A wide range of social conditions can affect the way kids learn. A
report, The Social Context of Education, examines those conditions
and how they've changed over the last few decades.
Over the past few decades, the social context of education has been
transformed. Examples of this transformation abound. "Today, of the 4
million babies born each year, nearly one out of eight is born to a teenage
mother, one out of four to a mother with less than a high school education,
almost one out of three to a mother who lives in poverty, and one out
of four to an unmarried mother."
These findings are from the recently published report The
Social Context of Education (1997). And, as the report points
out, statistics demonstrate that these social conditions can be associated
with school problems, such as children repeating a grade, being suspended,
and dropping out of school.
Most educators would agree that a crucial mission of our nation's schools
is to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.
Yet social factors outside the schools greatly influence educators' ability
to fulfill this mission.
The Social Context of Education contains findings from the Condition
of Education 1997, a longer, statistics-based report from the National
Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C. How factors such as
student English language proficiency, family income, and family structure
affect a child's educational opportunities are explored in The Social
Context of Education. The report also shows how student background
factors have changed for families and children over time, as well as how
these factors affect various racial and ethnic groups.
It is important to note that the statistics-based findings are broad
generalizations and, while useful, are not necessarily applicable to individual
students and families, many of whom "beat the odds."
- Social background. Factors in a student's social background
-- such as race/ethnicity, limited English proficiency, family income,
parental education, and family structure -- are associated with different
levels of educational access and different educational outcomes, asserts
- Diversity. Diversity among students can optimize the learning
environment in a school. Yet differences among students can also increase
challenges in meeting the needs of all children.
- Family background. Over the past 30 years, the definition of
family has changed dramatically, increasing the diversity of family
experiences for school-age children.
- Differences in schools. An analysis of the social context of
education must examine differences in school environments across low-
and high-poverty schools. Research demonstrates that student performance
is strongly related to the educational backgrounds and aspirations of
other students in a school.
- Resource equity. Equity can be measured across several types
of resources, including differences in class size, types of programs
offered, levels of teacher qualifications, teacher salaries, and so
Several examples of the relationship between social factors and educational
access and outcomes are summarized:
- "Poverty is negatively associated with enrollment rates in early childhood
- "Children in single-parent families are more likely to experience
early school problems and are less likely to participate in early literacy
activities than children in two-parent families."
- "Parents' education level is strongly associated with student achievement."
In general, children of parents with higher levels of education perform
better, on average, on assessments of academic achievement.
- "Parents' education levels have increased dramatically since 1970."
- "Difficulty speaking English is associated with dropping out of school."
In 1995, the dropout rate was 44 percent for those who had difficulty
speaking English, compared with a dropout rate of 12 percent for those
who did not have difficulty speaking English.
- "High school graduates from high-income families are more likely than
high school graduates from low-income families to go directly to college."
High school graduates from low-income families were more likely to attend
college in 1995 than they were in 1972. But in 1995, 83 percent of high
school graduates from high-income families went directly to college,
compared with 34 percent of high school graduates from low-income families.
Here are several findings relating to greater diversity among students:
- "Minority students are projected to make up an increasing share of
the school age population during the coming decades." From 2000 to 2020,
the projected percentage change in the population of children aged 5-17,
by race/ethnicity, shows the number of black and Hispanic children substantially
increasing and the number of white children decreasing.
- "The percentage of children having difficulty speaking English increased
in recent years."
- "In 1995, both black and Hispanic children were more than twice as
likely as white children to live in poverty." Poverty is associated
with poorer school outcomes for children.
- "Poverty rates are much higher in the United States than in many other
industrialized countries." The percentage of children whose families
live in poverty is greater in the United States than in Canada, France,
the former West Germany, and the United Kingdom.
Over the past 30 years, the definition of family has changed dramatically:
- In 1995, 25 percent of children aged 6-8 lived with a single parent,
3 percent lived with other relatives, and 64 percent lived with two
biological or adoptive parents.
- "The proportion of children living in single-parent families has more
than doubled since 1970. In 1994, black children were three times more
likely than white children to live in a single-parent family."
In The Social Context of Education, "low poverty" describes public
schools in which 5 percent or fewer of the students are eligible for free
or reduced-price lunches, and "high poverty" describes schools in which
more than 40 percent of students are eligible to receive free or reduced-price
- "Minority students are more likely than white students to attend high-poverty
- "Public school teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely to
report that student misbehavior interferes with their teaching than
are teachers in low-poverty schools."
- "Public secondary teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely
to report that student absenteeism and tardiness are serious problems
in their schools than public secondary teachers in low-poverty schools."
- "Teachers in high-poverty public schools are more likely than their
counterparts in low-poverty public schools to report that lack of parental
involvement is a serious problem in their school."
- "An increasing percentage of public school teachers report that physical
conflicts and weapons possession are moderate or serious problems in
- "Public school teachers in high-poverty schools are more likely than
teachers in low-poverty schools to report that physical conflicts and
weapons possession are moderate or serious problems in their schools."
Equity can be measured across several types of resources:
- "The average class size in public schools is similar across all levels
of school poverty."
- "Relatively low wealth public school districts spend less per pupil
in general and less on capital investment than do school districts with
- "Adjusting education expenditures to reflect differences in the relative
cost of providing education services reduces the spending gap between
districts with high- and low-income households." The concept of buying
power is used to compare expenditures. Actual dollars spent per student
can be adjusted to reflect the buying power of those dollars in different
locations. That adjustment narrows the spending gap between districts
with high- and low-income households.
Over the past three decades, the social context of education has been
transformed. The percentage of children living with two biological parents
has decreased. The percentage of children from minority backgrounds is
increasing along with the percentage of children who speak English with
The median family income has been relatively stagnant in the past 25
years, and the poverty rate has changed very little. Black and Hispanic
children are more likely than white children to live in poverty -- and
poverty is associated with poor academic outcomes. A positive finding,
however, is that today more children live in households with more educated
parents than did children a few decades ago. Parents' education levels
are a strong predictor of student achievement.
The Social Context of Education stops short of suggesting how
educators can overcome the challenges it delineates. Yet the trends spotlighted
in the essay point out the problems facing education, and are thus a first
step toward finding solutions.
Center for Education Statistics Findings from The Condition of
Education 1997: The Social Context of Education (NCES 97-981) is
available through this Internet site. The report The Condition of
Education 1997 (NCES 97-388) and many other NCES products are also
Department of Education From the main gopher menu, publications
and statistics are accessible under Publications and Products.
Article by Sharon Cromwell
Copyright © 2006 Education World