Achievement at school and socioeconomic

Educational achievement, and its relationship with socioeconomic background, is one of the enduring issues in educational research. The influential Coleman Report1 concluded that schools themselves did little to affect a student’s academic outcomes over and above what the students themselves brought to them to school—‘the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighbourhood and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school’ (p. 325). Over the intervening 50 years, much has been added to the research literature on this topic, including several high-quality meta-analyses. It has become ubiquitous in research studies to use a student’s socioeconomic background, and that of the school they attend, as contextual variables when seeking to investigate potential influences on achievement.

The two articles in this issue of Science of Learning touch on aspects of this discussion rarely included in the educational research literature. The article by Smith–Wooley et al.2 asks whether whether it is the influence of the student socioeconomic background that is the greater influence or whether the parents are passing down intellectually advantageous genes to their offspring. In contrast, the article by van Dongen et al.3 suggests that that it is likely a combination of genetics and socioeconomic background, and they examine the effect of environment on the epigenetic status of genes that are involved in learning and memory.

What do we mean by socioeconomic background?

The definition of socioeconomic background used varies widely, even across educational research. In the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) rigorous large-scale international assessment of more than 70 countries over 15 years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), socioeconomic background is represented by the index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status, which is a composite score derived by principal components analysis and is comprised of the International Socioeconomic Index of Occupational Status; the highest level of education of the student’s parents, converted into years of schooling; the PISA index of family wealth; the PISA index of home educational resources; and the PISA index of possessions related to ‘classical’ culture in the family home.4

However, examining Sirin’s5 meta-analysis of the research into socioeconomic status and academic achievement finds that many studies use a combination of one or more of parental education, occupation and income, others include parental expectations, and many simply use whether the student gets a free or reduced-price lunch. The latter factor is most commonly used as it is readily available from school records rather than having to ask questions about occupation and education of students or parents, yet Hauser6 as well as Sirin have argued that it is conceptually problematic and should not be used. Other studies have used family structure,7,8 family size,9 and even residential mobility.10

Sirin’s meta-analysis, however, found that the traditional definitions of socioeconomic background were not as strongly related to educational outcomes for students from different ethnic backgrounds, for those from rural areas, or for migrants. Its use in developing countries is particularly problematic. For example, in examining the effect of household wealth on educational achievement, Filmer & Pritchett11 found that many poor children in developing countries either never enrol in school or attend to the end of first grade only. Even within developing countries, the gap in enrolment and achievement between rich and poor was found to be only a year or two, in other countries 9 or 10 years. Often in developing countries low achievement and enrolment is attributable to the physical unavailability of schools.

Similarly education achievement is measured in many ways—achievement on a set test in certain subject areas, completion of numbers of years of schooling, entrance to university, for example.

What does this mean for educators when they are reviewing the research? It means that they need to exercise some caution. The results and the conclusions will obviously vary, as the research is, essentially, looking at different influencers and not the same influence each time. So, when the argument is made that the relationship is not stable, this may well be because the variable under consideration is different.

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