Foundations of Education


Introduces the sociology of education as a disciplinary field within educational studies.

Key Concepts

  • ascribed characteristics
  • achieved characteristics
  • sociology of education
  • structural functionalism
  • social stratification
  • meritocracy
  • critical sociology

Graded Tasks

  • contribute to the LMS forums

Sociology of Education

Page 184 of the textbook reading includes the following text:

"Many characteristics people have that can impact on the opportunities they have in life (or their life chances) can be divided into ascribed and achieved characteristics. Ascribed characteristics are those features of individuals with which they are born, such as race, sex, and the social class of one’s family. Achieved characteristics, in contrast, are earned or chosen through individual effort, like personal skills and occupational designations. Most life chances are influenced by a combination of ascribed and achieved characteristics."

As a disciplinary field, the sociology of education - which studies the social conditions of formal schooling in society - has two major schools of thought, each of which posit competing perspectives on how ascribed and achieved characteristics interact in determining a individual's life chances (e.g., in terms of living standards, educational attainment, and economic success etc.).

The Structural Functionalist Perspective

Pages 20 - 21 of the textbook includes the following text:

"Structural functionalism is a body of theories that understand the world as a large system of interrelated parts that all work together…The school plays a central role in bridging individuals to society. It is within schools that children are assessed in a standardized universalistic way that does not take their social background characteristics into account…Schools level the playing field so that children are assessed on the basis of merit - how they are judged is based only on how they perform on a standardized set of goals regardless of social background.

In this way, school prepares young people for their roles as adults…Adults’ later placement in the workforce is a reflection of how much they achieved and how successful they were in their schooling. The school is functionally related to the workforce because it assigns people to their roles based on achievement, skills, and capability…

…Structural functionalists do not believe that inequality is non-existent. On the contrary, they believe it is inherent to the functional system. Social inequality, in other words, exists because it is functional in society. People who are at the lower ends of the educational and socioeconomic spectrum are there because they fill necessary places there - and because they did not meet the qualifications for higher placement.

As you may imagine, structural functionalism is not without its critics, and many criticisms are well-founded. In particular, the approach fails to account for how many ascribed traits, like socioeconomic background, gender, and race, appear to be so important in determining life outcomes. A plethora of research has provided compelling evidence that the education system does not operate on a purely meritocratic basis."

At its heart, structural functionalism argues that social stratification - that is the sorting of individuals into lower and high socio-economic status groups - occurs through a meritocratic system which rewards talent and hard work, irrespective of an individual's ascribed characteristics. In other words, any child, irrespective of race, gender, and socio-economic status at birth, who applies oneself and makes good life choices, has the potential for upwards social and economic mobility.

A public education system - free and available to all children - ensures that every child has the opportunity to develop and demonstrate one's full potential. In this sense, public education is the 'great equalizer,' in that it levels the playing field for students, irrespective of their ascribed characteristics at birth.
📌 As you read the last line in the above paragraph, you may be wondering how the needs of students with disabilities factor into discussions related to educational equity. This topic is addressed in the "Educational Equity for Children with Special Needs" topic page for this week.

The Critical-Sociological Perspective

Pages 677 - 678 of William Little's Introduction to Sociology textbook () includes the following text which directly counters the structural functionalist perspective:

"Critical sociologists do not believe that public schools reduce social inequality. Rather, they believe that the educational system reinforces and perpetuates social inequalities arising from differences in class, gender, race, and ethnicity. Where functionalists see education as serving a beneficial role, critical sociologists view it more critically. To them, it is important to examine how educational systems preserve the status quo and guide people of lower status into subordinate positions in society.

The fulfillment of one’s education is closely linked to social class. Students of low socioeconomic status are generally not afforded the same opportunities as students of higher status, no matter how great their academic ability or desire to learn…Barriers like the cost of higher education, but also more subtle cultural cues, undermine the promise of education as a means of providing equality of opportunity."

The concerns of critical sociologists are directly reflected in the chart on the "Educational Equity" topic page. If the structural functionalist perspective was accurate and the critical sociological perspective was inaccurate, we would expect to see no differences in the educational attainment of Black and non-Black Canadians or males and females. Educational attainment would be solely based on merit (i.e., achieved characteristics). Yet clear differences are evident in the separated out race and gender data, lending credence to the critical sociological viewpoint.


Little, William. (2016). Introduction to Sociology. (2nd Canadian Edition). Victoria, BC: BCcampus.

Robson, Karen L. (2019). Sociology of Education in Canada. Toronto: Open Library Press Books.

Educational Inequity Internet Search

Log into the LMS and answer the following forum question which is a graded task:
Q9.1: Search online for a chart (or graph) which clearly provides evidence of K-12 or post-secondary educational inequities in terms of race, gender, or socioeconomic status (i.e., class). The chart can focus on data from Ontario, Canada, or any other juridstiction around the world. Paste an image of the chart you have chosen into your forum post, note the Web link where you found the chart, and briefly explain in your own words how the chart provides evidence of educational inequity. (Actions: Post (Mon-Thu) and Respond (Fri-Sun) | 150 - 200 words total + image of the chart)
LMS Forum Question