Why are some students more successful in school than others?

A discussion of the causes of student success and failure in school can be set in the context of some of the primary sociological theories relevant to education. These theories provide different views and assumptions about the processes and purposes of education, and they overlap, agreeing on some points, and disagreeing on others. Subjectively, each theory is more or less cynical, useful, and realistic than its competition. My own impression of these theories is undoubtedly colored by my own personal experiences as a white, middle-aged, male native of Southern California: I have found being a student relatively painless and being a teacher extremely challenging in many different ways.

Sociologists who subscribe to a functionalist theory would say that schools in the 20th century took over the role of socializers of the young, roles which had previously been held by families and churches; that is, “educational systems [are] one of the structures which carry out the function of transmission of attitudes, values, skills, and norms from one generation to another” (DeMarrais & LeCompte, 1999). Historically, functionalism is consistent with the educational systems proposed by such important figures as Horace Mann – whose Common Schools were established across the U.S. to “train citizens” – and Thomas Jefferson – who envisioned articulated educational systems which would select and train leaders. A major source of conflict intrinsic to the functionalism of Mann and Jefferson is the presumption that there could be a single consensus on what information is to be passed along to the next generation.

The tension between the ideal of a single static national consensus and the reality of a dynamic, multicultural society is at the core of analyses of education through the lens of “Conflict theory.” Conflict theory affirms the social systems of functionalism while acknowledging and addressing the tension inherent in those systems. Marxism is the best-known of the Conflict theories which developed in the years before World War I. According to DeMarrais & LeComte, “Inequality of property or of resource distribution, then, is the major source of conflict in societies. Insofar as schools are intimately linked to future economic opportunities, they too are institutions in which social conflict is played out.” Conflict theorists looked at inequality in society, and the obvious incentive that the elite have in retaining power, and decided that schools were part of the problem rather than part of the solution. As described by DeMarrais & LeComte, “Schools tend to magnify class differences by sorting individuals into occupational niches, not so much by their ability as by their social class origins. Thus children from middle- or upper-class families are thought to be more able and so are pushed toward professional or other desirable careers.”

Having identified the problem – the educational system as a tool used by the dominant class to retain power – how do the Conflict theorists propose to fix it? “Their view is a pessimistic one, giving no consideration to how individuals could interact to ameliorate or alter the constraints of the system” (DeMarrais & LeComte). A third category of social theorists addressed this during the 20th century. “Critical theory” analyzes sources of oppression, with special focus on the successes and failures of previous social theories to understand society. Critical theorists see themselves as unobjective advocates who hope to actually solve some of society’s inequities, an activist rather than deterministic viewpoint (in special contrast to Marxism).

From my experience in the classroom, class differences are magnified throughout the school day. Students who are learning English, students who have unstable home lives, students from families with low socioeconomic status, students of color, and female students all have disadvantages when compared with white middle-class male students. (Obviously, not all teachers are white middle-class males. I’m using this example because [1] I am, and [2] it represents the difference between many teen-agers, who by definition are uneducated and underage, and the teachers and administrators who make decisions on their behalf.) Conflict theory perfectly describes what can occur in a classroom and in a school in general if teachers and administrators are ignorant, thoughtless, or lazy: white men use the language of educated adults to speak to those students already comfortable with that language (a minority of the classroom), to the exclusion of the others.

Ultimately, no high school students are white, middle-class men, and to the extent that they differ from that model of the entrenched dominant class, these students have the potential to feel alienated in a classroom led by a teacher who is a member of the elite. By alienating his students, a teacher can be the direct cause of poor attendance, distraction, antagonism, and despair, all of which can contribute to students’ failure in the classroom.

My own maturation over the three years I’ve spent becoming a teacher has been marked by a growth in classroom-management skills. The few students who have succeeded have done so, I realize now, in spite of me. Before I began to appreciate the fact that most of the students I know do not show up the first day with the same expectations that I had, I alienated many of my students, with techniques exactly as described in “Framing Dropouts” (Fine, 1991):


Tension, referrals out, and arguments persisted throughout the semester. Attendance didn’t. … Ms. Parnell’s class suffered from the typical air of silencing – competition, pitting student against student, pinches of sarcasm, and comments of humiliation. … To the extent that community was formed in this class, it was antagonistic to the teacher and learning, not nurtured through trust and educating.


In the last year, I have deliberately tried to change the tone of my conversations in the classroom so that they are helpful rather than antagonistic. I now begin all conversations that address classroom behavior with a secret admonition to myself: “Say what behavior you saw, what you expect, why you expect it, and then start a discussion about the student’s motivation for the behavior under discussion and how that student can be motivated to change his or her behavior.”

The question “Why are some students more successful in school than others?” can be read as being about relatively minor differences in success – an native speaker of English compared to an English learner in a math class, for example, who picks up an algorithm perfectly but misses some of the fine details such as vocabulary and exceptions – but if can also be about huge differences in success. The biggest question of success is whether or not a student actually graduates from high school. As described in “Framing Dropouts” (Fine, 1991) some high schools seem to pick out the most troublesome students and repeatedly and creatively try to push them out of school. Fine describes an interview with the administrators and counselors at an inner-city high school where it appeared that the school was aware of students’ rights not to be permanently discharged but that they were hiding this fact from the students. During the conversation, a counselor confirmed this impression:


What [Fine] is saying is true. We do throw students out of here for no good reasons. They feel terrible. We deny them their education. Black kids especially. They care a lot.


Education codes in most states provide an elaborate system of notifications and interviews designed to keep students from frivolously dropping out. If we are serious about retaining students, the adults in the educational system need to make this message clear at all levels, in our words and in our actions, throughout the school year.


DeMarrais, K.B., & LeCompte, M.D. (1999). The way schools work: A sociological analysis of education (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.

Fine, M. (1991). Framing dropouts: Notes on the politics of an urban public high school. Albany: State University of New York Press.




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