US School Content May Promote Class-Related Learning Gaps


The American Educational Research Association (AERA) has released a study which found that there is unequal access to rigorous math content between low-income students and their wealthier peers, not only in the US but worldwide.

Lauren Camera, writing for US News and World Report, reports that the study used data from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) based on findings from over 300,000 students aged worldwide.

PISA is a global assessment given to students who are members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Its assessment found that low-income students are often exposed to easier math content in schools, which creates a gap in performance between affluent and economically disadvantaged students.

“In the United States, public school curricular and tracking policies are contributing to the growing performance gap between poor and rich students,” said William Schmidt, a professor of statistics and education at Michigan State University, and one of the four co-authors. “Because of differences in content exposure for low- and high-income students in this country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The belief that schools are the great equalizer, helping students overcome the inequalities of poverty, is a myth.”

In the US, one-third of the class-related gap related to math performance was linked to the difference in access to rigorous content, according to the study. Two-thirds was linked to students’ family and social background. According to past research, wealthier families and high-quality teachers invest more in students. But this is one of the first studies to concentrate on the impact of the type and quality of content being taught.

AERA website notes that the study is entitled “Are American Schools Making Inequality Worse?”  And the answer was yes, but the researchers add that in almost every one of the 62 countries examined, including the US, a significant amount was added to the social class-related performance gap because of what students studied in school.

“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 math have a better ability to apply it to addressing real-world situations of contemporary adult life, such as calculating interest, discounts, and estimating the required amount of carpeting for a room,” said Schmidt. “But now we know just how important content inequality is in contributing to performance gaps between privileged and underprivileged students.”

The difference in the ways countries group their students and structure classes is significant, reports Science Daily. An example is that in US schools the gap is greater because of in-school inequalities in content coverage, while in countries such as France, Germany, and Japan, the inequalities are more dramatic between schools.

Nathan Burroughs, an author of the study and a senior research associate at Michigan State University, said the findings imply that content exposure is more related to school policies than it is to broader socioeconomic conditions, a fact especially important to school officials.

The Washington Post’s Lyndsey Layton writes that Sweden’s inequity based on social class is more significant than in the US, but all Swedish kids get the same opportunities and the same coverage of content. It seems this country has taken the inequity out of its schools, according to Schmidt.

Schmidt believes the Common Core Standards could offer a solution to the content gap. If the standards are applied to all classes in the same way and if every student gets the same access to content, especially in middle school and high school classes where ability grouping most often occurs, inequity will begin to diminish. Schmidt says it is school policies that can eliminate social class inequity.