The Conflict Theory of Sociology and the Education System

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The subject of education is being pushed to the forefront of American society more and more each year. Since the days of our founding fathers, getting an education has become easier and easier with each passing generation. American society has overcome the idea that only wealthy, white males deserve to receive an education and readjusted to the idea that man and woman, blacks and whites and, both, old and young are worthy of the same honor. Yet no matter how far we evolve into a more nondiscriminatory way of thinking, education is still a means of holding the less privileged of humanity back, while, at the same time, allowing the wealthy and dominate of our ranks to press forward. 

The education system has been riddled with conflict, oppression and inequality since the concept of school was first conceived. These basic facts make it easy to assign the conflict theory of sociology to the social institution of education. Though we, as a society, are allowed to pursue education as a universal right, there are still limitations as to how and if we may receive it. Race, gender, economic status and age upon entering parent are determining factors in the level and quality of education that can be achieved in American society.

History of the Education System in America and Race

There have been many historical conflicts in regards to the education system in the United States of America. Some of the issues surrounding those conflicts have been especially prevalent. Those prevalent issues are race, gender, economic status and age upon entering parenthood. The issue of race is among the most talked about in regards to educational conflict. The first public school in America was founded in Boston, MA in 1635 ("First Public School Site and Ben Franklin Statue" 2013). The likes of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams attended the school, which was not open to female students or African-Americans at the time. It would be many years before anyone but white males would be allowed to attend that school. The roots of the conflict theory of sociology are set in the concepts of prejudice and discrimination. Those concepts, though not formalized until postmodern society had become us, were the basis upon which certain people were excluded from educational institutes.  

The social construction of race is another responsible party involved in the oppression of non-Whites within the United States in terms of being educated.   Using the social construction of race, prejudice and discrimination, Whites made themselves the dominant group in the institution of education. This placed African-Americans in a subordinate position, disallowing them from pursuing any form of higher learning. Events such as the integration of Little Rock High School and the formation of the Tuskegee Institute show the lengths that African-Americans went through in order to go to school and be an educated component of American society.

An interesting find on modern day views concerning the education of black children is:

Educational expectations are lower for black children, according to Child Trends, a non-profit and non-partisan research center that tracks data about children. Black parents, most of whom are less educated than their white counterparts, don’t expect their children to attain as much education as white parents expect. Lower expectations become self-fulfilling prophesies, contributing to lower expectations from the student, less-positive attitudes toward school, fewer out-of-school learning opportunities and less parent-child communication about school.

Even when blacks do manage to attend college, their overall performance appears to be stifled compared their white counterparts. This graph illustrates the graduate rate amongst blacks, both male and female.

The Education System and Gender Inequality

Achieving an education has not only limited people of other races, but the pursuits of women and girls. Evidence shows that girls in the colonial period did not attend school. Grammar schools were constructed to teach young boys subjects such as math, language and religion, but girls were almost always excluded from participating in school in all regions of the country ("Education in the 13 American Colonies" 2011). Once again, a dominant group was established with a subordinate group being oppressed and exploited. 

Even though compulsory education became a legal matter in the mid-1800s ("Compulsory Education" 2013), girls were still limited in their participation. Gradually females began to be included as pupils in public schools but would not realize their full potential until the late 20th century. The push for females to enter college is still a much debated upon subject. “Women did not begin attending college in equal numbers to men until as recently as 1980.” ("History of Women and Education" 2007). Some interesting information put out by Unicef tells us that:

As we look towards 2015 and beyond, UNICEF continues to take a more transformative approach to girls’ education by tackling discrimination, violence and the exclusion of girls from education. As such, programming in girls’ education will focus on the empowerment of girls in tandem with improving their learning and measuring learning outcomes. (Unicef)

Some issues explaining why girls are often overlooked in terms of global education include:

1. Household obligation

2. Child labor

3. Child marriage

4. Gender-based violence

5. Female genital cutting/mutilation (Unicef)

The Education System and the Poor

Though race and gender were important factors in determining whether someone was eligible to attend school, economic status has become one the most detrimental of the determining factors in present day America. The ability to afford college has become one of the biggest issues in achieving a higher education. This leaves the most prestigious of schools to the wealthy and the poor to either none or subpar standards of schooling. 

In a recent article on titled, “Rising costs could push college out of reach”, it is reported that, “The cost of attending college has risen nearly three times the rate of the cost of living, and could eventually put higher education out of reach for most Americans…” ("Rising costs could push college out of reach" 2008). Once again there is the presence of a dominating group oppressing a subordinate group. In this case it is not white versus black or man versus woman, it is the wealthy dominating the poor. Some interesting statistics involving this topic include:

More than 30 million children are growing up in poverty. In one low-income community, there was only one book for every 300 children.

Children living in poverty have a higher number of absenteeism or leave school all together because they are more likely to have to work or care for family members.

Dropout rates of 16 to 24-years-old students who come from low-income families are seven times more likely to drop out than those from families with higher incomes.

Less than 30% of students in the bottom quarter of incomes enroll in a 4-year school. Among that group – less than 50% graduate. (

The Education System and Teenage Parents

One group of individuals in particular that have had the hardest time receiving an education is teenage parents. Limited by proper support from parental figures and tied down to children at early ages, the impediments facing the educational attainment of teenage parents are astronomical. A study done by Joanne Brosh, Dan Weigel and Williams Evans in the Child Adolescent Social Work Journal say that, “…only 10% of mothers between the ages of 15 and 17 graduated from high school on time, and estimates indicated that 67% of teenage mothers never graduated (Brosh, Weigel, & Evans, 2007). The research also states that, “…relevant supports and resources are needed to be in place to show adolescents that they are capable of reaching their goals.” (Brosh, Weigel, & Evans, 2007). An interesting set of information regarding teenage pregnancy and education is as follows:

Studies suggest that some school personnel believe that being a teenage mother will limit the student’s educational attainment. This is contrasted to studies cited by SmithBattle (2007) showing a belief by teenage mothers and their parents that the effects of pregnancy were short term and limited. Teens did not expect being a mother to interfere substantially with their education or employment. (SEDL)

Speaking from personal experience, pursuing, much less attaining a higher education is difficult. It is much more so for those out there like me who had a child before reaching the age of eighteen. Just the day to day care of a child, when yourself a child as well, is enough to prevent an individual from realizing anything more than a GED if they are lucky. I was fortunate to have an insatiable drive to succeed and the support of a husband who wishes nothing more than for me to achieve the highest level of excellence as possible. I faced many stumbling blocks along the way including being held back by those who said I would never go to college; much less earn a college degree. Now I am one and a half semesters away from graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in History.


Putting an education into a person’s hand is handing them power. It is handing them the power to create change in their life, change in their society and change in the world. The conflict theory of sociology is based on the premise that the wealthy and affluent will always maintain control over the poor and needy. Education is a tool that could change that.  Having a more educated society could tip that balance and create a more equal place for everyone to live in. The difference that being properly educated could have in someone’s life could take the homeless and give them hope. It could give a single mother the confidence to break the cycle of poverty in her children and grandchildren’s lives. “Knowledge is power.” (Sir Francis Bacon).

Works Cited

Brosh, J., Weigel, D., & Evans, W. (2007). Pregnant and parenting adolescents’ perception of sources and supports in relation to educational goals. Child Adolescent Social Work Journal, 24(6), 565–578.

CNN, "Rising costs could push college out of reach." Last modified 2008. Accessed February 9, 2013.

Cook, Lindsey. "Pregnant and Parenting Adolescents' Perception of Sources and Supports in Relation to Educational Goals - Springer." SpringerLink. Springer Science Business Media, 28 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016. mine/2015/01/28/us-education-still-separate-and-unequal "11 Facts About Education and Poverty in America." N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

  Education Bug, "Compulsory Education." Last modified 2013. Accessed February 9, 2013. "11 Facts About Education and Poverty in America." N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

 National Women's History Museum, "The History of Women and Education." Last modified 2007. Accessed February 9, 2013.

SEDL. "Teenage Parents and Their Educational Attainment." Teenage Parents and Their Educational Attainment. N.p., 2011. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.

Social Studies for Kids, "Education in the 13 American Colonies." Last modified 2011. Accessed February 9, 2013.

The Freedom Trail Foundation, "First Public School Site and Ben Franklin Statue." Last modified 2013. Accessed February 9, 2013.

Unicef. "Girls' Education and Gender Equality." UNICEF. N.p., 23 July 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2016.