Center For Technical Studies:

Segregating Students Along Socioeconomic Lines In Suburban Schools

©2000 Erik L. Enters

RETURN to Practical Ethics Catalog


The use of a fictional case study lays the foundation for the discussion of the moral internal dilemma a counselor is experiencing over comments made by her principal at a staff meeting regarding the placement of students at the Center for Technical Studies.

Through a detailed analysis of the conflict using the concepts of formal and informal context, equal respect, equal educational opportunity, functionalism, conflict theory, and the hidden curriculum, this paper attempts to shed light on the problem of socioeconomic segregation in our suburban public schools.


Case Study -- "The Sly Fox"

Welcome to our Curriculum Night here at Top Of The Mountain High School (TOMHS). I am Dr. Sylvester Fox, the principal. Tonight I look forward to sharing with you not only our new course offerings for next year, but also the opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of our students, school and community. The administration and staff at Top Of The Mountain are committed to excellence and to being the most academically competitive public high school in Suburban Philadelphia.

As you may be aware, we are in the process of becoming a "Blue Ribbon" High School. We have already been praised for the quality and success of our programs. The committee that interviewed with us the other week was quite impressed with the academic opportunities offered to our students both in our building as well as the offerings our students can pursue outside of our walls. In particular, they were excited to hear about the options available at our Center for Technical Studies.

The Center offers our students who are looking for technical training and job skills a state of the art facility in which to pursue their goals. Students who complete the certificate programs at the Center are prepared to enter the job market in their chosen fields or continue their training at a variety of post-secondary institutions. We are proud of these students and congratulate them on their success.

At this time, I'd like to have my assistant principal, Mr. Steve Lackey, talk to you about the new board approved advanced placement course offerings in our Science, Mathematics, and World Language departments. We are thrilled by the support our school board has shown for establishing these challenging courses for our best and brightest students."

In the week that followed the curriculum night, the administrators and counselors were meeting to discuss the course selection process. Mrs. Sunni Bright, a counselor with the district for fifteen years, brought up a concern she had from a gifted IEP meeting earlier in the day. The students had been working with her and discussing the possibility of attending the Center for Technical Studies to study Landscaping. It would be easy to schedule him for half a day at the Center and the other half at TOMHS to take his core courses, which were all Honors/AP level. The only problem was his mother refused to go along with the plan. "My son will not go to school with those lower level kids," she protested. Mrs. Bright attempted to argue the importance of students being well rounded and being allowed to explore their interests but to no avail. She asked Dr. Fox what could be done to improve the image of the Center. His response caught her off-guard.

"Sunni, we've been working together here now for four years. Surely you are aware that discipline has improved, the quality and number of academic courses has risen dramatically, and our reputation is on the rise. If we begin to encourage our brightest students to attend the Center and vice versa, start bringing back those kids into our classes, we will be headed backwards. I was brought in here to make this a nationally recognized school of excellence and sometimes that means removing the weeds in our garden so that the flowers can grow stronger. The Center is useful -- it looks good that we are concerned for students with different needs. Just keep this in mind as you help the students plan their schedules."

Sunni Bright left the meeting with a burning question in her mind. "Is this how we segregate students now?" she thought to herself. After all, the majority of the students who attend the Center live in the poorest section of the district and seventy percent of all the minority students also go there. Sunni could not recall ever sending a gifted student to the Center in her fifteen years at TOMHS. If she continues to do as directed by Dr. Fox is she herself a bigot? A classist? What will Sunni Bright do?

Formal vs. Informal Context

Sunni Bright is experiencing an internal conflict. As an experienced counselor, she is committed to practicing her craft in a moral and ethical way. She values the inherent right of individual students to make choices based on their interests and abilities. Sunni is not afraid to think "outside of the box" as demonstrated by her efforts in the IEP meeting. She has been guided by her acceptance of the explicit or "formal" marketing of the programs in her school as well as those at the Center. Sunni has a strong belief in the value and quality of the Center.

Sunni's conflict occurs when she is confronted with the informal vision of the Center as presented by Dr. Fox. Hidden beneath his rhetoric, she senses distaste for economically disadvantaged students, or "weeds". His publicly stated ends include success for "these students", but it is his non-explicit ulterior motive and the informal disregard he exhibits that evokes a strong reaction within Mrs. Bright. As Rozycki states, formal aspects of culture tend to be explicit, right, intrinsically good, and evoke strong emotions. Informal aspects are non-explicit, hard to justify, have suspect ends, and also provoke a strong emotional reaction when uncovered (2). It is easy to understand Sunni's conflict when exploring formal and informal concepts.

Dr. Fox may view this use of a formal presentation of the Center's goals as a necessary tool for making his informal wishes a reality. It is possible that Dr. Fox feels he has the moral high ground, after all, the students at the Center are achieving success and becoming productive members of the community. But his language or "signals" indicate otherwise. As Strike points out in discussing moral reasoning, analyzing language can help us frame the dilemma (3-4). For Dr. Fox, his use of the terms "proud" and "congratulations" when referring to the students at the Center in a formal context, are incongruent with his characterization of them as "weeds" in the informal context.

In my own experience as a counselor at a suburban public high school, I see how the school goes to great lengths to promote the formal focus of our vocational-technical school. "It is a great place for students to receive skills training to compete in an increasingly technical society." "Our graduates are prepared to continue in post-secondary training programs or college." I also hear the informal or hidden purposes for the tech school expressed by principals, staff, students, and community members on a daily basis. "It is a place for 'non-academic' students or hands-on learners." It is a place to keep students from dropping out." "It is a way to remove behavior problems from the home school." The moral dilemma is intense.

Equal Respect

Sunni Bright clearly feels the emotions tied to her moral conflict. As someone who respects all people, even if they have different views, Mrs. Bright must work hard to see the multiple perspectives impacting on the situation. She must be objective and willing to step outside or herself. The first questions she asks of herself are: 1) Is the treatment of the Center students justified by the end result? 2) Do these students really have the freedom to choose their own destiny? 3) Is Dr. Fox wrong in his assessment of the Center students?

Strike describes the principle of equal respect as being equivalent to the sentiment expressed by the Golden Rule, or to "accord others the same kind of treatment we expect them to accord us (17)." Strike explains three related steps to test whether equal respect is present. The first step asks us to evaluate if we are treating the other people as "ends rather than a means (17)." Dr. Fox fails this test because he manipulates the students from the Center to achieve his own personal goal of excellence at the home school. He does not take into account the individual goals of these students. Dr. Fox considers these students objects (means) to be moved so he can accomplish his task (ends).

Dr. Fox also trips up on the second step. Strike suggests we treat people as "free and rational moral agents." People have choices and the freedom to make their own decisions (17). Dr. Fox will argue that his students have the choice to attend or not attend the Center. It would appear it is his word against ours. Strike provides us with a similar case study, "Bigotry?" to help us explore Dr. Fox's claim of fair play. In that case study, a high school principal is challenged on what appears to be his racist attitudes in regards to tracking the minority students in his school. Like our Dr. Fox, this principal touts the success of his black students in the vocational track and their willingness and desires to enroll in these programs. The principal pats himself on the back for helping to keep these kids off welfare and providing them with job training. He talks about his conversations with parents and kids and how they agree with his assessment (66-69). Herein lies the key to the second test, the power of authoritative persuasion.

As Claybaugh & Rozycki point out in "Understanding Schools: Framing the Inquiry", an authority is not necessarily an individual but rather "a person in a role". They go on to explain that people will defer to the recommendations of a person of authority when making a decision (74). So although it may appear in Dr. Fox's protest that he is giving his students a choice, in fact given his position of authority, he is actually manipulating them to accomplish his "weeding".

As for the third step of equal respect, the question is if Dr. Fox is treating the Center students as being "of equal value" to his "best and brightest". Is he bestowing the same basic rights to both groups (Strike, 17)? The answer to this test is difficult to ascertain. Dr. Fox is interested in the success of both populations it is just that he considers their abilities to be different. Unfortunately, the information gleaned from the case study implies that differences in ability do exist, and Sunni Bright does not question this point. On the other hand, I would propose that Dr. Fox does not pass this test for his treatment of both groups. Using his power of authoritarian persuasion, Dr. Fox attempts to deny all the students in his building the right to pursue their individual interests. His emphasis on

the most rigorous programming for the top kids and the technical courses for the lower level students creates the impression of limited choice.

Equal Opportunity & The Hidden Agenda

Sunni Bright is beginning to feel as if she has been fooled into being a part of a process that promotes division among the socioeconomic groups in her school. She believes that each student has the fundamental right to identify their potential and to be supported in pursuit of their dreams. Are all the students at TOMHS given equal opportunities to achieve their potential? And if not, why? Is there a hidden agenda of which Mrs. Bright is unaware?

Strike states that "given that race, sex, religion, and ethnicity are irrelevant to almost all legitimate educational purposes, a strong presumption exists that their use as a criteria for the allocation of educational resources is illegitimate (54)." Taking this a step further, we would surely find a broad consensus that socioeconomic status is also irrelevant criteria when assigning educational resources to students. Resources for our purposes in this discussion are not strictly monetary, but include teachers, buildings, support staff, emotional support, and curricular opportunities.

Before we proceed, it must be noted that these characteristics are important to consider when looking at a conflict where the unequal distribution of resources is being decided based on the need to assist a disadvantaged population. For example, Head Start, the federally funded program designed to provide early educational intervention to children living in poverty, requires a distribution of resources to help bring these students up to equal levels with their peers. Our dilemma is different, we are looking at exclusion from existing and available resources based on irrelevant criteria. "To deny any benefit or opportunity to a person on the basis of irrelevant characteristics is, therefore, to deny that person's equal worth and to refuse to accord that person equal respect (Strike, 57)." Dr.

Fox in his directions to his staff, in effect denies different opportunities to both classes of students. He is an equal opportunity discriminator. He is a classist.

To support this claim, it is important to understand the "why" of Dr. Fox's actions. As the American educational system has developed over the past two hundred years, there have been numerous shifts in the focus and goals of our schools. In the early 1800's, the monitorial school sought to teach the poor how to read and write through a series of dictations in massive group settings. The goal was to create a better worker (Perkinson, 15). Horace Mann helped bring about acceptance of a free education, governed by state systems of education, and employing specially trained teachers for all children (18-27). John Dewey's laboratory school established in 1896 in Chicago begins to formally address the socialization of students through hands-on exploratory activities (74-75).

By 1908, the American School was well on its way to establishing a link between business and education with the development of industrial schools. As Charles W. Elliot pointed out in a talk to the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education (NSPIE), "once industrial schools are established, someone will have to decide who will attend them (108)." Later in his speech, Eliot relegates this task of identification to the teachers (and in the following years this task fell to the guidance counselors) and charges them with the responsibility of sorting "them by their probable destinies (108)." In 1918, the National Education Association indicated that one of the main objectives of the American secondary school is to address vocational training (Herr & Cramer, 10). The passing of the Vocational Education Act of 1963 and subsequent amendments in 1968 made clear the importance of formal occupational preparation for all students (11-12). And in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its' report entitled "A Nation at Risk", in which it addressed several concerns with the "system" (Perkinson, 188).

Perhaps Dr. Fox is merely following the trends established in the educational community. His commitment to the Center does address the needs of many students by offering strong vocational programs. The offerings of numerous advanced courses address the needs for the brightest students. Dr. Fox may feel that distributing students to the appropriate "tracks" makes political, financial, and educational sense. From a functionalist perspective, he is helping students identify and train for their roles in the society they are going to enter (Feinberg & Soltis, 6). Dr. Fox may intuitively be reinforcing decisions his students have already made based on their life experiences. The use of a hidden curriculum in our schools aids in the development of "the psychological dispositions appropriate for work and citizenship in [our] society (21)." Feinberg and Soltis clarify this point:

"Well before the competition begins, most students calculate their chances of success from the standpoint of their social-class position and make a decision not to enter the competition at all (63)."
Is Dr. Fox merely supporting the established norms of the community by attempting to segregate students along socioeconomic levels? Or is he just an elitist? Does Dr. Fox subscribe to the conflict theorist's view of schooling "as a practice supported and utilized by those in power to maintain their dominance in the social order? (6-7)" The difficulty in answering this last question is Dr. Fox's intent when influencing the tracking of the students. Feinberg and Soltis highlight two important aspects of the conflict theory model. The first point is that there is not a direct relationship between the "intent" of an action and any corresponding social effects. The second point is that without proof of "conscious intent" we cannot determine if the social effects are "the result of conspiratorial action" (45-46). The fact that there is peace in the district and that students attending the Center are not clamoring to return to TOMHS does not help us clarify

Dr. Fox's intent. Conflict theorists use the concept of "hegemony" to explain this acceptance of the status quo. In essence, hegemony occurs "when the dominant class is

successful in establishing its own mode of thinking among most members of the

subordinate class (50)." Maybe classifying Dr. Fox as the root of the problem is the wrong approach. In retrospect, the segregating of the classes may be an accepted community practice even though it feels morally inappropriate.

Sunni Bright's Solution

Sunni has a moral dilemma. She is troubled by Dr. Fox's implied suggestion that she steer a certain class of student toward the Center for Technical Studies. Sunni disagrees with pervasive acceptance of classism at TOMHS. She also feels bad for the students who are locked into their destinies without real choice. What will she do?

After much reflection and consideration, Sunni decides that challenging the entire community would imperil her career, health, and family. She resolves to continue working with the students individually to help them develop self-awareness and goal setting skills. Sunni will use her awareness of the power of the hidden curriculum to influence as many people as she can in the district to begin changing the status quo. Along her quest, she will identify and dialogue with like-minded staff, parents, and administrators in hopes of establishing a group with "subjective existence" to form a new defined class within the district (Feinberg & Soltis, 49-50). Is this the best solution? Maybe not, but what would you do?

Works Cited

Clabaugh, Gary K. and Rozycki, Edward G. Analyzing Controversy: An Introductory Guide. Connecticut: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Clabaugh, Gary K. and Rozycki, Edward G. Understanding Schools: Framing the Inquiry. Oreland, PA: New Foundations Press, 1999.

Feinberg, Walter and Soltis, Jonas F. School and Society. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

Herr, E. L. and Cramer, S. H. Vocational Guidance and Career Development In The Schools: Toward a Systems Approach. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1972.

Perkinson, Henry J. The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill, 1995.

Rozycki, E. G. "Mission vs. Function: Limits to Schooling Aspiration." Educational Horizons. 11 July 2000. Online. Available

Rozycki, E.G. Dimensions of Learning: Aspects of Culture. Handout in class on 6 July 2000.

Strike, Kenneth A., Haller, Emil J. and Soltis, Jonas F. The Ethics of School Administration. New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.