Theoretical Perspectives on Achievement Gap – Structural functionalism

Structural functionalism views society and its institutions to be comprised of interdependent units that work together to create a whole unit (Kretchmar, 2008). Durkheim introduced the structural-functionalism theory to explain the role of schools in society arguing that schools play an important role of imparting values to students; such values, according to Durkheim are important for the establishment of a stable society (Hallinan, 2000). According to this theory, schools serve the perceived needs of a social order that focuses on rationality, meritocracy and democracy. In this role, schools are perceived to impart cognitive skills and cultural aspects that prepare individuals to meet the physical, intellectual and moral states demanded by society of its workers and citizens (Kretchmar, 2008). The theory advances that schools are a fair and efficient mechanism for screening individual skills so that, based on merit, only the most capable assume the most responsible roles. Accordingly, the entry into the positions that society avails (e.g. becoming doctors or accountants) must be in accordance to merit as determined by academic performance in school. The theory thus gravitates towards maintaining the status quo in the view that the existing systems help to maintain a social order committed to meritocracy and democracy.

According to this theory, the achievement gap is thus a normal occurrence of the education system and not a factor of differences in aspects such as SES, gender, and race. Since the theory envisages a meritocracy-based system and that education results in social equality (Kretchmar, 2008), the achievement gap is thus indicative of the capabilities of the participants. Accordingly, the performance in the test scores reflects the actual capabilities of the individuals thus an accurate reflection of the responsibilities that such individuals should assume in society. The poor performance in the test scores, as per the functionalist approach, is thus a result of the individuals’ inability to perform better rather than a disadvantage conferred by the system that affects such individuals’ performance.

A criticism of the structural-functionalism explanation of the achievement gap however arises with the assumption of equality of opportunity. For a meritocracy system to function effectively, its participants need to have equal opportunity to demonstrate their worth. If such an opportunity is not availed to all participants, then society cannot verify the claim that the most capable individuals occupy the most responsible roles. In the American society, such equality of opportunity is affected by the actions of the elite and professional middle class to avert downward social mobility of their children. For instance, the elite and professional middle classes ensure that the children occupy private schools and elite public schools that have better resources such as more competent teachers (McKinsey & Company, 2009; Jencks & Phillips, 1998). Studies indicating that the SES status of the student affects ones college graduation with higher-status students having higher graduation rates (McKinsey & Company, 2009), challenge the equal opportunity basis of the functionalist approach. Additionally, the outcomes of equivalent achievement may not be equal across all the participants with such equivalent achievement (Jencks & Phillips, 1998). Accordingly, it would appear that the system, though a merit-based one, would reward some people more than others for an equivalent level of achievement. Due to such weaknesses of the functionalist approach, conflict theories have arisen to offer a contrasting opinion of the achievement gap. Part four here.

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