Spread the wealth, reap the benefits

by Marilyn Achiron, 
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Quick: Who has more up-to-date textbooks: students in wealthier schools or students in poorer schools? Actually, it depends where you live. As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, not only are some countries better than others in allocating their educational resources more equitably across schools, but students in these countries generally perform better in mathematics.

PISA 2012 asked school principals to report whether teacher shortages, or shortages or inadequacy of physical infrastructure or instructional materials, like textbooks, hindered their school’s ability to provide instruction. PISA found that while disadvantaged schools benefit from investments in smaller classes, they are also more likely to suffer from teacher shortages and inadequate instructional materials than advantaged schools. In general, schools with more socio-economically disadvantaged students tend to have less adequate resources than schools with more advantaged students.

It may come as a surprise, but according to PISA data, the United States is the second least-equitable OECD country, after Mexico, in the allocation of educational resources. One in four disadvantaged students in the United States attends a school whose principal reported that a shortage or inadequacy of science laboratory equipment hindered – to some extent or a lot – the school’s capacity to provide instruction. Meanwhile, only around one in seven advantaged students in the United States attends such a school. The differences between advantaged and disadvantaged schools are even starker among Latin American countries, including the OECD countries Chile and Mexico. For example, fewer than one in two disadvantaged students, but more than three in four advantaged students, in Mexico attend schools that have adequate instructional materials.

Apart from making a huge difference to individual students, inequity in resource allocation has an impact on a country’s overall performance in PISA. After taking into account countries’ relative wealth, 19% of the variation in mathematics performance across all the countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012 can be explained by differences in principals’ responses to questions about the adequacy of science laboratory equipment, instructional materials, computers for instruction, Internet connectivity, computer software for instruction, and library materials. At least 30% of the variation in mathematics performance across OECD countries can be explained by how equitably resources are allocated across all schools.

PISA has consistently found that, when it comes to education, money isn’t everything, and that beyond a certain minimum level of expenditure per student, how the money is spent is more important than how much money is spent. When money is translated into such tangibles as up-to-date textbooks, reliable Internet access, and a school library full of books, spreading the wealth evenly across all schools, regardless of their socio-economic profile, gives all students, not just those in the wealthiest schools, the nourishment they need to succeed.

PISA 2012 Findings
PISA in Focus No. 44: How is equity in resource allocation related to student performance?
PISA in Focus No. 44 (French version)
Photo credit: Teenager students outside protecting their heads from a rain of books / @Shutterstock

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