Who is to blame that some students achieve less than others?
Is apportioning blame and pointing fingers actually helpful for anything other than head-line grabbing?
Admit it – did you click on this because of the headline, hoping for an easy answer?
Well there isn’t one. It’s a complex issue.
Why we need to consider this
If you see an easy head-line friendly fix for these issues, prepare to sound the alarm.
The truth is, until we put vote-grabbing solutions aside, try to avoid the blame game, and look for genuine research on the issue and unpolitical, unhysterical, practical, research-based solutions, we won’t get very far.
It’s particularly pertinent given some are arguing that there is a long tail of under achievement comprising predominantly Maori and Pasifika students and that schools and teachers are to blame for this. This argument is then used to promote policy changes such as the introduction of National Standards, Charter (Partnership) Schools, and soon to justify performance pay. But whether the original statement has any real basis in fact is debatable. Could other issues be at play as well as teaching?
Until we know what the real issue is, we cannot begin to find good solutions.
So let’s begin to look at what we know.
Disadvantaged from the start
An American study found that “inequalities in children’s cognitive abilities are substantial from the beginning, with disadvantaged children starting kindergarten with significantly lower cognitive skills than their more advantaged counterparts.” Students are arriving at their first place of education, kindy, already on the back foot.
The study argues that the “same disadvantaged children are then placed in low-resource schools, magnifying the initial inequality” which certainly has bearing on New Zealand schools with their un-level playing field in terms of funds.(2)(3)
The report has conclusions relevant to education policy:
- there are substantial differences by race and ethnicity in children’s test scores as they begin kindergarten;
- race and ethnicity are associated with socioeconomic status (SES);
- family structure and educational expectations have important associations with SES, race/ethnicity, and test scores;
- SES strongly relates to cognitive skills;
- and low-SES children begin school in systematically lower-quality elementary schools than do their more advantaged counterparts. “
This is certainly worth considering carefully.
Decile as an indicator
Do students really achieve lower results at lower deciles? And if so, then why?
Robyn Caygill & Sarah Kirkham looked at mathematics for year 5 Kiwi students, and argue that the decile of the student’s school does indeed correlate to the average level of achievement reached by students. They point out that it “is indicative of a trend demonstrating that students with lower levels of disadvantage in terms of family background and socio-economic background and living in wealthier communities have higher achievement.”(1)
They concluded that, in general, students at lower decile schools tend to have access to fewer resources, stating that “the decile of the school [students] attend, [is] indicative of the level of economic disadvantage in the community in which they live, [and] was positively related to mathematics achievement.”
Does funding also have an impact on achievement? And if it does, does that link to the socioeconomic position of the school’s community in any way?
A book just published looks an inequality in New Zealand. In a survey, it found that decile 10 schools’ total budgets averaged $8,653 per student, whereas it was $7,518 per student in the decile 1 schools. Can wealthier schools afford more teacher aides, more specialists, better resources, small class sizes and so on, all contributing to a slightly better chance for their students? If so, what should this mean for the future funding of schools in poorer socioeconomic areas?
If students achieve less because of the socioeconomic status of their family, then this surely needs to be a focus for future research and action.
Parents as a factor
A Danish study last year found that in that country, a student’s parents are a huge indicator of future achievement, being five times stronger than the effect of teachers. The report was said to”raise questions over the extent to which schools can be expected to make significant improvements to pupils’ results without the necessary backing from mothers and fathers.” It stated that“[h]alf of the variation in test scores is attributable to shared family factors, while schools only account for 10 per cent,” It went on to say that the remaining variation was down to pupils themselves. Notably, researchers said the effect of families on test scores remained the same irrespective of household income. (4)
However, after looking at the research, the headline grabbing here seems to outweigh the scope of the research, which only looked at 16-17 year old students who changed schools at that age. Another case where the headline doesn’t help us learn much at all.
Whilst I am very sure indeed that parents are a factor, this particular paper is not the one to show the link, at least not for NZ and not for primary schools.
My search for more rigorous local research continues. If you know of any, please message me below.
Caygill and Kirkham (1) also noted that for mathematics, “books in the home, items in the home, household size and mobility” were indicators of students’ maths scores.
It will surprise no teacher that the more a child moves school, the lower their achievement is.
And consider the results for books: 34% of students reported having 25 -100 books in their homes while 28% said they have 25 or fewer books in their homes. Guess which group got the higher scores?
- Fewer books in the home = lower score
- Smaller house = lower score.
- Less access to a desk of your own, a computer at home, your own room, a calculator = lower score.
In essence, the poorer your family is, the lower your maths score.
So we are back to the socioeconomic status issue again.
For my part, I will continue to search out research that will inform the situation and ponder what it tells us. In this I stand on the shoulders of others, as people wiser and better placed than me are out there researching.
If you are one of those people, I would love to hear from you.
One thing I will leave you with is this – beware easy solutions sold to you in spintastic headlines. They rarely tell the whole story, let alone a fair one.
Sources and further reading: