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The Role of Schools in Social Inequality

published 14 October 2016 updated 14 October 2016
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The last few years have witnessed a great deal of social turmoil, with rising protest movements on the right and the left, and a pervasive sense that something has gone seriously wrong with global economic and political institutions. I think part of what motivates today’s dissatisfaction is the sense that the basic social contract has broken down. As I wrote about in my book, Inequality for All(2012), economic inequality is nothing new; there have always been a few people with much greater resources than the rest. What makes it possible for people to accept this inequality is social mobility – the ideal that with hard work and a little luck anybody can reach the top of the economic ladder. The painfully slow recovery from the Great Recession has contributed to stagnant incomes for many people (or worse, declining living standards), and high unemployment rates among those in their twenties has fueled fears that this generation will never have a chance to succeed.

Now the obvious response to this dilemma is to try and jump-start the economy. Easier said than done, but there are signs of a stronger recovery (and better labor market) in the United States, for example. However, I doubt that a stronger economy alone will solve the underlying problem. The reality is that worsening inequality and declining social mobility have been a growing problem for decades. Instead of a cyclical problem, what we really face is a structural problem. In short, the critics are right, there is something wrong with at least some of our institutions.

One of those institutions that needs serious reform is our schools. The basic idea of public education is that it serves to level the playing field, serving as a motor for social mobility by providing equal learning opportunities for all students. However, in research published last year my colleagues and I discovered that in all 33 of the wealthier OECD countries (including countries such as France, the United Kingdom, and Germany) schools actually make inequality worse, systematically giving more affluent students’ better access to rigorous mathematics content – which is of critical importance in today’s high-tech economy.

In recent work (to be published), we’ve gone further, finding new evidence that our educational systems are failing to level the playing field. First, we extended our research to non-OECD countries, many of which are developing nations like Malaysia and Brazil. We found virtually the same pattern – in every country richer students were exposed to more advanced mathematics content. We have also uncovered powerful within-school inequality. Even in wealthy schools, being relatively poorer (even if they were middle class by national standards) put students at a disadvantage. Rather than just a problem of high-poverty “failing” schools, inequality is marbled throughout the entire educational system, both between more and less advantaged schools and within schools of every type.

Finally, we have found some evidence that schools may play an important role in shaping economic opportunities at the national level. Economists (such as Alan Krueger, who was chairman of the council of economic advisors) have cited what they call the “Great Gatsby Curve”–countries with higher levels of economic inequality also tend to have lower levels of social mobility, creating a negative feedback loop over time. Our research suggests that countries whose educational systems exhibit more severe inequality in content exposure also tend to have more rigid social classes. In other words, rather than leveling the playing field, schools may be tipping the scales. Instead of providing more equal opportunities, the inequalities that are rife in schools might be constraining those opportunities – and thereby calling into question the legitimacy of democracy itself.

Promoting more equal opportunities in schools must be a priority for every country. Schools alone can’t solve the underlying problems facing the world’s societies, but it’s hard to imagine how we’ll foster greater social equity if schools are not part of the solution.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.