Schooled and Sorted

How Educational Categories Create Inequality
Thurston Domina
Andrew M. Penner
Emily K. Penner
Paperback or Ebook
6.00 x9.00 in.
294 pages
June, 2023

"This highly accessible and engaging book is rich with sociological insight. While recognizing the inevitable sorting role of schools, the authors offer a creative road map towards a more equitable future in education—and in life."
—ADAM GAMORAN, president, William T. Grant Foundation

"We all know that schools sort kids into good and bad jobs. This elegant little book reminds us that schools are also relentless categorizers inside their gates: the free-lunch kids learn they’re poor, the honors kids learn they’re special, and the ‘first years’ learn they’re far from first. Schooled and Sorted makes a brilliant case for regaining control over the categories that define our children’s lives."
—DAVID B. GRUSKY, Edward Ames Edmond Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and director, Center on Poverty and Inequality, Stanford University

"Schooled and Sorted makes a convincing case that it takes more than just skill-building curricula and effective teachers for a school to provide its students with ladders to the middle class. When schools also make well-intentioned efforts to boost achievement and motivate students by grouping or categorizing them, the results can be counterproductive. This book explains why and what can be done about them."
—GREG J. DUNCAN, distinguished professor, School of Education and Departments of Economics (by courtesy) and Psychology and Social Behavior (by courtesy), University of California at Irvine

We tend to view education primarily as a way to teach students skills and knowledge that they will draw upon as they move into their adult lives. However, schools do more than educate students – they also place students into categories, such as kindergartner, English language learner, or honor roll student. In Schooled and Sorted, Thurston Domina, Andrew M. Penner, and Emily K. Penner, explore processes of educational categorization in order to explain the complex relationship between education and social inequality – and to identify strategies that can help build more just educational systems. 

Some educational categories have broadly egalitarian consequences. Indeed, Domina, Penner, and Penner argue that when societies enroll young people in school, making them students, they mark them as individuals who are worthy of rights. But other educational categories reinforce powerful social categories – including race, gender, and class – and ultimately reproduce social and economic inequality in society. Elite colleges, tracked high schools, and elementary school gifted programs provide not only different educational experiences, but also create merit and inequality by sorting students into categories that are defined by the students who are excluded.

Schooled & Sorted highlights that many of the decisions that define educational categories occur in school-based committee meetings and other relatively local settings. The local nature of these decisions provides many opportunities to define educational categories differently, and for school communities to bring about change. 

Schooled & Sorted is an illuminating investigation into the ways sorting within schools translates into inequality in the larger world. While some educational categorization may be unavoidable, the authors suggest ways to build a more equitable system – and thus a more equitable society.

THURSTON DOMINA is Robert Wendell Eaves Sr. Distinguished Professor in Educational Leadership, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
ANDREW M. PENNER is a professor of sociology, University of California, Irvine
EMILY K. PENNER is associate professor of education, University of California, Irvine


Join our mailing list for email updates.

Related Publications

  • The Asian American Achievement Paradox

    Jennifer Lee

    An in-depth investigation that bridges sociology and social psychology to explain how immigration laws, institutions, and culture interact to foster high achievement among certain Asian American groups

  • Bridging the Gaps

    College Pathways to Career Success
    James E. Rosenbaum

    Bridging the Gaps evaluates the shortcomings and successes of community colleges and shows how these institutions can promote alternatives to BAs and traditional college procedures to increase graduation rates and improve job payoffs.