain in these competitive programs or maintain grade point averages and class rank. Taylor (2002) studied the cheating behavior of elite high school students through semi-structured interview responses from students considered to be in the top 10% of their class. Students reported pressure from competition for class rank as the most common reason for cheating. The school system perpetuates this competitive environment by placing emphasis on individual ability and class rank. Students feel that this pits students against one another and places total responsibility for achievement on the student. The majority of students also experienced parental pressure to succeed. Some reported parents withholding affection when student grades did not meet parental expectations. Other students reported parental pressures to obtain scholarships in order to afford the tuition of a prestigious institution (Taylor,2002). Haan (1986) suggested that by providing justifications for academic dishonesty, students are able to maintain their sense of self as honest and moral. Further, people often attempt to balance situational circumstances with their individual desires in order to make a behavioral decision that allows them to maintain their sense of self-worth (Haan, 1986).

Isolation from Parents

Luthar (2002) suggests that another cause of distress within the affluent, suburban student population is isolation from parents, particularly low perceived closeness to mothers. Luthar found that there was a strong association found between perceived closeness with mothers and distress and substance use amongst both boys and girls. Conversely, closeness to fathers showed few associations with adjustment outcomes (Luthar, 2002).

Bogard (2005) duplicated Luthar’s study and concluded that much of the findings were valid and reliable. However, through closer examination Bogard found that perceived maternal closeness for girls has significant effects for depression and substance abuse. No significant effects of maternal closeness were indicated for boys. Father closeness was predictive of depression for boys and girls, but not substance abuse (Bogard, 2005). Bogard also studied the effects of various types of adult supports on adolescent adjustment. Perceived adult supports examined included teachers, counselors, religious figures, coaches, family friends, neighbors, and extended family members. It was shown that in the context of low perceived parental closeness, perceived adult supports were associated with an exacerbation of maladjustment for female and male adolescents. Further, substance use for girls and depression symptomology for boys appeared to be exacerbated when these youth reported low parental closeness in conjunction with high other adult family support (Bogard, 2005).

The findings in these studies highlight the need for additional research into the unique psychosocial maladjustment issues occurring within affluent, suburban student populations. Only then can preventative intervention programs be designed and implemented within families, school systems and communities.

Poverty and Education

Environmental Factors

Children and families living in poverty are at greater risk of hunger, homelessness, sickness, physical and mental disabilities, violence, teen parenthood, family stress, and educational failure. These environmental factors are contributers to children that live in poverty being four times more likely to have learning disabilities than non poverty students (Apple & Zenk, 1996). According to Casanova, Garcia-Linares, Torre and Carpio (2005), it is a combination of these environmental factors as well as family influence that contributes to student academic success. If a student has not eaten for days and has clothes that don’t fit, how can he/she be expected to maintain focus in a classroom? Children coming from poverty are not provided the same tools as the wealthy; they are entering schools already behind those not living in similar conditions. According to Li-Grining (2007), research suggests that the problem starts with the parents and their lack of education and understanding of the needs of children.

Economic Factors

The United States Economy is driven by policies in which the lives of its citizens count little in comparison to profit maximization: “social commitments and human relationships are judged solely by their marketplace achievements” (Apple & Zenk, 1996). Rather than providing an economy where everyone has a chance to reach a level of success and profit, the US economy structure is actually doing the opposite, continually increasing the gap between the rich and the poor. This in turn makes it difficult for the poor to 'climb the ladder of success' (Apple & Zenk, 1996). African Americans and Hispanics have suffered the most from these policies. About thirty percent of all Hispanics and one-third of all African Americans are living below the poverty line (Apple & Zenk, 1996).

In the United States it is the large corporations that are benefiting from our economic structure. In order for the capitalist economy to survive, profits must be maximized by lowering wages. This is confounding the poverty problem. When comparing a single race, the poorest black youths are found to be thirty times more likely to drop out of school than the wealthiest black youths (Apple & Zenk, 1996). These are the people that are then going to receive lower paying jobs and remain in poverty.

School Factors

According to Harris, (2007) “Low poverty schools are 22 times more likely to reach consistently high academic achievement compared with high-poverty schools (p. 367). There are many factors that are attributed to poor success rate in low income schools. Many schools remain segregated according to socioeconomic-status (SES). Desegregated schools have higher achievement for high poverty students (Machtinger, 2007). Schools with a high population of low income students often provide a curriculum that is being narrowed and less intellectual content is being covered. This is in part due to lack of teacher experience. High poverty schools have far fewer qualified teachers and lose the ones they do have at a greater rate than low poverty schools. A student in a high poverty school can have up to a 50% greater chance of being taught by an inexperienced teacher than a student in a low poverty school (Machtinger, 2007).

As stated before, a change is necessary. This can begin in schools by educating and empowering youth to actively make social change. Although it is not something that can happen overnight, it is needed in this society to better the lives of future generations.

Dropout Rates


In the United States the dropout rate is 10.9% (Christle, Jovilette, C., Nelson 2007, p 325). There are many factors that contribute to dropout rates, however socioeconomic status is one of the main factors. Christle, et. al explains that there is a strong relationship between socioeconomic status and the dropout rate, "with students from low income families being 2.4 times more likely to drop out of high school than middle-income students" (2007 p. 326). Students of low socioeconomic status frequently attend schools with a high dropout rate, which increases the chances that they will dropout as well. According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2005 the dropout rate of students from low income families was 8.9 percent, as compared to affluent families where the drop out rate was a mere 1.5 percent. “The overall dropout rate defined as 16 to 24 year olds who, regardless of when they left school, have not completed high school or a general educational development (GED) program, has decreased from approximately 15% in 1971 to approximately 11% in 1999 (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2000). However, these overall percentages mask important racial/ethnic group differences.”(Van Dorn, Bowen, Blau 2006 p 1) Van Dorn et. al also suggests that it is not just those who live in urban areas from low income households that are at high risk to drop out, but also those who live in rural areas that are from low socioeconomic status. “Prior academic achievement”(Van Dorn, Bowen, Blau 2006 p 3) and family patterns have an effect on the drop out rate. This means that if a student struggles and earns poor grades early in their academic career they will have more of a chance of dropping out in high school. Furthermore, if a student has a sibling who has dropped out of high school, they are then at an increased risk of dropping out. School characteristics, as pointed out before, contribute to dropout rates. If a school is smaller, students are more likely to have better learning experiences. Van Dorn et, al. states, “Research on high schools has shown school size to impact educational outcomes; smaller schools often between 600 and 900 students-provide a better context for learning (Lee & Smith, 1997)”(p 3 2006)

Parental Involvement

Low socioeconomic status not only affects dropout rates but it affects parental involvement in a student's education. Parental involvement can be "defined as parental participation in the educational processes and experiences of their children"(Jeynes 2007, p 83). If there is little parental involvement in a child's education, there is more of a likelihood that the student will not succeed. When a parent is not involved or interested in his or her child's education, there is a greater chance that the child will not be interested in his or her own education. This directly affects whether or not the student will finish school. It is not uncommon to see little parental involvement in the education of children from low income households. This, in turn, leads to an increase in behavioral problems. Domina states, "Parental involvement does not independently improve children's learning, but some involvement activities do prevent behavioral problems. Interaction analysis suggest that the involvement of parents with low socioeconomic status may be more effective than that of parents with high socioeconomic status"(Domina 2005, p. 233). Parental involvement, as Domina suggests, means not only helping with homework but also becoming involved and active in other aspects of a child's education.(Domina 2005 p. 240). Academic achievement requires both student and parent involvement.

No Child Left Behind

The initiative, No Child Left Behind, (NCLB) was intended to improve the education of all students in the United States. It was also thought that NCLB would provide quality education for those who attended urban high schools. Even before NCLB was established many schools in urban areas, like New York City and Chicago, sought to restructure their programs. These urban districts took large schools that were in a sense treated as 'warehouses'(2006 p. 643) and created small learning communities. Hammond suggests that NCLB has sought school reform, “the complicated rules mandated by NCLB have unintentionally made it more difficult for many heroic schools in low-income neighborhoods to do their work well and to keep the neediest students in school and moving toward productive features”(2006 p. 647). One of “the complicated rules mandated by NCLB”(Hammond 2006 p. 647) is that all teachers be highly qualified. The teacher turnover rate is so high in urban high schools that experienced and highly qualified teachers are not in a position to help those students who need it most. In order to produce teachers that are highly qualified, meaning teachers must have their teaching certification and have passed all of the appropriate tests, “alternative certification pathways”(Hammond 2006 p. 248), have been created. These alternatives are often inadequate because new teachers are not getting the experience they need. Furthermore, “many highly well-prepared and highly successful teachers are deemed not to be highly qualified because they teach in multiple subject areas and have not majored or passed tests in all of them. The interdisciplinary teaching that is so central to many successfully redesigned high schools—as well as to small schools in many rural an urban areas—is jeopardized by the current administration of the law”(Hammond 2006 p 648) If well qualified teachers that aren’t considered to be highly qualified by NCLB then these teachers cannot go where their help is most needed. Students are not getting proper instruction and therefore falling behind and dropping out.


The capitalist economy in our country has created a system of institutional classism. Education has become the strongest determinant of social promotion. Children of all socioeconomic statuses experience unique psychosocial and educational stressors. But the educational challenges that children of low socioeconomic status face are the most serious and the most prevalent. Poverty is a violation of human rights. It is systematic and predestines children of low socioeconomic status for academic failure. Poverty represents blatant neglect of a whole population of citizens oppressed by a capitalist economy. Inequalities in the United States education system are inherent and cyclical. In order to correct the damage that has been done by these inequalities we, as a country, need to revisit the core principles of education from the bottom up. As citizens, we must take back the power of education policy and reform that governmental agencies and corporations currently possess. Systemic forces are inevitable, but ignoring glaring issues will only perpetuate this disparity.


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