The Problem with Public Education

Explaining social disparities in educational achievement

“It is an error to oppose class and ethnicity (and one may add gender) as if there was some sort of competition between them to disadvantage people” Nash and Harker 1992


The statement by Nash and Harker quoted above highlights the frustration many educators and education researchers feel at the continued inequity in educational achievement seen around the world. While Nash and Harker (1992) report studies undertaken in New Zealand their findings of stable inequality in educational achievement between people of different socioeconomic groups and in ethnic minority groups are faithfully reproduced around the world including in the United States of America (Freeman and Fox 2005, p 25). In communities of the ‘new world’ that include countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States there is no argument that equal opportunity for education should be available to all citizens and certainly not only to those of the upper and middle socio economic classes, indeed such countries pride themselves on being based on a democratic and egalitarian platform. Yet persistent inequities in educational performance are evident between groups within these communities despite government supported open access to education for all members of that society (Siegel and Welsh, p 216). A stable observation is that equal access to education does not lead to equal education achievement (Nash, 1986, p 122).

The open opportunity for all children to attend schools where discrimination against, sex, religion or socioeconomic status is banned is considered by some to be all that is required of a responsible government, and that market forces such as those that govern free trade will apply to the education of the community’s children (Nash and Harker, 1992, p ). The explanation of market forces is expanded further to explain that those children with natural academic talents or skills will succeed at school, will fill the highest places in tertiary education and will become the next generation’s community leaders (Bourdieu, 1974, p 114). However some groups within the community argue that academic success in schools may not be a product of natural selection or innate talent but is more likely to be a result of the underlying mechanisms that lead to persistent reproducible positive correlations between academic achievement in children from families in middle to high socioeconomic groups compared to those children belonging to lower socioeconomic groups or from ethnic minorities (Nash, 1986, p 136).

This paper addresses the theories that attempt to shed light on the mechanisms that underlie the persistent findings that inequities exist between different socioeconomic groups and between different ethnic groups in educational achievement. By examining the family resource theory developed and demonstrated in Nash and Harker (1992) in the light of the influence of Bourdieu’s (1974) theory of primary and secondary effects of social disparity in educational achievement and the clear distinction made by Nash and Harker (1992) between the family resource theory and the deficit theory.

The Family Resource Theory

Ramsey (1975, qtd in Nash and Harker, 1992, p 3) supported a home and school tradition as a mechanism by which factors such as parental expectations, pressure for learning and supportive parents were implicated in the degree of educational achievement of the student. However, this theory was greatly criticized as being akin to the deficit theory. The deficit theory which has little support in modern education literature was based on an assumption that differences in educational attainment by students from different socioeconomic groups and ethnic groups could be explained by the input of the child (Nash and Harker, 1992, 4). The deficit theory suggested that a lower intelligence quota (I.Q.) or inappropriate home socialization were the reasons by which certain socioeconomic or ethnic groups experienced lower levels of academic achievement than their peers from middle and high socioeconomic groups (Nash and Harker, 1992, 4). The deficit theory has met strong criticism and has “deservedly been buried” (Nash and Harker, 1992, 3). Clearly the deficit theory gave oversimplified explanations, to the point of being erroneous, for the sustained differences between educational achievements between the different socioeconomic classes within modern societies for the last few decades. Further classification has been made as to the influence of difference in socioeconomic class and education achievement into primary and secondary effects (Bourdieu, 1974, p 113).

In early standardized testing, in students as young as six years old show the predicted differentiation in education achievement between students from different socioeconomic classes (Nash, 1986, p 123). This early childhood negative effect of belonging to a lower socioeconomic family has been termed the primary effect of social disparity on educational achievement (Bourdieu, 1974, p 113). In later school years students, who are matched for literacy skill level, with their peers from higher socioeconomic families, still display significant negative effects of belonging to a lower socioeconomic status when undertaking literacy tests (Bourdieu, 1974, p 113). The effect seen in later school years has been termed secondary effects of social disparity on educational achievement. There is a very significant difference between the primary and secondary effects of social disparity on education achievement, in that the first appears to be skill dependent but the secondary does not and implies some form of choice, whether that choice is a conscious one or made subconsciously.

Nash and Harker (1992) were greatly influenced by the theories of primary and secondary effects of social disparity in educational achievement as they developed the family resource theory from their original research work derived from over 900 elementary school students in New Zealand (p 7). Initially the subjects in the study were placed into categories of ‘class’ based solely on the type of outside for pay’ work the parents were undertaking, no account was made for the level of income of the families only the type of work they did (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 6). The class groups were differentiated eventually into three categories: professional, intermediate and working (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 5). This study found significance in the type of work that the parents performed as a form of subconscious modeling of literacy (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 14). This observation is very interesting, it illustrates that regardless of any intentional modeling of reading and writing given to the children the parents of the professional class and to a lesser extent parents in the intermediate class and to a much lower extent in the working class parents of this study, literacy was modeled by the parents on a daily basis as being integral to being able to receive an income (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 15).

The hypothesis of different ‘class’ families as differentiated by the Nash and Harker study (1992) developing different literacy modeling behaviors was studied directly by asking questions about the parents reading habits including, type of reading material preferences and the number of books owned by the family (p 8). There were a significantly lower number of books owned by the working and intermediate classes compared to the professional class, as was the number of books read each year (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 9). This theme was extended to demonstrate that apart from the non-deliberate literacy modeling habits of parents from the professional class there were significant differences in the deliberate literacy habits as well. Professional class parents were much more likely to foster reading as a habit for their children to develop and were much more likely to encourage the development of a personal library of books for each child in that family, than their peers in the intermediate and working classes (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 12). Nash and Harker termed this group of behaviors as literacy culture (1992, p 8).

Another important difference in family resources as defined within the family resource theory of Nash and Harker (1992) is the interaction of the family with the school, in essence this is a resource at the hands of the families (p 17). Parents within the professional class were more proactive in identifying areas of potential need in their child’s academic achievement levels, including enlisting the help of extra tutoring and were much more likely to bring to the school’s attention any areas of concern. The intermediate class parents and even more strikingly so with the working class parents, showed a reliance on the school to identify any areas of need with their child’s academic achievement was observed (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 15). If the school failed to highlight to the parents of a child that they were not grasping the skills of literacy the parents of working class families were largely unaware of any problem (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 15). The study explored this further and observed that parents within the working class group were much more likely to accept as the only possible opinion that of the school when it came to matters of their child’s academic performance (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 15). In contrast parents from the professional class and more rarely from the intermediate class while being open to the opinion of the school regarding their child’s academic progress they did not consider this the only possible opinion and were quite ready to seek second and third opinions from outside professionals to verify the opinions of the school (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 16). This observation is interesting and may indicate the level of education resources of the working class parents leading to a limitation on their ability to independently assess and act as an advocate for their child.

The family resource theory also incorporated an observation of parental expectations between the three groups studied by Nash and Harker (1992). While this thought process feels uncomfortably like harking back to the deficit theory, in the case of the family resources theory the emphasis is quite different. Nash and Harker (1992) discovered an interesting phenomenon of ‘class reproduction’. This was illustrated clearly in the professional and intermediate class families where the parental expectation was that the children would achieve ‘at least’ the same level of academic achievement as they have (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 16). In contrast the working class parents expressed an attitude of not holding their child back “if they have it in them” (qtd in Nash and Harker, 1992, p 16), however, it was also observed that the father who would angrily defend their child in the face of discrimination would also be wary of his own child developing a similar “class racism” attitude (Bourdieu, qtd in Nash and Harker, 1992, p 17). The working class families held pride in their respectability and although acknowledging the relative controls that the intermediate and professional classes held over their class and were ambivalent about class status and the concept of “superiority of the elite” (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 17).

Interestingly within the study that largely focused on the different ‘classes’ of families based upon the type of work performed, the study of Nash and Harker (1992) also identified that all the effects of ‘class’ were more pronounced in families of the Maori ethnicity. This observation has been made in studies of the effect of ethnicity and socioeconomic status in African American students (Mishel and Joydeep, 2006, p 73) and in Hispanic American students (Siegel and Welsh, p 217).


Family resource theory attempts to bring into focus the interdependent characteristics of family life that influence a child’s literacy and the child’s interaction with their school. Nash and Harker (1992) adamantly defend the family resource theory against possible comparisons to the deficit theory. While the deficit theory provides an underlying deficit in the desire or level of care a family from lower socioeconomic status groups give to their child, the family resource theory found the opposite. The family resource theory found that parents within the working class of the study showed a great dedication to their children and gave to the best of their resources to their child’s education (Nash and Harker, 1992, p 18) However the resources that promote literacy and academic achievement were significantly lower in the working class family group compared to the intermediate and even more pronouncedly to the professional group. The relatively lower resources of the working class and intermediate families lead to a cascade effect of interdependent disadvantages for the child who belongs to the working class family in terms of their academic achievement. Whether the lack of resources are their own literacy skills or their social resources or modeling behaviors that promote literacy and identify literacy with the means by which an income is made, the interplay of all of these characteristics of family life prove an effective barrier to the individual child struggling to achieve equal educational achievement.

The discussion of the family resource theory highlights the important influence family life has on a student’s ability to take advantage of the educational opportunities that are possible, particularly if the student and the student’s parents are unaware of what the opportunities may be and what opportunities the student may need. The theory also shows the fallacy of thinking that a school or education system in isolation can be held solely accountable for correcting the inequities in educational achievement across different socioeconomic and ethnic groups within our community.

In conclusion the family resource theory provides strong evidence to support the statement by Nash and Harker (1992) “”It is an error to oppose class and ethnicity (and one may add gender) as if there was some sort of competition between them to disadvantage people”.


Bourdieu, P. (1974). The School as a Conservative Force: Scholastic and Cultural inequalities. In J. Eggleston, (ed), Contemporary Research in the Sociology of Education. London: Methuen, pp 110-117.
Freedamn, C. and Fox, M. (2005). Status and trends in the education of American Indians and Alaska Natives (NCES 2005 – 108). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office.
Mishel, L. and Joydeep, (2006). Rethinking High School Graduation Rates and Trends, Washington D.C., Economic Policy Institute.
Nash, R. (1986). Educational and social inequality: the theories of Bourdieu and Boudin with reference to class and ethnic differences in New Zealand. New Zealand Sociology 1: 121-137.
Nash, R. and Harker, R.K. (1992). Working with Class: The Educational Expectations and Practices of Class-resourced Families. New Zealand Journal of Education 27: 3-20.
Siegel, L.J. and Welsh, B.C. (2004). Juvenile Delinquency: The Core, 2nd Ed. Boston, Thompson Wadsworth.