Deciphering the Sociopolitical Context of School Reform
This sociopolitical context refers to contemporary ideologies, regulations, policies, conditions, laws, practices, traditions, and events that define America’s education. These ideologies, practices, laws, and policies cause the current structural inequality in the education sector. Societal ideologies, assumptions, and expectations, which relate to people’s identities, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, language, and various other differences , are often taken for granted. Together with other material and concrete conditions in the society, these factors create barriers to educational progress.
In the U.S., many young students have been hindered by their schooling. Many societies around the world are facing the same situation due to globalization, immigration, and war, which are making urban areas increasingly cosmopolitan. The sociopolitical context affects every society due to the connection between democracy and public schools. It is mostly through public schools that children get the opportunity for a better life.
Public schools can fuel democracy. Because of privatization and other market-driven schemes, the important connection between public schooling and democracy seems to have been lost. The sociopolitical context, at the school level, influences policies and practices, such as the curriculum, teaching, parent outreach, discipline, and hiring of staff, among others. The sociopolitical context determines who benefits and who loses in the curriculum.
At an individual level, teachers, school leaders, and other educators are largely influenced by the ideologies and beliefs in society. They act on them whether they believe them or not. Racism and other biases manifest themselves through school policies and through school staff practices and decisions. For example, deciding which students are gifted and which require special education is often affected by teachers’ biases.
The context includes changing demographics in the population. In the U.S., particularly, 30% of the nation’s residents are African Americans, Asian/Pacific Islanders, Latinos, and American Indians. Future projections by the Census Bureau are even more dramatic, estimating that, by 2050, people of color will be over 50% of the total population of the U.S. For the first time, European Americans will be the “minority.” Currently, there are over 450 languages spoken in the U.S., and nearly a fifth of the total U.S. population speaks a language other than English at home.
On the other hand, statistics show that the profile of teachers has changed very little compared with the population profile. Most sources show that 85–90% of U.S. teachers are European American, monolingual English speakers, who have had little experience with students of color and those whose native language is not English.
The growth in diversity is related to a growing “achievement gap” between European American students and students of color. Statistics gathered in 2006 by Quality Counts 10, show that, though student achievement has generally improved, the achievement gap between African American and Hispanic students compared to European American students is still very large. The gap is the equivalent of two grade levels or more, close to what it was in 1992. The attention to the achievement gap focuses on students, instead of the institutionalized policies, practices, and inequality in education that affect their learning.
In many countries, there has been a growing culture of standardization that forms part of the sociopolitical context. In the U.S., standardization has been mainly influenced by federal legislation, most recently the No Child Left Behind Act. This is despite glaring evidence that testing rather than increasing student learning leads to higher dropout rates and less school engagement.
Additionally, there is the issue of segregation according to race, ethnicity, and social class, which is now worse than at any time since the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. At present, the most segregated of all students are low-income Latinos, though poor children of all backgrounds, and particularly poor children of color, are the most affected.
The most significant aspect of the sociopolitical context is probably the long-standing and growing structural and social inequality, resulting in poverty, inadequate housing, poor access to health care, and unemployment. Although teachers can make a significant difference in terms of opportunities for their students, they alone cannot take on the entire responsibility for student achievement. This is due to the existence of inequality and structural barriers created by racism , lack of resources in poor schools, poor infrastructure, and unfair and bureaucratic policies.
The policies that regulate the minimum wage, availability of jobs, tax rates, medical care, and affordable housing, are primarily responsible for causing school failure. Educational policies alone cannot transcend these policies. If education reform is pursued without any additional investments in health care, housing, early childhood education, after-school and summer programs, or any other social and economic support, then the achievement gap can never be closed.