Skip to main content

Education for Social Justice

This Foundational Concept can be found in the following module pages:

Since the establishment of "common schools" in the United States, political leaders, educators, and other citizens have argued about their purpose. Is their purpose to replicate the structure of society? Or is their purpose to change the structure of society?

Those who hope schools will replicate the structure of society believe the structure is fair. They believe it gives the greatest rewards to people with the most talent and grit, but also that it gives other people a reasonable opportunity to obtain rewards that match up with their contributions of time, skill, and effort. This perspective sees the social structure as a "meritocracy."

Those who hope schools will change the structure of society believe the structure is unjust because it distributes benefits inequitably—giving far more benefits to members of families that are already advantaged and far fewer to members of families that are already disadvantaged. They do not believe inequities in the distribution of society’s benefits simply result from a rational system for rewarding talent and effort. Instead, they believe such inequities result from the intentional use of power by those who already have the most resources (and therefore the greatest access to power).

People who conclude that society in the United States is inequitable base their beliefs on various types of evidence. For example, they rely on data how income and wealth have been distributed across different social groups and data showing changes in how income and wealth have been distributed over time. Two infographics illustrate the sorts of data they use as the basis for concluding that society is unfair and needs to change:

Whatever their views about the fairness of the distribution of benefits in the United States—a condition often referred to as "social justice"—people understand that schooling plays a major role. It can sort children with more merit from those with less merit and thereby enable the meritocracy to function efficiently. Or it can even the playing field by allowing all children to develop their talents and grit to the fullest.

If we see the aim of education as serving the meritocracy, schools are already doing a good job. They sort students by ability and prepare them for different economic futures on that basis. Some commonly used school practices help achieve this aim:

  • ability grouping,
  • special education placement,
  • inequity in school funding, and
  • teaching methods that work well for some students but not for others.

If we see the aim of education as giving all children opportunities to develop their talents and grit, our current system of schooling does not seem to be working very well. Achievement gaps on the basis of race, family income, and disability status, for example, reveal the opportunity gaps that persist in our system of schooling.

Some school districts decide that these gaps are intolerable, and they push back. They use practices that narrow opportunity gaps:

  • proportional placement of all students in general education classrooms,
  • high academic expectations for all students,
  • support structures that help all students meet challenging academic goals, and
  • teaching methods that engage all students.

School systems use a variety of frameworks to achieve greater equity. Among these the following have worked to close opportunity and achievement gaps in some districts:

  • Integrated Comprehensive Systems (ICS),
  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL),
  • Multi-tiered System of Supports (MTSS), and
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching.