Functionalism and The Hidden Curriculum

It’s no secret that schools in the United States remain grossly unequal and segregated along race and class lines. Yes, even in 2015, our schools are as segregated as ever. Kozol exposed some of the deplorable conditions in high-needs urban schools in his 1992 Savage Inequalities, and countless authors have followed suit, showing that little has improved since the early nineties. To help our struggling, high-needs, underfunded schools, we have to think about what the purpose of schools should be? Are schools supposed to develop critical thinkers, hard workers or informed consumers?  The functionalist view of education says that schools should train students to become productive workers and consumers in the American economy and, to some extent, our schools have operated under this way of thinking (Feinberg & Soltis, 2009). After all, isn’t the point of going to school to get a good job? However, who is being prepared for what roles in society?



Schools continue to be unequal, not just in funding and resources, but curriculum as well. Source:


Feinberg and Soltis discuss the “hidden curriculum” of schools by citing a study by Jean Anyon (1980) which investigated five elementary school classrooms and found that working class students faced strict rules and were taught to respect authority, the characteristics necessary for a working class job. Meanwhile, upper-middle class students were taught independent thinking and developing their own values system. The curriculums in these schools pushed students to stay within their social class, contrasting the idea of schools as equalizers. Noting that Anyon’s study is not necessarily comprehensive, Feinberg and Soltis expand her findings and use other authors such as Rist  to discuss how teachers classify students:

Teachers tend to classify students very early in their school life on the basis of nonacademic attributes, such as neatness of dress, and then…treat the students according to these classifications. Teachers will tend to interact much more frequently with those students who come to school well groomed and will give much more attention to their academic work (pp. 59).



It appears that teachers don’t always follow the Golden Rule and track students by uncontrollable characteristics. Source: picture


This is unfair tracking. Regardless of how you feel about tracking (honors, ‘normal’, remedial, etc.), a student’s track should not depend on nonacademic factors that are likely outside of the student’s control. In fact, the students who are classified as not caring about school should get extra support and attention since they may not be getting the necessary support at home due to parents working or other reasons outside student or family control. This classification completely undermines the idea of schools as equalizing, because the students who need the most care and attention get the least. Classifying and functionalism work hand-in-hand because students who are classified as uncaring or not fit for school are seen as less able to contribute to the economy and are prepared for lower-level jobs.

How am I Part of This System?

As a teacher: Obviously, the best thing I can do as a teacher to combat the hidden curriculum is to not classify students based on how they are dressed or how much they appear to care about school. When there can be up to 30 students in a classroom, this may be easier said than done. Therefore, I feel I must go beyond not classifying, and challenge the functionalist idea that schools should prepare students to be productive members of the economy. I want my students to be informed, critical thinkers who can begin to understand and address the inequality they may be faced with. A high school diploma is not enough to improve one’s social standing (especially when that high school prepared you for a working class job); one has to actually understand the institutional processes that lead to such inequality in the first place. Additionally, the teacher in a high-needs school should go beyond emulating upper-middle class functionalist schools. I want my students to care about what they are learning because it interests them, not just because it may get them a good job. Then, hopefully, the students who would otherwise be classified as not caring about school will find a reason to enjoy school and find it worthwhile (which can also reduce dropout/pushout rates and the need for discipline in the classroom).

As a student: As I reflect on my own schooling experience, I realize that I was and continue to be a product of functionalist, upper-middle class schooling that has prepared me to get a “good” job. My high school and college have definitely empowered me to form my own opinions and think about society critically but, ultimately, the end goal is a job. Of course, a job is pretty necessary to sustain oneself, but my education should not just be a race toward an economically-satisfying finish; I should be studying things I care about and can help myself and others. To some extent, I think I have found this in teaching and the Educational Studies department at Colgate, where my learning truly feels meaningful. However, with Colgate’s strong alumni network and Center for Career Services, I have to make sure I don’t get caught up in following what sounds most economically lucrative. Rather, I plan to use these resources to find teaching positions that allow me to combat the functionalist view of schooling and empower others to do the same.

Overall, the functionalist view of schooling is inherently flawed because it simply reproduces social classes. Additionally, the ways we classify students makes social mobility even more difficult. Teachers must give students the tools they need to think beyond the job market and find what they are passionate about. Yes, jobs are important, but the students who are least likely to have a “good” job are the ones who are least supported by functionalist schools. Focusing only on the job light at the end of the education tunnel does nothing for high-needs students; we have to try something else.


One thought on “Functionalism and The Hidden Curriculum

  1. As Feinberg and Soltis: We think what you’re talking about here fits more with the conflict theorists’ perspective. Yes, functionalists see schools as a medium of socialization, which creates the different classes of, for example, workers who can follow directions and of free, critical thinkers. In functionalist’s perspective, the driving force behind educational change and education in general is social integration and technological development. Conflict theorists see schools as important tools in the struggle between different groups in society for power and status. They believe, like you’ve stated, that schools serve to reproduce attitudes and dispositions that continues the system that privileges the dominant group (by teaching the privileged how to think critically and others how to listen and follow directions).


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