In This Article Education Policy in the United States

  • Introduction
  • Classic Works
  • Textbooks and General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Data Sources
  • History
  • Politics of Education
  • School Choice
  • International Perspectives
  • Social Resources
  • School Funding and Finance
  • Family and Community
  • Teachers

Sociology Education Policy in the United States
Lindsey Young, Justina Judy Spicer, Barbara Schneider
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0098


Examining educational policy through a sociological lens allows for a deeper understanding of the educational process—both of the individual and of the organization. Sociologists study the provision of education, including policies created at various levels of government, the implementation of these policies, and the outcomes for the individual and organization. Policies in education affect a broad range of the population, spanning from birth to adult learning. Educational policy is influenced by the historical context in which the policy is shaped; the social forces and consequences that extend beyond the walls of schools; and the political setting of reform. Although educational policymaking in the United States has historically been relegated to local and state entities, since the 1960s the federal role in education has been increasing, changing the conditions in which the education system functions and how it is studied. Specifically, the federal government has greatly emphasized increased accountability through testing, teacher evaluation, and school rankings. Policies in this vein have been fluid and bipartisan; recently, accountability measures increased through the No Child Left Behind Act, and continued through the Every Student Succeeds Act. While the focus of this article is on educational policy in the United States, sources that feature other nations and regions are included to allow opportunities for a comparative analysis and to provide a global context to policies worldwide.

Classic Works

These selected works demonstrate a foundation for understanding motivations behind educational policy and come from a diverse range of disciplines, but they by no means represent an exhaustive list. Although a vast quantity of text has been written, these pieces reflect significant contributions to the field and their influence on educational policy in the United States. John Dewey was one of the early voices to explore the role of the school as well as the learner in his book, The School and Society. The release of Equality of Educational Opportunity (commonly referred to as the “Coleman Report”) in 1966 fundamentally challenged what was understood about equality of education and how educational outcomes were studied. Twenty years later, Hallinan 1988 revisited inequality and reviewed the then-current body of research on this issue. Bourdieu 1973 and Bowles and Gintis 2011 provide frameworks for understanding the relationship between schools and society. Findings from Edmonds 1979 reinforce the importance of institutional factors for improving student performance. National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983 highlights problems with the US education system and offers recommendations for new curricular standards, instruction, and assessments. Coleman and Hoffer 1987 analyzes data from public and private high schools to understand the role of community factors and access to social capital for enhancing educational outcomes. Elmore 2004 provides a critique of accountability and high-stakes testing policies from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1973. Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In Knowledge, education and cultural change: Papers in the sociology of education. Edited by Richard Brown, 71–112. Explorations in Sociology 2. London: Tavistock.

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    In this chapter, Bourdieu extends the idea of capital to include social and cultural capital as a framework for understanding behavior. He argues that those who are richest in cultural capital are more likely to invest in their children’s education.

  • Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 2011. Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Chicago: Haymarket.

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    Originally published in 1976 (New York: Basic Books). Bowles and Gintis argue in this book that the education system in America is geared toward producing laborers for a capitalist workforce. They assert that schools function not to teach content but rather to shape the aspirations, behaviors, and values of students according to their social and economic class.

  • Coleman, James S., Ernest Q. Campbell, Carol J. Hobson, et al. 1966. Equality of educational opportunity. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

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    The “Coleman Report” was commissioned by the US government to evaluate the equality of education across elementary and secondary schools in the United States. The analysis included more than 150,000 students and measured the equality of educational outcomes for students across different schools.

  • Coleman, James S., and Thomas Hoffer. 1987. Public and private high schools: The impact of communities. New York: Basic Books.

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    This book reports findings from a large-scale comparison of sophomores and seniors in public, Catholic, and other private schools. The authors argue that students in private schools showed higher academic performance, were less likely to drop out, and were more likely to enroll in college compared to students in public schools.

  • Dewey, John. 1900. The school and society. 3d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    The text of this book comes from three lectures that Dewey delivered on the rationale behind the University Elementary School, and where he also introduced his pedagogic approach to education.

  • Edmonds, Ronald. 1979. Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership 37.1: 15–24.

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    In this article, the author argues that children in low-achieving schools should have the same opportunities for achievement in reading as children in high-achieving schools. The findings from this study reinforce the influence of institutional leadership, expectations, and atmosphere for student performance.

  • Elmore, Richard. 2004. School reform from the inside out: Policy, practice, and performance. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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    This book provides a critique of the accountability and high-stakes testing policies that are part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Elmore argues that successful school reform begins from “the inside out,” suggesting that change should begin with the teachers, administrators, and school staff as opposed to external mandates and policies.

  • Hallinan, Maureen T. 1988. Equality of educational opportunity. Annual Review of Sociology 14:249–268.

    DOI: 10.1146/ Citation »

    This article discusses the relationship between the field of sociology of education and the persistent subject of the equality of educational opportunity.

  • National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983. A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: US Department of Education.

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    Written at a time when there were serious questions about the competitiveness of US students compared to students in other countries, this report called for a series of reforms to the educational system. These reforms included a more rigorous curriculum, improvements to instruction and assessments, and other structural changes as a way of maintaining global economic competitiveness for the United States.

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