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Social Change and Education Reform

Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and the U.S. Education System

Social movements such as the civil rights movement and the women's movement sparked major changes in the education system in the United States.

Education norms change as a society changes. Beginning in the mid-20th century, social movements led to important changes in American culture and society. Increased support for civil rights and women's rights led to major changes in many areas. The field of sociology was influenced by these movements, and many sociologists turned their attention to structural inequalities related to race and gender present in the U.S. education system. Research and ideas developed by sociologists helped to influence many education reforms that began in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Reform at that time focused on increasing educational access and acknowledging minority cultures and experiences. For instance, some teachers sought to incorporate texts by more minority authors. They began to broaden the approach to the study of history by acknowledging African American, Native American, Latino, Chicano, and other perspectives on historical events. Sociologists also pushed the education system to teach ideas that challenged the status quo (the current state of society). This included challenging powerful biases in both society and in education systems, such as gender bias, racial bias, and class bias. For example, schools were encouraged to discuss unequal treatment of women and racial minorities, both in schools and in society at large.

An important milestone in both social change and education reform in the United States was the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a law containing many provisions aimed at ending systemic racial discrimination. It includes specific provisions to achieve desegregation of schools. It authorizes legal action against schools that are found to deny equal educational opportunities to students based on race, ethnicity, national origin, or religion. This helped to enforce and expand the principle of desegregation at the heart of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. It also led to some attempts to achieve greater integration of schools, such as busing, or assigning students of different racial groups to particular schools, necessitating transportation plans for some students who are assigned to schools outside their neighborhoods. Busing plans were put into place in many school districts in the 1970s and 1980s, but many of these plans were later dropped. This is because of various intersecting reasons, including racist attitudes and white flight, the mass migration of white families to suburbs with racially homogenous school districts. Busing is often unpopular with families from all racial groups. This may be because of a preference to attend neighborhood schools and to educate children within familiar communities.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act opened the door for a wave of federal programs aimed at helping disadvantaged groups catch up. Head Start, a federally funded program aimed at increasing school readiness for children from low-income families, was founded soon after. These kinds of programs recognize and address the fact that people start out in life at different places in the social hierarchy. Thus equal amounts of intelligence and hard work cannot get two people from different positions in this hierarchy to the same place, such as a good job or a high income. Programs such as Head Start help to equalize the opportunities between advantaged and disadvantaged preschoolers. For example, they support children who lack opportunity for the intergenerational transfer of knowledge at home by providing a structure when they can receive this transfer of knowledge.

Another key piece of legislation is the Education Amendments of 1972, specifically Title IX of this law. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal funding. This provision banned the practice of excluding students from classes and activities because of their sex. This opened doors to girls and women in many male-dominated fields of study, especially the sciences, math, engineering, and technology. It also completely changed girls' and women's access to athletic programs and the distribution of resources for men's and women's athletics in educational settings. Title IX also impacts sexual assault prevention efforts on college campuses, as well as some protections for students who are pregnant or have children.

Disability Rights and the U.S. Education System

The disability rights movement helped to create laws providing students with disabilities specific rights and protections related to education.

In the United States, the disability rights movement that arose in the 20th century helped to change social and cultural understandings of ability and disability. Influenced by this movement, sociologists in the 1980s began to develop a sociology of disability that examined social understandings of disability as a deficit, problem, or tragedy. Activists and theorists sought to refocus discussions of disability. Rather than focusing solely on the limits a disability imposes on a person, they considered how social structure and institutions define and engage with disability. Political and academic movements began to reframe discussions of disability, bringing attention to issues such as how a society oppresses or marginalizes people with disabilities. One result of this work on the question of disability was the passage of new legal rights and protections. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a landmark piece of legislation passed in 1990, aims to guarantee the rights of people with disabilities, including equal treatment and equal access to employment, transportation, communications, public spaces, and other areas. Additional legislation passed the same year focuses on the particular needs and rights of students with disabilities.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is federal legislation first passed in 1990 that seeks to ensure that all children with disabilities have access to an appropriate and robust public education. An earlier package of laws, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), which was in place from 1975 to 1990, guaranteed a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities. IDEA built upon earlier laws, with the aim of improving services and programs for students with special needs. IDEA includes several key concepts and provisions. Like EHA, IDEA asserts that every child has a right to a free and appropriate education (FAPE), an education that meets the needs of an individual child, including special services, modifications, and accommodations. Services might include specially designed instruction, additional instruction, speech therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, transportation, or other services needed to support the education of an individual child. For many of these services, a child must first qualify for special education, a range of programs and services offered by a school or school district to meet the needs of students with disabilities or special needs. States, school districts, and schools have specific requirements about how to qualify for special education. Students who qualify for special education services receive an individualized education program (IEP), a document that specifies the individual needs of a student and the programs and services the school will provide to meet those needs. Sometimes families and students who want a special education designation do not receive it. However, students can receive additional support and individualized instruction without a special education designation. Some schools provide support such as extra reading or math instruction to any student who appears to need it. Schools can also provide students with a 504 plan, a list of accommodations for a student such as extra time to complete tests and homework, using audiobooks for reading, sitting near the teacher, or any other accommodation that schools and parents agree can support the student. Students do not have to qualify for special education in order to have a 504 plan. Students with IEPs and 504 plans are not exempt from school discipline policies, but they do have some specific rights related to discipline issues. For instance, prior to some disciplinary actions IEP or 504 committees will meet to asses the situation and create a behavior plan for the student. There are also some limitations to the use of physical restraint or seclusion for the purposes of discipline. IDEA also mandates that children with disabilities receive education in the least restrictive environment (LRE), a provision that requires students with disabilities to be educated in general education classrooms as much as possible and placed in separate or restricted settings only when this is necessary to provide an appropriate education. These legal provisions reflect the work of disability rights advocates who argue that individuals with disabilities should not be understood in terms of problems that require solutions. Rather, society has a responsibility to identify areas of potential discrimination. Solutions are required for the discrimination, rather than for the individual or the disability. Approaches such as creating IEPs and keeping students in the least restrictive environment possible exemplify this understanding of disability.

Sociologists, activists, and educators continue to debate how best to approach the needs and experiences of students with disabilities. Some researchers caution that while students with disabilities have rights and protections under the law, many are not fully included in educational systems. There are numerous sides to the question of inclusive education. Some people propose having special needs children in general education classrooms at all times, regardless of circumstances. They argue that this is in those children's best interests, even if it requires schools, teachers, and other children to adapt. Most educators and researchers agree there is more progress to be made on the issue of how best to educate, support, and understand students with disabilities.