January 10th, 2018
Theoretical Perspectives on Achievement Gap – Conflict Theory
Conflict theory arose from the writings of Karl Marx and reinforced by the work of Max Weber. Marx proposition was that the education system perpetuated the existing class structure by serving as an instrument for the dominant group to achieve domination over the underprivileged (Hallinan, 2000). Weber’s work, though not directly related to education, reinforced the perspective of the power that the dominant group had over the underprivileged that included entrenched bureaucracies in society and resulted in conflicts in groups in and out of schools (Hallinan, 2000). The conflict theory and its subsets thus consider society to be a component largely defined by two opposing forces – ‘the haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ The ‘haves’ control a large share of the society’s resources, whereas the ‘have nots’ have few resources (Kretchmar, 2008). According to the theory, unlike in the structural-functionalism where society is perceived to be relatively stable, society is in a constant state of conflict where the ‘have nots’ attempt to gain more resources from the ‘haves’ whereas the ‘haves’ guard against such loss of resources. In the modern day, such arguments have been advanced by Neo-Marxists who have presented a critical challenge to the functionalist view of education.
Concerning the achievement gap, the conflict theory envisages it to be a consequence of an education system that seeks to perpetuate the existing conflict between the groups. The Neo-Marxism approach for instance considers the education system to be a system for meeting the needs of a capitalist order rather than the needs of a society. According to such an approach, the school system is advanced to be a means of cultural reproduction. In this respect, the school system aims to reproduce the existing economic system (capitalism) from one generation to another (Hallinan, 2000). The school’s role is to ensure that its participants gain knowledge, ideas and skills necessary to reproduce a capitalist culture. The achievement gap accordingly arises because schools’ selection, allocation and differentiation of children is not aimed at the interest of society as a whole, but focuses on ensuring the descendants of the ‘haves’ follow their predecessors’ footsteps. This is facilitated by restricting access to knowledge for instance by controlling subjects appearing on the curriculum thus limiting children’s ambitions and expectations. The limitation of expectations and ambitions is achieved via the concept of structured knowledge where schools create different levels of knowledge to prepare students for different levels of knowledge needed for different roles in the workplace. Accordingly, the differential scores that students achieve in test scores (which are a means of commoditizing knowledge), result from a system that demands such differential performance rather than the inability of the students to achieve skills necessary for functioning of society.
Another sub-theory of conflict theory is the status conflict, which is evident in Pierre Bourdieu’s work. Rather than the education system being aimed solely at serving the capitalist economic agenda, the status conflict considers such a system as a way of the dominant group maintaining their status – i.e. the focus of cultural reproduction is symbolic capital rather than merely economic capital (Nash, 1990). In this respect, various groups ordered into their status (defined by aspects such as ethnicity and race) attempt to control the education system to benefit their status. Education systems are thus ways through which the groups build cohesion and restrict entry to reveled positions of their status only to individuals with credentials certified by ‘their’ schools (Nash, 1990).
According to this conflict sub-theory, the achievement gap would arise in a similar way as discussed for Neo-Marxism. The dominant groups influence schooling in that they determine the cultural capital that is valued more in such areas as employment. Such a perspective would for instance explain observations that black students integrated into white environments tend to perform better in performance measures used (Jencks & Phillips, 1998, pp.16-18). Accordingly, the achievement gap arises from access to education and content that emphasizes the perspective of the dominant status such that individuals who subscribe to a different status would have lower scores when evaluated on the content relevant to the ways of the dominant status.
The core tenets of conflict theories in explaining the achievement gap thus relate to inability of the systems to provide equal opportunities for participants. Such inequality relates to access to education, content taught and outcomes following education. Since individuals of a higher SES would be able to access and pay for their children’s education at higher levels, which in turn influences the roles such children play in society, an equality of opportunity would only arise where all individuals have an equal chance to achieve high SES. Such a scenario is hard to achieve since children born into high-SES families already have an advantage over those born in low-SES families in achieving a high SES. part five here.