Schools shape the lives of students in many ways. Along with teaching the basic skills that will help them function in and contribute to a society – such as reading, writing and arithmetic – ideally, a school will also help young people identify their strengths in order to reach their full potential.
In addition, schools educate students about identities. From early labels like “kindergartner” or “English-language learner” to later designations such as “honor roll student,” how do assigned categories affect a young person’s life?
This is the topic of Schooled and Sorted: How Educational Categories Create Inequality, a new book by Andrew M. Penner, UCI professor of sociology; Emily K. Penner, UCI associate professor of education; and Thurston Domina, professor of educational policy and organizational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In this UCI Podcast, we talk to the Penners about the challenges and opportunities presented by educational categorizations. The married co-authors also offer examples of how we can create categories that help instead of harm students.
Music for this episode, titled “Metamorphosis,” was provided by Quincas Moreira via the audio library in YouTube Studio.
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The UCI Podcast/Cara Capuano:
From the University of California, Irvine, I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to The UCI Podcast. Our guests today are Andrew Penner, UC Irvine professor of sociology, and Emily Penner, UCI associate professor of education.
Along with a third author, Thurston Domina, the Penners have written a new book called Schooled and Sorted: How Educational Categories Create Inequality. Stated very simply, the book examines how the categories assigned to students in school affect their experiences.
With schools back in session around the United States, it’s a terrific time to discuss what can be done to improve the lives of students.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today, professors.
Thanks for having us.
Delighted to be here.
Since you share a last name, addressing “Professor Penner” could quickly become confusing. So, from time to time, I’ll step outside of my personal comfort zone and use your first names.
Before we dive deeper into the topic of your new book, I’d like to learn a little bit about both of you. The first question I’d like you both to answer: why UCI?
Great question. I started at UCI shortly after the administration made the decision about whether or not they were going to close the then “Department of Education.” And they decided, “no, we’re really going to invest in this and make this a strategic priority.” And so, they brought in Deborah Vandell as the founding dean, and Deborah recruited a bunch of really fantastic people, and it was just this great moment of interdisciplinarity and lots of energy around sociologists talking to economists and psychologists. And it was just a really exciting place to be doing the kind of work that we do. When you set foot on campus, you just couldn’t help but be excited to be here.
And for me, that energy had been building. I actually was a Ph.D. student here as well because the group that was building at that time had a focus on education policy. And I was coming out of a classroom position – I was a teacher in Oakland and in Vista, California, through the period of No Child Left Behind, which had lots of impacts on experiences as educators and for students in schools. And I was really interested to study conditions about schools across the state and across the country. And so, the group of folks who was here felt like a really good fit and felt like a space that I would be not only engaging with people who thought about policy, but also thought about a lot of other disciplines about the educational and developmental experiences of students. And that environment felt like a really rich space to build my career.
Well, thank you for sharing that. Let’s revisit the title of your new book: Schooled and Sorted, How Educational Categories Create Inequality. Emily, can we begin, please, with the concept of an educational category? How would you describe what that is?
Sure. There are lots of examples and they happen throughout students’ educational experiences – from the elementary school reading group that a student might get put into, or the way students might get identified for special services because they have a learning disability or because they speak languages other than English. They might become an English language learner in their school records. They might become a student with an IEP.
And those categories continue to follow students throughout their time in schools. They start to shape the courses that students take. Maybe they get put into a remedial class or an advanced class – an honors class, an AP class.
But there’s also a bunch of social categories that schools create for students, too – member of a sports team – and all of these different kinds of categories shape students’ social and academic experiences while they’re at school and give them different kinds of experiences, sometimes out of interest and choice, and sometimes to create particular educational environments and sometimes for other reasons that might impact students in terms of their feelings about themselves and what they see as part of their academic future.
How do educational categories create inequality – that second part of the title?
Yeah, it’s a great question. So, if we think about some of the categories that Emily mentioned, there’s one category that I like to think about, in particular, to explain this. And so oftentimes if I start talking to people and I say, “let’s imagine a category where it’s completely arbitrarily defined. And kids who are in one category, as opposed to the other, get exposed to more rigorous content. They have peers who are higher performing. They get access to different resources.”
People would say, “well, this is horrible. You can’t do this. This is an anathema to everything that we believe education is about.”
And then when I say, “well, this is about whether you’re in kindergarten or first grade,” people say, “well, that’s completely unproblematic.” Right? And I think that’s a useful illustration because it encapsulates something that’s really profound about categories.
The category of kindergartner and first grader completely differentiates. It’s a very core identity for these students and it exposes them to vastly different content, but we don’t think about it as problematic in the same way that we might, for example, think about honors placements as problematic. And so, we can start to think about, well, why is it that we think about honors placements as sometimes being problematic and kindergarten and first grade differentiation as being unproblematic?
And I think at its core, it’s due to how it overlaps with other categories. So, we assume most children are going to move through grades, maybe not entirely seamlessly, but mostly so. So, it’s not problematic that the kindergartners aren’t exposed to this content this year because they’re going to be exposed to it next year, right? And so, there’s some sense that it doesn’t lock you into a long-term trajectory of inequality.
And so if we think about an honors trajectory… we might say, “well, if you are in this honors class and then you are in eighth grade and you continue to be in honors as you move throughout high school, and that leads to an elite college and a different kind of job,” then we start to think, “well, this is much more problematic than a category like kindergarten where it’s a little bit more ephemeral.”
Likewise, we think about honors in math, for example, as being more problematic if it structures the rest of your school calendar, right? If honors in math also locks you into honors in science and honors in English, you would say, “well, that’s, that seems a little bit more problematic than if it’s just subject by subject and sort of specific to that particular area.
In a broader sense, some categories like honor student that we were just talking about, those can be seen as almost complimentary – raise a student’s self-confidence, put them on a trajectory, as you said, towards better opportunities potentially. But then there’s other categories that might add emotional or psychological challenges for students. How can schools avoid categories that may be seen as a negative?
A challenge even about the distinction of an honor student and a not honor student is that means that there’s somebody who’s not in that category. So, even that kind of category can have negative impacts for some students.
I think a challenge with some of these categorization processes for schools is they have really broad scope in terms of their impact on students. So, what I mean by that is once you’re kind of locked into that category or excluded from it, that often spills over into lots of areas of what happens for you in school. And it might be a thing that kind of persists with you over several years.
So, I think there’s a couple of things that schools should maybe be attentive to, related to categories like that. And one is giving students lots of opportunities to shift what their categorization is.
So don’t make an honor student a thing that lasts for your entire year, or a designation where you’re on the honor roll and there’s only one chance to do it. Make lots of opportunities for folks to be a part of whatever the special group is.
The other thing is there are a lot of ways where some of these distinctions really do allocate resources differently. Maybe those resources are the form of the very experienced teachers, maybe it’s in the form of extra lab materials, but I think we need to be really attentive to the fact that it’s often the categories that are the least desired – the more remedial class or the group of students who really need supportive interventions – is often relegated to spaces in school that are the least desired – the basement buildings. They are given the least resources and there’s like a stigma attached to those experiences for students. I think it’s really important for educators and community members to be attentive to the other ways that those statuses are kind of communicated to students in terms of what their value is in the position of the school, so that those emotional attachments don’t become internalized by students and stick with them over time.
Sounds like these educational categories really have the power to influence young people’s lives in a pretty significant way. How great is their impact from what you’ve found?
In terms of kind of thinking about the genesis of the idea of this book, we were researching a school district that had a new system they were trying to implement to try to motivate students to try harder on standardized tests. And they really wanted to motivate them to actually put an effort into the test because it didn’t have a lot of impact on their own academic trajectories, but it was important for the school. So, they found a lot of students were just bubbling in random letters instead of actually trying hard – they wanted to avoid that.
So, they created this whole structure where students who scored in a top level on the test got an ID card that was a different color – it was a platinum ID card – relative to students who kind of scored in the middle and who scored in the lowest category. And they attached different kinds of rewards to the different statuses of ID cards. So, some got like discount tickets to prom or to football games, but they also got assemblies to honor their academic achievement. They also got separate lunch lines so they could get their food faster. And it sort of cascaded into lots of different areas of the social interactions of the school, along with the fact that they had to carry this ID card and a matching planner to all their classes.
So, this identity of being a “platinum card kid” or a “not platinum card kid” became really, really salient in this school in a completely invented way and at this very kind of arbitrary threshold of a particular set of test score points.
And what we found was – for the kids who just missed out on platinum – the next year, their test scores plummeted. So, it’s not entirely an issue of like what’s the size of the impact, but also just the very existence of such an impact. You can see the ways that that system demotivated them and gave them this identity that they had to experience throughout their days in school and how that kind of carried into the next year in terms of their effort on this particular exam.
And the idea that those were the young people that were so close to achieving arbitrary platinum status that took such a tumble – it’s very daunting. And Andrew, that brings me to another question. It seems like there’s a lot of changes that still need to be made in this space. How can people see this as an opportunity to reframe thinking versus being daunted by these categories that have been assigned for a long time that have, in certain cases, proven to be quite detrimental?
Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, I think this is one of the reasons we wanted to write this book is categories are ubiquitous, right? And clearly, we don’t have color-coded ID cards everywhere. And clearly, places can make decisions about whether or not to have color-coded ID cards. And it’s actually – once we started looking into this –we found it’s much more common than we thought. And sometimes when we’d talk about it in our classes, we’d have UC Irvine students that would come up to us and be like, “My school did this too.” And programs like Jostens’ Renaissance program would give people Renaissance cards and that sort of operated on these kinds of logic. And those are clearly decisions that administrators and educators can make not to implement these categories or to implement them.
But I think beyond that, one of the things that when we started thinking about this, we realized very quickly was the implementation of this kind of a categorization system – what it’s really doing is it’s pulling the hierarchy that exists in higher education down into high school. And so, it’s saying, “we’re going to reward the people who are doing well on these kinds of tests.”
And people I think struggle less with the idea that someone that goes to an elite college deserves more opportunities. But if you sort of pull that logic down into high school, people start to get a little uneasy. And you can sort of take the thought experiment all the way back down to kindergarten, right? And let’s say, you can say, “this kindergartner is going to go to this elite college, this other kindergartner’s not going to go to college, and so we’re going to treat them differently.”
I think people would start to be very uncomfortable. And if you took it all the way down to infants, then people would completely lose it. And then rightfully so, because there’s this sense – and this is a thing we talk about in in our book – that how the education system is supposed to produce this through some kind of competition and that people sort of deserve where they end up.
But I think one of the arguments that we make in the book is this is very common, right? And so, thinking about avoiding categories altogether is maybe a little naïve. And so, we can think instead about how can we change categories. So, we don’t want people to come away thinking, “oh, categories are everywhere and there’s nothing we can do about them.”
I think that the very local nature of categories provides us with opportunities to redefine what these categories look like. And so, Emily mentioned earlier like making sure that people have multiple opportunities to change their categorizations. And I think that’s the thing –if we sort of think about all the different ways where elite education is being contested. Like, the Supreme Court or college admissions offices where they’re making decisions about who’s going to be in and who’s not –we might not have access to those spaces, but all of us, I think, interact with education at some level, and we think we can all, to some greater or lesser degree, shape what educational categories our society uses.
And I think that’s really… I think it’s important not to sort of lose sight of the places where we do have power in the feeling of like, “oh my goodness, there are these huge processes and big categories that we can’t change.”
Well, that is true, but like, we might not be able to change how eighth grade algebra leads to high school calculus, but we can change the processes that govern who gets into eighth grade algebra in our school, or things like that.
Emily, have you seen any specific examples of a changing of categories that led to improved outcomes for students in your research for the book?
In some research for the book and also for some other work that I’ve done. I have studied a couple of different programs where school districts have tried to think about some of the students that have been the least well-served and the most marginalized in their district settings in the past.
I’ve worked with Oakland Unified to evaluate their African American male achievement program. And this program really draws on the ideas of targeted universalism – a phrase coined by john powell – that thinks about the idea of finding something that works for the people who are at the margins and investing in that first – or the folks who are the most excluded – and finding something for them first and then using that to kind of inspire work or solutions that then kind of ripple out to everybody else. Because if it’s working for this group, then it’s something that can get piloted, tested, known to be working for them, and then ripple outward.
So, the way that Oakland made this happen was they created a whole set of experiences for African American male students in a set of high schools in the district and they pulled students from across the achievement distribution, so it wasn’t just students who were struggling academically. And they created sets of courses where they were only among other African American male students, and all of their instructors were African American male teachers. And they embedded them in different community experiences with black community leaders, musicians, artists, scholars, thinkers, and gave them time to reflect on their own identities, their own values, to grapple with challenges, and to also give them targeted support academically with their writing and presentation and prepare preparation for college. And it wasn’t a single course – it was a series of courses – along with a bunch of other social supports and summer supports and some field trips, all kinds of things.
And that program had some great qualitative work demonstrating positive impacts on students’ well-being and engagement in school. And then we also found evidence of reductions in terms of some of the more deleterious things happening in school, like suspensions and exclusionary discipline. So, some really strong evidence that this kind of focus on a population that’s been historically underserved by a district can kind of recast the way that those students get to experience school and recast their identity as valued members of a school district. And so that program – they’ve gone on to replicate it now also for African American female students or Latinx students, sometimes along ethnic and racial identity lines, sometimes along also gender identity lines for a variety of groups that tend to have had the worst outcomes historically in the district. So that’s one example.
A second example is that I’ve partnered for a long time with San Francisco Unified as they’ve been rolling out their ethnic studies high school course. This is a little bit less of a fully intensive, fully immersive course like the program in Oakland, but it’s an experience aimed at high school students – often ninth graders – where they got to have a course for the full year aimed at incorporating histories and contributions of communities of color, and social movements from communities of color, often in the Bay Area and throughout California. And they also got to do a lot of identity reflection, community participatory action research – something where they got to learn about an issue in their community and do some work around that as a capstone project.
And so, again, giving students a chance to feel like their group identity is a thing that the school is valuing gave them a chance to lean into that identity instead of feeling like it was not represented in the school. And when we evaluated the impact of that class on students at the end of the school year – these were students who were not doing very well in eighth grade and they kind of got automatically signed up for the course. And for them, they had academic outcomes that were substantially better at the end of the year – higher GPAs, more credits earned, better attendance – and then we followed them for their whole high school careers. And those indicators kept improving over time, to the point that they were something like 16 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school. And they were more likely to enroll in post-secondary as well.
So, these are maybe not the dramatic kind of category revisions that might happen everywhere, or in all contexts, but they really do demonstrate the ways that taking an identity that students feel important and very salient to themselves – that’s often excluded from schools –and putting that at the center of a redesign of experiences for students can have some dramatic impacts.
Very dramatic. I love those examples.
Thinking bigger picture now about improved experiences – Andrew, can you share maybe just some general pieces of advice with the community, actions that folks can take to just increase their positivity around school and the experience they’re going to have with school this year? And I’m talking families and students.
I think about sort of two broad orienting frameworks that I think are really helpful.
If we think about learning to read: my ability to read is not dependent on Emily’s ability to read. In the book we talk about how our education system works a little bit like Rolexes. It’s like, if everyone got Rolexes, Rolexes would stop being special, right? Or whatever is your sort of luxury good of choice. Because luxury goods are oftentimes defined precisely because not everyone has them.
Whereas if we think about the nutritional value of kale – I am a huge Kale fan – so, kale is good for me, regardless of how many other people are eating it. And I think that’s sort of a really fundamental way to sort of think about what’s happening in our schools.
It’s too often we’re thinking about how we’re being sorted into different categories that are defined at the exclusion of others. It’s, “how am I going to get something fancier than the other people next to me?” And not in terms of, “what can we do that benefits all of us somehow independently?”
And so, we can think about how we as a society want to invest in more of these absolute goods – or giving everyone kale or teaching people to read. I’m really going to plug the kale here. But I think this is a really powerful metaphor for thinking about what we do in schools. So, I think that’s like one orienting framework: how do we sort of think about our education system as producing not just a hierarchy, but investing in things that are good for us regardless of what everyone else is getting.
And I think the second orienting framework is to maybe take a step back and think about what exactly is it that schools do? And I think when we sort of think about this more broadly, we can think about a few things that schools do. So obviously they teach people skills, right? That we learn how to read and do arithmetic and science – all these kinds of concrete skills. In addition, schools are places that sort of nurture individuals, right? So, we can sort of think about the logic of human thriving. And so, all these investments that are being made to sort of help people, in some sense, to be the best versions of themselves.
Another thing I think that that schools do, which we sort of talked a little about in the positional goods kind of framework, is they sort. People I think are very attuned, particularly as they move further along in the educational system, the sorting becomes much more salient. How you’re positioned vis-a-vis your peers becomes really important for being sorted into an unequal society.
And so, I think these are both logics or paradigms through which people understand schools. But I think there’s a third logic – or a third way of thinking about schools – that is often neglected. And that is schools are places that teach us what it means to be in a community together, right? So, we can think about this in terms of a sense of solidarity. And one of the things that I think is really important – and really lacking –is emphasizing that sense of solidarity.
I think if you go to a school board meeting, you’d hear lots of concern around, “how do I get my student into this fancy class” or, “how are they going to get into the college that I hope they’re going to get into?” Or “are they going to get these skills?” So, “how are you going to help my child thrive? How are you going to make sure they’re sorted the way I want them to be sorted?”
I hear much less, “how are we going to create a community that values each other, that nurtures each other, that sustains each other?” And I think this is… the really big issues that our society is struggling with, these are issues of solidarity, right?
It’s not that we are lacking in people that can do the kinds of calculus we need to launch satellites. It’s not that we are lacking in people that can solve the AI challenges of the day. I would argue what we’re really lacking is some common sense of who we are. What should AI be about? Why do we want to put more satellites up there? Who are we as a people? I think that sort of sense of empathy in community is a really, really neglected aspect of our educational system.
How can we bring it back?
We need a lot of opportunities for students to practice getting to listen to and work with people who are different than they are, who are from different backgrounds and who may not share the same values or same worldviews. And we need opportunities for them to be in classrooms together. And we need opportunities for them to try and fail and make mistakes and learn together, and to appreciate the fact that other students in the room might do things differently. And that all of those are kind of part of building that communal effort. And those are not actually just skills people acquire somehow how naturally – those take practice and those take effort. And as we separate students more and more into different places where they encounter fewer and fewer students who are different than them, I think they’re missing out on some of those opportunities. I think that that’s a thing that we should think intentionally about promoting through the kinds of experiences students have at the earliest years and all the way up through experiences at UCI.
So, one of the stories that we tell in the book is one of the early stories about nation building – so how it is that we came to have the Pledge of Allegiance as part of what we do. And this is part of explicit emphasis on putting schools at the center of creating some sense of who we are as a people.
And when you read the story of how this happened, one of the things that becomes really obvious among other things is the “us” has a boundary. So, “us” is always defined in opposition to “them.” And so, I think who we are as an “us” – I think we need to learn, quite frankly, how to be better at being an “us” without othering and without creating a “them.”
I just really appreciate your ideas and your vision around the potential for a better future for students and then, in turn, our society. And I really thank you for joining us today. I’ve loved this conversation.
Very much my pleasure.
Thank you so much for talking with us today.
Schooled and Sorted, How Educational Categories Create Inequality – a new book by Andrew Penner, UCI professor of sociology, and Emily Penner, UCI associate professor of education, and Thurston Domina is available wherever you buy books and also available online through UCI Libraries.
For the latest UCI news, please visit our recently redesigned website, news.uci.edu. I’m Cara Capuano. Thank you for listening to our conversation. The UCI Podcast is a production of Strategic Communications and Public Affairs at the University of California, Irvine. Please subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.