Education May Never Be “Great Equalizer,” But Must Model Equity

Model and actress, Emily Ratajkowski gained fame from a misogynistic and exploitive music video, but has since emerged as a complicated and important feminist voice confronting the sexualizing of women and body shaming.

Ratajkowski’s Instagram account mainly offers personal and professional photographs of Ratajkowski in various states of undress, but she is also prone to using that platform for the occasional political message.

Recently, she posted a grainy photo of crudely taped note challenging dress codes in schools for discriminating against females; as the note states, “INSTEAD OF SHAMING GIRLS FOR THEIR BODIES, TEACH BOYS THAT GIRLS ARE NOT SEXUAL OBJECTS.”

I shared this on social media myself, and encountered a number of not surprising responses — many of which where the typical “but” offered by men when sexism is exposed.

The central message of the note posted by Ratajkowski is both well documented [1] and urgent in terms of the essential inequity found in many traditional school policies such as dress codes and disciplinary guidelines and outcomes: Dress codes are sexist and school discipline (notably suspension and expulsion) is racist — paralleling the same inequities in U.S. society.

School dress codes and discipline policies, then, represent the tragic failure of claiming that formal education in the U.S. is the “great equalizer.”

Not only is that claim untrue, but also the reality of how formal education reflects and perpetuate social inequities is even more damning.

And while a strong case can be made for reforming traditional public education so that school can be the “great equalizer,” I remain skeptical that school reform alone will ever reach this ideal.

In short, we need public policy that directly confronts the cancers of racism, classism, and sexism — the great inequities that thrive in the U.S.

But my skepticism doesn’t justify ignoring the equally great failures of public education. At the very least, we must create a public education system that is a model for the sort of equity we envision in our so-called free nation.

Dress codes that place burdens disproportionately on females are entrenching sexism, body shaming, and rape culture (for an extreme version, consider the lack of institutional care at Baylor University), school discipline practices that initiate and parallel the racially inequitable criminal justice system — these are but two, although significant, examples of how public schooling remains trapped in an accountability paradigm that neither recognizes nor corrects inequity because standards and high-stakes testing are themselves inequitable, teacher assignment is inequitable, tracking and gate-keeping of advanced courses are inequitable, charter schools and school choice are inequitable, and grade-retention is inequitable.

Dress codes may seem to be a somewhat insignificant but necessary part of formal education, but, in fact, dress codes are ugly reminders that we have failed to create schools that model the type of fair and just world to which we aspire.

For Ratajkowski, her own feminism may have ironically begun because of the exact failures of these attitude:

In eighth grade, a vice principal snapped my bra strap in front of an entire room of my classmates and other teachers. She did it because the strap was falling out from my tank top and that broke the school’s dress code.

The institutional shaming of young girls is the seed of misogyny and rape culture just as the disproportionate criminalizing of young black males and females in school discipline codes is the seed of mass incarceration.

If our education system cannot be the “great equalizer,” it must at least be a model of a fair and just way of being.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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