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Stat of the Month Issue 1

In every newsletter, we will highlight a particular set of international education statistics.  In this newsletter, we focus on the most recent OECD statistics relating reading ability to students’ socioeconomic background and the socioeconomic background of the other students in the school.  The question of particular interest is the degree to which socioeconomic background predicts student academic performance.  This material is based on the OECD publication, PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background—Volume II.

Socioeconomic background, as OECD defines that term, refers to the characteristics of a student’s family that describe its social, economic and cultural status.  It includes the occupational status of the father or mother, whichever is higher; the level of education of the mother or father, whichever is higher, converted into years of education; and a measure of family wealth which is constructed on the basis of the families’ home possessions, including books.

It turns out that socioeconomic background does not have to determine a student’s academic achievement.  In fact, OECD reports, “[T]he mean index of socioeconomic background is almost identical for the country with the lowest mean reading performance, Kyrgyzstan, and the economy with the highest mean reading performance, Shanghai-China.”

Nor is it necessarily the case that wide disparities in socioeconomic background in a country are matched by equally wide disparities in student achievement:  “equity in the distribution of learning opportunities is only weakly associated with a country’s underlying income inequality . . . [I]n general, cross-national differences in equalities of performance are associated more closely with the characteristics of the education system than with the underlying social inequalities or measures of economic development.”

This is, of course, heartening news for educators.  It means that one’s socioeconomic status is not destiny; education can make a big difference.  It can greatly reduce the differences in student academic achievement that might otherwise be the result of differences in socioeconomic status.  If that is true, then it is also true that differences in the design of national education systems results in real differences in the degree to which education can help students overcome initial differences in parents’ education and family wealth.

One of the most interesting OECD findings has to do with the difference that the socioeconomic background of the students in a school makes in the academic performance of the students in that school. “[R]egardless of their own socioeconomic background, students attending school in which the average socioeconomic background is advantageous tend to perform better than when they are enrolled in a school with a disadvantaged socioeconomic intake.”  In fact, the relationship between the socioeconomic status of the students in a school and their academic performance is stronger than the relationship between an individual student’s socioeconomic status and that student’s academic performance in the same school.

As the authors of the PISA volume point out, this should not surprise us.  Schools serving students from more advantaged families are more likely to have better teachers, a more challenging curriculum, higher teacher morale, fewer disciplinary problems, better teacher-student relations, and so on.

But the influence of a school’s socioeconomic performance on student achievement is not the same for all countries, a fact that is clearly demonstrated by the chart above.  The chart displays the variation in reading performance explained by schools’ socioeconomic background in PISA 2009, expressed as a percentage of the average variance in student performance in OECD countries.   It displays the data for the United States and the top ten performers. For the rest of the list of nations and their performance on this index, see the OECD volume referenced above, Figure 11.5.4.

The OECD document provides a clue concerning one source of these differences.  In the countries in which school socioeconomic background is a more powerful predictor of student academic performance, schools are more likely to be segregated by the socioeconomic background of the students they serve; there are fewer schools serving students of mixed socioeconomic background and more serving students of a homogenous socioeconomic background.  But the authors of the OECD document point out that there are many other aspects of the design of national education systems that also influence the degree to which school and student socioeconomic background predict student academic performance.