Our guest author today is William Schmidt, a University Distinguished Professor and co-director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University. He is also a member of the Shanker Institute board of directors.
It is no secret that disadvantaged students are more likely to struggle in school. For decades now, public policy has focused on how to reduce the achievement gap between poorer and more affluent students. Despite numerous reform efforts, these gaps remain virtually unchanged – a fact that is deeply frustrating, and also a little confusing. It would be reasonable to assume that background inequalities would shrink over the years of schooling, but that’s not what we find. At age eighteen, rather, we find differences that are roughly the same size as we see at age six.
Does this mean that schools can’t effectively address inequality? Certainly not. I devoted a whole book to the subject, Inequality for All, in which I argued that one of the key factors driving inequality in schools is unequal opportunity to learn, or OTL.
It is very unlikely that students will learn material they are not exposed to, and there is considerable evidence that disadvantaged students are systematically tracked into classrooms with weaker content. Rather than mitigating the effects of poverty, many American schools are exacerbating them.
Previous work in this area has been limited by the data, but the most recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) study included student-level measures of mathematics OTL in some 60 countries, including the United States. The 2012 PISA provides powerful evidence for inequality in OTL and its relationship to student performance: that there is massive variation in exposure to mathematics content; that OTL is strongly related to student performance; and that lower-income students are generally exposed to less rigorous mathematics content. It’s not just that poorer students are less well prepared when they enter school – the weakness of their mathematics coursework prevents them from catching up.
Although it’s nice to see further support for what I argued in Inequality for All, what is truly fascinating about the PISA results is that this is a global phenomenon. In every country, more exposure to mathematics content was related to greater mathematics literacy, and in almost every country there was a significant relationship between student background and OTL. In other words, the problem we identified in the U.S. turns out to be a problem everywhere.
One of the interesting results of the PISA was that most of the variation in student performance was within schools rather than between them. Here in the United States, we’re accustomed to talking about “failing schools” and “good schools.” According to the PISA, this perspective is not just wrong, it’s profoundly wrong. On average nearly two-thirds of the differences in student achievement in mathematics are found in the same school, not in different schools. The U.S. does stand out, but not how you’d expect – here it’s more like three quarters. The issue appears to be less unequal schools than unequal classrooms.
These are exciting findings, ones that should make us re-consider our approach to educational reform. Educational inequality is not a U.S.-specific problem, but some educational systems do a much better job than we do in coping with effects of poverty. More importantly, what’s taught in the classroom has a critical role to play – a fact that has received far too little attention in our era of systemic educational change.
- Bill Schmidt