September 30, 2015

Are American Schools Making Inequality Worse?

(September 30, 2015)  The answer appears to be yes. Schooling plays a surprisingly large role in short-changing the nation’s most economically disadvantaged students of critical math skills, according to a study published today in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Findings from the study indicate that 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.

Using data from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), researchers from Michigan State University and OECD confirmed 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 gap in math performance between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students is related to those curricular inequalities.

The authors—William H. Schmidt, Nathan Burroughs, and Richard Houang, all of Michigan State University, and Pablo Zoido, of OECD—found that in almost every one of the 62 countries examined, including the United States, a significant amount was added to the social class-related performance gap because of what students studied in schools. The 2012 PISA was the first international study to include student-level indicators of exposure to math content. The authors relied on data from more than 300,000 students, who ranged in age from 15 years and 3 months to 16 years and 2 months.

“Our findings support previous research by showing 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 addressing real-world situations of contemporary adult life, such as calculating interest, discounts, and estimating the required amount of carpeting for a room,” said Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor of Statistics and Education at Michigan State University. “But now we know just how important content inequality is in contributing to performance gaps between privileged and underprivileged students.”

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