Daniel Little, Education as a leveler:
The role of education in social inequalities is difficult to assess, because it seems to have contradictory tendencies. On the one hand, improving access to education at all levels — from elementary school to graduate school — levels the playing field because it enhances the ability of everyone affected to realize their human talents and to pursue their goals with a greater foundation of cognitive and mental skills. Closing the literacy gap, the numeracy gap, or the technology gap across all of society gives the previously disadvantaged population a better chance to compete for success in seeking employment or creating other economic and social benefits for themselves and their families. Traditional sources of social inequality — positions of privilege in social hierarchies, privileged access to political benefits, disproportionate ownership of land and other forms of productive property — are to some extent blunted by a greater degree of equality of access to good schooling and the knowledge and skills it provides. So we might say that improving the quality and reach of a society’s educational system should be expected to reduce existing inequalities.
On the other hand, access to education amplifies everyone’s talents — elite and disadvantaged alike. And more importantly, education proceeds through specific, concrete social institutions — schools and universities — and the quality and effectiveness of these educational institutions varies enormously across the face of a complex society. It is possible — perhaps likely — that these variations in quality will correspond to populations and neighborhoods in ways that align with patterns of prior advantage and disadvantage. So it is likely that we will have high-quality, effective schools providing education to advantaged groups; and low-quality drop-out factories providing education to the disadvantaged institutions. In this case, the education system might actually have the effect of deepening and entrenching the social inequalities that exist across groups.