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Professor presents argument for social justice in education

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As a continuation of the College of Arts & Science’s “Weath & Poverty Week: Society and Inequality,” Elizabeth Lee gave a presentation Monday on “Inequality in the American Education Pipeline” to a group of Ohio University community members in Alden Library.

Lee, an assistant professor of sociology, discussed the impact of race, class and gender on public school children as they progress from preschool to post-secondary education.

“Who gets the degree, who gets to this campus and who does not?” Lee said. “Who had SAT prep classes, who got into high school in the first place? Pretty soon you’re back to the early years.”

Studies Lee cited show that children in elementary school are by-and-large excited about learning, coming to school and forming emotional bonds with their teachers. That optimism and excitement fades as they move toward higher education.

“There are different messages students get as gendered, raced and classed individuals. There’s a shift to dividing lines and categories,” Lee said. She cited examples of girls and boys being redirected into activities that more closely correspond to gender norms.

Lee also noted that boys get more formal discipline but are sometimes written off with the mindset of ‘boys will boys,’ while young girls are encouraged to be more ladylike and passive. She termed this the hidden curriculum.

“When girls have physical fights those are much less likely to result in punitive, formal actions and are more likely to be viewed as about boys or romance or just girl things,” Lee said.

According to Lee, young boys are four times more likely to be expelled than young girls, and African-American preschoolers are two times more likely to be expelled. Zero-tolerance approaches to discipline, which result in a near doubling of students suspended annually, are concentrated in primarily racially segregated, low-income, low-white areas.

Lee concluded that the discipline apparatus relies on a perceived threat of African-American students rather than the actual threat of crime within the school. She said in middle school, black students who are first-time offenders are more likely to be suspended than white students for behaviors requiring more subjective criticism, like disrespect and excessive noise.

African-American girls are four times more likely to be expelled than their Caucasian counterparts, and African-American boys are three times more likely to be expelled.

“Ultimately, these students are getting different things from the classroom,” Lee said.

By the time these students get to high school, an accumulation of these patterns puts them at a different class level with different social experiences, for example, gang involvement. And for many, a college degree which according to Lee is worth more today than ever before never becomes a reality.

“Many more students who are academically motivated cannot go to college because of what has occurred throughout previous schooling,” Lee said because these patterns have been perpetuated across generations.

In terms of what spectators could gain from the information presented, Lee said people need to be more aware and think critically about the things around them. Through volunteer work, subsequent careers and even just paying attention to the news, students can make a difference.

Stephanie Johnson, a senior majoring in social work, appreciated Lee’s presentation.

“She discussed a lot of variables and interesting tie-ons,” Johnson said. “It was nice to see someone advocating for underprivileged students and making those connections.”

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