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Sept. 30, 2015

Failed mission: How schools worsen inequality

Schooling 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.

Schmidt and colleagues from MSU and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, analyzed Program for International Student Assessment 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 MSU researcher Richard Houang, a co-author.

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. Only 10 countries fared worse than the United States.

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 work force 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.