Emily and Andrew Penner

Schools aid students in gaining skills and knowledge, but they also serve as spaces to teach students about identities. From “kindergartener” to “honor roll student” to “English learner,” among other titles, students are placed in educational categories that can have an impact on how they view themselves, which can also create social inequalities.

In their new book Schooled and Sorted: How Educational Categories Create Inequality (Russell Sage Foundation),  three scholars — including UC Irvine professors Emily K. Penner, education, and Andrew M. Penner, sociology, and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Thurston Domina, educational leadership and public policy — unpack these challenges and opportunities of educational categorizations. With school back in session, the Penners offer insights into how educational institutions can navigate student identities.

Why is Schooled and Sorted an important read?

Emily K. Penner: We think about school in a very limited framework—in terms of skill development, or whether it creates equality or inequality, or in terms of preparation and competition for higher education. But schools also teach students many other things about how they understand themselves as learners and people, and they often do so through the use of categories. Schools use categories to reinforce things about students’ identities that they might have already heard from the world (e.g., things about their racial and gender identities), but they also teach students to adopt many new identities as well (e.g., honor roll student, English learner, high school graduate, etc.)  In this book we try to provide a foundation for understanding education's broader role in society, and how we can change some of these categorization processes to create meaningful educational change.

Andrew M. Penner: I like to joke that sociologists often just point out all of the ways that our world is broken, which is a growth industry. A really interesting puzzle in research in schools is that schools are places that create inequality, but also are broadly egalitarian (in terms of their commitments and also their impact). As Emily noted, we think that understanding schools in terms of the categories that they create is central to understanding how to reconcile these two sets of findings. And we think that understanding schools in terms of the categories that they create is really useful not just for understanding how schools work, but also for thinking about how we can create categories that are more egalitarian. We want to bring some of the ideas about how categories work to think about how we can make better categories.

What are a few major takeaways the reader will get from it?

Emily Penner: First, category creation is central to what schools do, so any educational reform is about creating different categories and requires understanding categories. Second, schools balance a wide array of diverging goals, not just teaching skills, and are governed by three logics: sorting students to prepare them for the labor market, creating solidarity between students, and cultivating students' unique attributes and interests. Third, we conclude by offering suggestions for how to think about creating categories that better balance education's logics and create a more equitable society.

Andrew Penner: In addition to these takeaways, we hope that readers will come away with both an awareness of how hard it is to "fix" schools, but also a sense of optimism regarding our ability as a community to change our priorities and the categories that we build, in both small, local ways (like when we are thinking about how middle school math should work in a particular school) and in larger ways (like when we are thinking about how middle school math should or shouldn't feed into later life outcomes).

Can you elaborate on how educational categories both promote egalitarianism and reinforce social inequalities? How do these seemingly contradictory aspects coexist within the education system, and what are the underlying mechanisms that drive this dynamic?

Emily Penner: A number of instructional categories have budgetary implications. For example: if a state has a mandate around instruction for multilingual students, they might have an accompanying funding mandate that tries to direct more resources as these students and they have additional monitoring of their academic progress and mastery of English. This targeting might help students acquire English more rapidly and help their academic development in important ways. At the same time, depending on how the funding is allocated, having time for these educational supports might also mean that such students miss out on other opportunities or classes that English-only students are engaged in while multilingual students are receiving specialized instruction in English. It might also mean that students don’t get support for the other language(s) they speak at home or in their community. This might limit their literacy and writing skill development in their other language(s). Without appropriate instruction, some students end up without particularly strong fluency in English or their other languages. So, the label of being an “English Language Learner” has really limited their learning and development despite the provision of extra resources. 

Your book underscores the potential for change within local decision-making processes in schools. Could you share an example of a specific decision taken by a school that successfully redefined an educational category and led to more equitable outcomes for students?

Emily Penner: One example is the African American Male Achievement program adopted by Oakland Unified. OUSD struggled to adequately serve African American students for many decades through a host of school programs. They finally created a program targeted toward African American male students that was taught by African American male educators, that created spaces where their cultural norms and histories were valued and that gave students a chance to be at the center of the learning experience. They’ve eventually expanded the program to offer similar racial/ethnic and gender-based instructional environments to give frequently marginalized students opportunities to learn in community with one another. Our work, and the work of others, found this type of environment to be very supportive for students and to ultimately reduce things like exclusionary discipline use.

-Stacey Rizzo, UCI Education

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