Thurston Domina Discusses Inequality & Education

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    • 00:00

      [MUSIC PLAYING][Inequality & Education][What is the value in learning about inequalityand education?][How would you explain this topic to your students?]

    • 00:17

      THURSTON DOMINA: When I'm talking to students about whythey should study inequality and education, the first thing I dois I try to remind them that they'vespent their entire lives in schoolsand that schools have structured notonly their academic development, but the way they developas people, their socialization, their expectations,and they really shape the way their lives are directed.So schools are clearly very important to each

    • 00:39

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: of my students.And I think that people understandthat that's one reason why you study education.But then I try to make them understandthat they know a lot about school,but they know a lot about school through exactly one viewpoint,through one little pinhole, their own experience.And if you step back, you can seea much broader view, a broader rangeof educational experiences.And I think the first thing you notice when you step back

    • 01:01

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: is that those educational experiences are very unequal.They're very unequal along the lines of race, and class,and gender, and lots of many other dimensionsand they link up to broader social inequalities.So studying educational inequality or inequalityin education gives you a sense of the whole broad enterpriseacross the society and how it fitsinto the rest of our society.

    • 01:21

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: [What are the current obstacles that students face whentransitioning from middle or high school into highereducation?]When you think about kids' educational careers,there are really three big transitions that kids make.They can make a transition into elementary school.So a transition out of the home or a more loosely organized

    • 01:43

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: preschool environment, an early child environment,into a middle school, which is a much more structuredenvironment than they were usually aware of,in which they're in very tight age graded groups.They've progressed through elementary schooland they make a second transitioninto middle school and high school,onto secondary education.And what's distinct about middle and high school

    • 02:04

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: is that instruction is, to a far greater degreethan any other time prior, differentiated.So kids are now no longer in the same classwith a heterogeneous group of peers.They are now tracked into separate classes.And that transition pre-stages the next transition,which is into higher education, whereyou move from a system that's a mass-education system

    • 02:26

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: into a selective and highly, highly differentiated systemacross institutions.So you think about it going from an elementary school, whereeverybody goes to the same kind of school--there are differences across neighborhoodsand so on-- but to a middle and high school, where everybodyis still going to the same kind of school,but having really different experiences within the school,to a transition to higher education, where people are

    • 02:48

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: fragmenting or stratifying in very unequal ways across verydifferent institutions, from the elite institutionsdown to the open access institutions,with very different focuses and experiences.[How has inequality impacted education?]So inequality is, I think, currently

    • 03:10

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: the defining question in the sociology of education.Really, the sociology of education,which if you go around and talk to sociologists,it starts to look a lot like sociology of educationis a subset of the sociology of inequality,which is, in a sense, sort of what all of sociology is about.

    • 03:31

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: So studying inequality and understanding where inequalitycomes from, inequality in schools come from,is really central to what we do.So sociologists of education, we do two things.We try to figure out why it is that kidshave such different experiences when they're in school.And then we also try to figure outwhat is it that schools do that send kids

    • 03:53

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: into such unequal positions later in life.So those are two really different questions,but they're animated by the same concern, whichis that in our society, we talk about, we understand educationas an equalizing force.And Horace Mann, in the 19th century,built mass education in the United Statesby talking about the great equalizer, the balance

    • 04:14

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: wheel of society.And he was going to have commoners and elitesin the same rooms.And you were going to create class mobility, and so on,that way.And it's true that education works that way.However, we've also dramatically expandededucational opportunity at the secondary level,and at the tertiary level, and higher education.And we still have a very unequal society.In fact, we have an increasingly unequal society.

    • 04:36

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And, in fact, education helps produce that inequality.So this very complicated relationshipbetween education and inequality really fascinates the fieldof sociology of education.[How does inequality in education play into the paradoxof education?]The way schools work a lot of the time in our societyis they give people opportunities, opportunities

    • 04:57

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: to take steps ahead.But those opportunities aren't necessarilyfinite in a society.So part of that paradox comes from lookingat-- there are two questions that are closely related,but they aren't the same question.One is, will I get ahead if I go to school?

    • 05:17

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And the answer to that question is, yes.And it's actually particularly trueif I'm a relatively disadvantaged person.The effects of education on my lifeare greater the more disadvantaged I am.It's a sort of truism from the field.But at the same time, the way educationworks in our society now, it creates new distinctionsand so it builds inequality.

    • 05:38

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: The gap between college graduates and high schoolgraduates is big and it's caused by education.And so that's a way in which education drives inequality.And then, among college graduates,there's a gap between selective college graduates and lessselective college graduates.And so education's driving inequality in that way.[What new research directions do you find most exciting,and where would you like to take your own research?]

    • 06:02

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: The new research direction that Ifind most exciting in the sociology of educationinvolves the really dramatic increasein the availability of data, mostly in the United States,at least, because schools are required,under accountability laws like No Child Left Behind,to test kids annually.And because those tests matter to schools,

    • 06:23

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: they test kids quite a bit of times before that,so we know an awful lot about howkids' academic skills progress as they move through school.And storing data has gotten cheaper, and so allof the other things that schools pay attention to about kids--their report cards, their attendance,their disciplinary records-- all of those thingsgo into these big data sets.And what I and lots of others in the field,

    • 06:45

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: and also lots of economists and other social scientistsin education have been doing over the last several yearsis trying to work with school districtsso that we can provide our analytic expertise in orderto help them use this data to make their schools better.So you've got this really rich picture of kids progress,you can link those data to higher education data

    • 07:07

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: or to data about kids' lives at home.So you'll get this picture of kids' whole livesthat's far, far richer than anything we knew before.And we can then take a step and put that work into practicemuch more than we were able to do before.So we're working much closer with practitioners in orderto try to make schools better.[Can you provide any examples of key research in the field thathas had a direct impact on policy or practice outsideof academia, and what changed as a result?]

    • 07:37

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: One example of a fairly dated, but really very influentialpiece of research in the sociology of educationthat changed practice and policy is workthat James Coleman did in the 1980s on Catholic schools.As far as I know, people weren't really paying attentionto Catholic schools then.At about that time, maybe 10%, 15% of American studentswere enrolled in Catholic schools.

    • 07:57

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: But what he noticed-- and this waswork that was done in Chicago, or began in Chicago at least--was that Catholic school enrollments comparedto public school enrollments were quite diverse.Catholic schools tended to be located in inner citiesand they would enroll working class white ethnics, but alsoAfrican-Americans.They were much more class-integrated

    • 08:18

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: than a lot of public schools.And he also noticed, or he started to argueand the data supported him-- to suggestthat kids from diverse backgroundsdid quite well coming from Catholic schools.Catholic schools created less class inequalityin kids' achievement than traditional public schools.And why might that have happened?Well, the argument was that Catholic schools were small.

    • 08:41

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: They were cohesive communities.They had this sort academic press whereeverybody was paying attention.And all of those ideas about Catholic schools, I think,formed the germ for what we now talk aboutas the charter school movement.And, now, charter schools, I think,are trying to do, on a larger scale,with support from the state, what

    • 09:02

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: Coleman argued Catholic schools were doing back in the '80s.So that's one example.Another example of a little bit more recent workin sociology of education that I think has been very influentialis work by Annette Lareau.Annette Lareau is an ethnographer.She does this incredibly hands-on work

    • 09:22

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: where she really just embeds herself in families.And she watches the way parents and children relateand the way they relate to their schools.And her early work demonstrated this really interestingdifference between the way affluent familiesand poor families related to schools,

    • 09:43

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: in which poor families-- actually, thisis true across the scope of her work--so her work demonstrates this differencein the way affluent parents and poor familiesrelate to schools.And she talks about how in poor familiesthe culture is-- the job of the familyis to get the child healthy and dressed to school.

    • 10:07

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And the teacher is the expert and the child is the student.And there's a sense of authority.And so poor parents don't really intervene.They don't get involved, whereas affluent parents see their jobas really cultivating the child as a person.And you can see how that continues.It's soccer classes, and violin classes, and piano,and talking to the teacher before there's

    • 10:28

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: a problem, and so on.Her argument is not really that one is better than the other,but that this conservative cultivation can'thelp but create kids who are going to be college boundand who are going to be bound for selective colleges.And that, I think, has influenced practicein things like the Harlem Children's Zone, and PromiseNeighborhoods, and things that have really

    • 10:48

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: tried to change poor kids' lives by reaching outsideof the school and building whole communities,whole community-wide supports for kids' academic development.[What first inspired you to start academic in the fieldof inequality and education?][What other academic areas interest you greatly and why?]

    • 11:09

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: After I graduated from college, I moved to New Yorkwith no idea about what I was going to do.And I worked as a freelance writer and an editor and then,just sort of through happenstance,I got a job working on a policy research group thatwas studying a really technical piece about college admissionsto the City University of New York.

    • 11:31

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And the rule that the city wanted to pass,that the mayor was pushing this on the City University,he wanted to make it so that if you didn'tpass a test at the beginning of your college,as a freshman in college, if you passed into remedial courses,you would go to the community collegeand then you would go on to four-year college.And this was an argument because people

    • 11:52

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: were worried that that rule would have a disparate impactby race and ethnicity so that many African-Americanand Latino students would be pushed outof four-year colleges into community colleges, wherethey'd be less likely to earn a BA and so on.And what I realized as I was working on this projectis that these are things that matter to people's lives.

    • 12:13

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And just in the details of this little policy, .that was maybe on the fourth page of the newspaperand people weren't paying attention to it,you had like tens of thousands of people's lives that wereat stake.There were big questions.And it seemed to me like a great opportunityto do work that could matter in the world.[Which key thinkers have most inspired you,and who continues to influence you?]

    • 12:36

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: One key thinker who really is inspiring my work rightnow is Charles Tilly, who was a historical sociologist,a political sociologist.He didn't study anything really that had to do with education,but he had this idea that I thinkis really, really powerful.It's called-- the term he uses is categorical inequality.And it's a story about how durable intergenerational

    • 12:58

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: inequalities come into being, where they come from.And basically the story goes like this-- it's peopleare really good at building categories.People differ from one another on lots and lotsof dimensions in a continuous way-- there aretall people and short people.But what we're really good at is breakingthose continuous distinctions into groups--black people and white people, or tall people

    • 13:20

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: and short people for that matter.And any place there's any sort of even a small powerimbalance between those groups, there'sopportunity for one group to either hoard opportunitiesor to exploit the other group in order to createand to reinforce the little inequalities thatdevelop and turn them into big durable inequalities.

    • 13:42

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And what I think is interesting about that--so that's not obvious what that has to do with education.But what schools do all the time is they build categories.At the elementary school level, the categoryis I'm a student at Grant Elementary School,rather than at Lincoln Elementary School.Starting in the middle school, when

    • 14:02

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: we start to talk about academic differentiation,it's, I'm an algebra kid or I'm an honors English kid.And then going on through high school,those categories get more and more distinct.And so I talked about that paradox between educationand inequality-- I think that that categorical inequalityprocess is a big part of what explains that paradox.

    • 14:25

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: Schools create opportunities for kids and those opportunitiesmatter, but because they matter, they alsogenerate inequalities among students.[What are the major academic debates in the fields in whichyou work?][What are the principal areas of contention and why?]One of the big long running debates

    • 14:46

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: in the sociology of education involveshow do we understand the role of culturein the production of inequality.That's a really sticky issue when youtalk about race, for example.And so an anthropologist named John Ogbu madea very controversial argument about an oppositional culture

    • 15:07

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: among young African-American, particularly boys, that was--and it's sort of an anti-school culture.And sociologists of education havedebated the validity of that argument,but in particular, they've debated the political balanceof the argument.Where does culture come from and what does it mean?

    • 15:29

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And if we isolate sets of behaviorsthat limit some people's opportunitiesor that create inequality, are weplacing blame on the victim-- are thingsthat people debate a lot about.So some of the debate is not about whether or notculture matters, but it's how to understand itand how to integrate culture into our workis something that sociologists of education, I think,find very sticky.

    • 15:50

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: [How important is research methodology and methodsfor a rigorous analysis of the topic?][What key research methods do you employ?]Research methodology and rigorous research methodologyis just essential to doing valid work in this fieldor in any other.In education, I think it matters in particularbecause we know so much, each of us knows so much.

    • 16:13

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: We've got so much experience with educationthat we think we know everything and there's a tendencyto extrapolate from our own experienceand apply it to everybody else.And rigorous research methods keep us honest.And that's as true of qualitative methodsas it is of quantitative methods.

    • 16:34

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: By checking and cross-checking, wecan see where our hunches were wrong,where our experiences were unusual, and learned thingsthat we couldn't otherwise know.So it's absolutely essential.My work is mostly, but not exclusively, quantitative.I work with data from many, many different sources.

    • 16:57

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: There's these long history of national longitudinal studiesof students that I use, I use data from the census,I use data from school districts.It's not exclusively quantitativebecause I'm very interested in context.So when I work with school districts,I like to talk to people there and Ilike to hear about what problems they're facing,

    • 17:18

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: or what practices they're experimenting with,or how things work on the ground so that Ican contextualize the data.It gives me opportunities to find evaluation opportunitiesor research questions that I may not have known that I had.So mostly quantitative, but some qualitative work.

    • 17:39

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: [What would you identify as the key challenges of a coursein this field for a student, and what strategies would youadvise to counter these challenges?]So I think the key challenge for a student in sociologyof education is all about seeing beyond oneselfand seeing beyond one's own experience.

    • 18:02

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: The challenge is admitting how much you don't know.So when I teach undergraduates, one thingthat we talk about-- this is in California--is we talk about the high school exit exams.Every sophomore in California has to take the high schoolexit exam.It's designed to be a fairly easy test.

    • 18:24

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: It's a 7th or 8th grade level.But about a third of California 10th graders,when they take it the first time, fail it.And when I tell that to a class of Universityof California undergraduates, they're stunned.They think like, what's the matter with those students?And the idea that a third of their classmateswere failing this exam, it almost blows their minds

    • 18:45

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: because they see their experience,as high achieving kids who are worried about whether or notthey're going to get into Berkeley or UCLA or UC Irvine,and don't understand that their experience isthe tip of the iceberg and is notreflective of the entire experience.So I think the challenge is to not

    • 19:06

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: assume that you know what it's all about.And we have the same problem, actually,in research in our field.We do far more work, in higher education in particular,on elite colleges and universities,on access to elite colleges and universities,than we do on access to nonselective or less elitecolleges and universities.

    • 19:26

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: We're focused on the tip of the iceberg--and those are important places.Harvard produces the elite.And Stanford produces the elite.They matter and getting into those schools matter.But we don't pay enough attention--I think we researchers in the fieldare maybe better at this than undergraduates,but not as good as we should be, at paying attentionto the entire sweep of the field of education.

    • 19:46

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: [What can be said about the research on different phasesof education?]The work that people do and the people who do work in educationis a little bit balkanized across different areas.There are early childhood education researchers.There are elementary education researchers.

    • 20:07

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: There are secondary education researchers.And there are higher education researchers.And I think all of the stuff that'smost exciting, to me at least, is about the transitionsbetween those places.So, for example, we know that early education opportunities

    • 20:27

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: are pretty powerful.It's not hard to make big changes in kids' skillswhen you get a room of three or four-year-oldsinto a classroom.It takes some money.It takes some energy.But it's really much easier at that age to change a kid's lifeand make-- things that show up on IQ tests--like really deep structural changes in the way kids

    • 20:49

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: are able to learn.But what happens after kids get outof early childhood education, we know much less about.We know that there's these effects on kids' skillsthat happen when they're exposed to early childhoodeducation that fade out often when poor kids move outof a program like Head Start into elementary schools.

    • 21:11

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And, now, maybe that's because theymove from these nice early childhood education programsinto lousy elementary schools, wherethey're the highest achieving studentsand so they get ignored until they drift backinto the rest of the pack of their classmates.But studying at those transitions, I think,

    • 21:33

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: is really important.And the same thing is true in the transitionfrom elementary school to high schoolor to middle and high school because Ithink that there's very clear evidencethat kids' achievement as 6th gradersstrongly influences their odds of taking advanced coursesas 7th and 8th and 9th graders.

    • 21:53

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: So it launches their early aspirations--are hugely important for predicting kidsodds of going on to college.Everybody, by the time you get out of high school,wants to go to college.90% of American high school seniorssay they're going to go to collegeand get a four-year degree.And it doesn't matter that they all thinkthey want to go to college.It doesn't help them much at that point.

    • 22:14

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: It's when the kids are at 6th grade or 7th grade, those kidswith college plans, those are the plans thatare going to pay off over time.So, again, understanding how earlier parts of educationalexperiences plant seeds for later parts of educationexperiences, I think is really important.[To what extent does it matter for parents to be involvedin students' higher education decisions?]

    • 22:36

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: That's a hard question to answer in a reallyrigorous sharp empirical way.But my intuition is that it matters an awful lot.So there's an idea that knocks aroundin sociology and sociology of education quite a bitcalled habitus.It came from a French sociologistnamed Pierre Bourdieu.

    • 22:56

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And the idea was what matters, so much of the time,can't be expressed in words.Let's say that.It's an understanding of the rules of the game.That's what habitus means.And that's something that you can't tell kids.You can't you can't give kids a piece of paper that

    • 23:17

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: says college is important for XY and Z,and this is where you want to go, and so on.Actually, doing all that stuff seemsto actually make a difference, but it'snothing like having college be in the air,in the milk you drink as a kid, and sort of forming the way youthink about yourself.

    • 23:38

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: And you encounter students who arecomfortable coming to your office hoursor coming up after to talk to you after class.And it's not polite to inquire about their family backgrounds,but it's fairly easy to infer that those kids are notthe first kids in their families to have gone to college.Or if they are, they've had some very special mentoringalong the way.And then you encounter kids sometimes who are doing great,

    • 24:00

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: but who are just distant and who don't feel like it's their jobto relate to you.And it becomes really disturbing whenyou encounter kids who are struggling, but areafraid to ask.So I had a student who-- I don't evenknow how I found out that there was a death in the family.She had missed a midterm and she wasn't going to show up.

    • 24:21

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: She just missed the midterm.And I was able to chase her down and Iwas lucky enough to learn that there was a problem.It's like, OK, we can solve this problem.You can take the midterm.But it's sort of a haunting thingto realize that there are probably15 or 20 other students who had real legitimate reasons whoI wasn't able to reach, but who didn'thave that cultural capital to understand that I actually dowant to hear from you.

    • 24:43

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: I am kind of working for you.It's just a completely different relationship with learning,but it comes out of those early childhood experiences.[How do you think about the public impact of your ownresearch, and how do you assess the contribution of inequalityand education research to society?]I guess I do this work because I hope

    • 25:05

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: that I can find ways to move policy in the right direction.And I don't think that, , really,my work in particular has a huge amount of public impact.And I think there are two reasons why.One is this stuff is hard.And so to have an impact, you have to have an answer.You have to have a clear, crisp answer.And most of the time, I don't, not one

    • 25:27

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: that I'm confident enough to go and rallyaround people to try to get.I'm not even sure-- I have an intuitionthat increasing school funding ought to help, for example,the research isn't at all clear on that.Class size seems to be good-- but anyway,so the point is, there's a ton of uncertainty there.The other thing, though, is I thinkthat often the policymakers and the public

    • 25:51

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: are only paying attention intermittently.And so when, for people like me whoare interested in doing work thathas a public impact, what we kind of hopefor is that we've been lucky enough to study somethingand to really learn something important about a subjectthat some day, at some moment, for some strange reason,people are going to be really obsessed with

    • 26:11

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: and they're going to be really interested in.So the people who are studying school violence, for example,they were obscure.And then Eric Klebold and Dylan Harris go shooting up peopleand suddenly everybody wants to know about school violence.And at that point, it's unfortunatethat there weren't more people whoknew more because at that moment,people wanted to learn about that.So you just do your work about what you think matters

    • 26:32

      THURSTON DOMINA [continued]: as best you can in the hopes that the moment in which youcan insert it in the conversation comes around.[MUSIC PLAYING]

Thurston Domina Discusses Inequality & Education

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Dr. Thurston Domina discusses inequality and education, particularly how education reinforces and builds inequalities. He highlights research that has had an impact outside of the field, and describes the challenges of studying the sociology of education.

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Thurston Domina Discusses Inequality & Education

Dr. Thurston Domina discusses inequality and education, particularly how education reinforces and builds inequalities. He highlights research that has had an impact outside of the field, and describes the challenges of studying the sociology of education.

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