Failed mission: How schools worsen inequality

September 30, 2015

Math-PISA-SchmidtSchooling plays a surprisingly large role in shortchanging the nation’s poorest students of critical math skills, according to a massive new study led by a Michigan State University education scholar.

Unequal access to rigorous mathematics content is widening the gap in performance on a prominent international math literacy test between low- and high-income students, not only in the United States but in countries worldwide.

The study, published in the journal Educational Researcher, is one of the first global investigations into the role of classroom content coverage on education inequality and involved data from more than 300,000 students in 62 countries.

“The belief that schools are the great equalizer, helping students overcome the inequalities of poverty, is a myth,” said William Schmidt, University Distinguished professor of statistics and education at MSU and lead investigator on the study.

William Schmidt

William Schmidt

Schmidt and colleagues from MSU and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, analyzed Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math literacy scores for 15-year-old students. The international test, coordinated by OECD, is given every three years to measure literacy in math.

The researchers found not only that low-income students are more likely to be exposed to weaker math content in schools, but also that a substantial share of the difference in math performance between rich and poor students is related to this inequality. This school inequality is part of a larger socioeconomic performance gap that also includes the students’ home background.

In the United States, the school inequality gap was 37 percent, meaning that more than a third of the disadvantage in math performance for poor students was due to inequalities in math coverage. Internationally, the gap was 32 percent.

“I am struck by the fact that more than a third of the inequality in performance comes from an opportunity gap, suggesting that schools in America appear to not believe that poor kids can achieve math literacy,” said co-author Richard Houang, also a researcher in the College of Education’s Center for the Study of Curriculum.

The school inequality gap ranged from a high of nearly 58 percent in the Netherlands to a low of less than 10 percent in Iceland and Sweden. Of the 33 countries, only 10 fared worse than the United States’ 37 percent. (See Table below for complete OECD country listing.)

The study, Schmidt said, supports previous findings that affluent students are consistently provided with greater opportunity to learn more rigorous content, and that students who are exposed to higher-level math have a better ability to apply it to real-world situations of adult life, such as calculating interest and estimating the required amount of carpeting for a room.

“But now we know just how important content inequality is in contributing to performance gaps between privileged and underprivileged students,” he said.

Schmidt noted that math literacy is a critical gate for leaving school and entering the workforce or going onto college.

“The difference between poor and affluent children on this test is important because the mission of schools to educate everyone has long been held as the leveling force in achieving social mobility,” Schmidt said. “Because of the special value that schools impart in society, their failure, to offer the same opportunity, for students to learn useful math skills, is a problem demanding attention.”

As the United States continues lagging behind many other countries in math and science, domestic policy often focuses on “good schools” versus “failing schools.” But Schmidt said this approach might be too narrow. The study found that most of the variation in student performance occurs within – and not between – schools.

“Because of school differences in content exposure for low- and high-income students in this country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” said Schmidt.

In addition to Houang, Schmidt’s co-authors were Nathan Burroughs from MSU and Pablo Zoido from OECD.

This story, written by Andy Henion, was originally posted on MSU Today; find it here. The news was also released today by the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

Percentage of Total Social-economic Inequality Contributed
by Unequal Access to Rigorous Mathematics

Rank COUNTRY % Contributed
1 Netherlands 58%
2 Korea 56%
3 Australia 52%
4 Austria 47%
4 United Kingdom 47%
6 Belgium 43%
6 Germany 43%
6 Japan 43%
9 Spain 42%
10 New Zealand 40%
11 Canada 37%
11 United States 37%
13 Czech Republic 36%
14 Ireland 35%
14 Italy 35%
16 France 34%
17 Finland 32%
17 Switzerland 32%
19 Slovak Republic 31%
20 Hungary 30%
21 Chile 29%
22 Denmark 26%
23 Mexico 25%
24 Luxembourg 24%
25 Israel 23%
25 Portugal 23%
27 Slovenia 20%
27 Turkey 20%
29 Estonia 16%
29 Poland 16%
31 Greece 13%
32 Iceland 9%
33 Sweden 1%
  OECD Average 32%