Social inequalities in education are not set in stone

by Carlos González-Sancho
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

Most people see social inequities in education as stubbornly persistent. Children of wealthy and highly educated parents tend to do better in school than children from less-privileged families. Even though historic progress has been made in providing schooling that is universal and free-of-charge, disparities in families’ capacity to support their children (including by getting them into good schools) continue to translate into differences in children’s achievements. And with income inequality at its highest level in 30 years, the socio-economic disparities between families have widened. For instance, today in OECD countries, the richest 10% of the population earns about 10 times the income of the poorest 10%, while in the 1980s this ratio stood at 7 to 1. The growing gap between rich and poor can lead to greater differences in education opportunities because, as income inequality increases, disadvantaged families find it more difficult to secure quality education for their children.

Given all this, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see a change for the worse in equity in education, particularly in OECD countries, over the past decade.

But contrary to that expectation, as this month’s PISA in Focus reports, over the past ten years, equity in education improved in 11 PISA-participating countries and economies, and on average across OECD countries. Between PISA 2006 and PISA 2015, the evolution of several equity indicators was predominantly positive. Take, for example, the indicator that measures how well a student’s socio-economic status predicts his or her performance (what PISA terms the strength of the socio-economic gradient). Over the past decade, the socio-economic gradient weakened by 1 percentage point on average across OECD countries, but by between 6 and 7 percentage points in Bulgaria, Chile, Thailand and the United States, and by between 2 and 6 percentage points in Brazil, Denmark, Germany, Iceland, Mexico, Montenegro and Slovenia.

PISA can also contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms through which equity evolves. A sign that greater equity is mainly benefiting disadvantaged students is the increasing proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who beat the odds against them and perform at high levels (students whom PISA calls “resilient”). Between 2006 and 2015, the percentage of resilient students increased by 12 percentage points in the United States, and by between 4 and 9 points in Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany and Slovenia.

You can also get an idea of how performance among children of blue- and white-collar parents has evolved by using the new PISA trends in occupations tool. The tool allows users to visualise trends in the relationship between parents’ occupations and children’s performance between 2006 and 2015. Navigating this tool, you can discover, for instance, that in the United States during that period, children of blue-collar parents (e.g. craft workers, plant and machine operators) narrowed the gap in science achievement with children of white-collar parents (managers, professionals, technicians).

What lies behind this improvement in equity? Education policy. Policies that minimise any adverse impact of students’ socio-economic status on their school outcomes include targeting additional resources to schools with high concentrations of low-performing and disadvantaged students, and ensuring that high and consistent teaching and learning standards are applied across all classrooms. Broader social policies to reduce differences in early life experiences between advantaged and disadvantaged children can also promote both equity and high performance when these children enter formal education.

PISA shows that countries can move from relative inequity in education to the OECD average level of equity in the span of just 10 years – as Bulgaria, Chile, Germany and the United States did between 2006 and 2015. Rather than assuming that inequality of opportunity is set in stone, school systems can design policies with the understanding that they can become more equitable in a relatively short time.

PISA in Focus No. 68: Where did equity in education improve over the past decade?
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education
PISA 2015 Results (Volume II): Policies and Practices for Successful Schools
In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All
PISA trends in occupations tool, developed by Przemyslaw Biecek, a former Thomas J. Alexander fellow.

Photo credit: Start Ambition @shutterstock 

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