Is schoolwork worsening educational inequality?

The OECD education blog caught our eye (again) this week as it declared that “schools were making inequality worse”.  Though it received very little press coverage, it covered a report which was just as troubling as the main OECD report that caused such a splash last month.

Studies have long questioned whether schools have the ability to overcome or mitigate students’ unequal background conditions.  Factors such as teacher quality, school funding and privatisation have been explored but in general, classroom and homework content and materials have been absent from these discussions.  A team from Michigan State University used the OECD PISA 2012 maths data to address this.

They focused on the “opportunity to learn” (OTL) metric, the proposition that a student’s ability to learn a subject is dependent on whether and for how long they are exposed to it.  Studies in maths and the sciences have proven that more frequent exposure to maths and science ideas directly relates to higher student achievement.

The study concluded not only that low-income students are likely to be exposed to less maths content in schools, but also that the gap in maths performance between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students is substantially down to this frequency of exposure (to maths topics and ideas).  Professor William Schmidt said “our findings support previous research by showing that affluent students are consistently provided with greater opportunity to learn more rigorous content, and that students who are exposed to higher-level maths have a better ability to apply it to real-world situations of contemporary adult life”.

Separating the factor of “exposure to maths topics and ideas” even from things like school type or teaching quality focused attention on the actual work that students are doing and ultimately produced interesting results.  Whereas in countries such as France, Germany, and Japan inequalities are larger between schools, in English speaking countries there are apparently far greater inequalities in content coverage (with corresponding inequality in achievement) within the same school than there were between different schools.  Schmidt was pretty damning when he commented that “the belief that schools are the great equalizer, helping students overcome the inequalities of poverty, is a myth”.

We thought it was fascinating that in the UK, exposure to maths ideas could be so unequal within the same school.  We think that an interactive digital platform provides the opportunity to deliver quality content to all students equally.   A platform that encourages and celebrates the time a student spends learning maths will also increase exposure to topics and ideas and improve learning outcomes.  In terms of further research, we would love to see a focus on the quality of learning opportunities rather than just their frequency.  In practical terms, if the frequency of exposure to ideas is a key driver of educational inequality, this is a factor which is far easier to target and work on than some of the more structural issues facing education systems around the world.

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