Social class affects school achievement less than you think

Some research shows outcomes may not be as closely related to socioeconomic status as often thought.

In a recent article in The Conversation, Stewart Riddle cited UK, US and Australian research to argue that:

… social class is the strongest predictor of educational achievement.

But recent research shows this isn’t the case.

While there is no doubt that social class, whether measured by the parents’ occupation, level of education, postcode or wealth, has a strong influence on students’ educational outcomes, it is not the greatest influence.

A counter argument to the belief that demography is destiny can be found in Gary Marks’ recent publication, Education, Social Background and Cognitive Ability.

Marks, a researcher at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research at the University of Melbourne, has written extensively on the relationship between social class, educational outcomes and the reasons Catholic and independent schools achieve such strong results in areas like standardised tests, completion rates and tertiary entry.

Marks argues in his recent book that it is wrong to suggest that social class is such a significant factor:

… socioeconomic background, no matter how it is measured, is only moderately associated with educational outcomes.

Marks also observes that:

Western societies have done a reasonable job in reducing socioeconomic inequalities in education.

After analysing Year 12 results across Catholic, independent and government schools, Marks concludes social class only accounts for 20-30% when explaining why non-government schools outperform government schools.

Other more significant factors include student motivation and prior ability, classroom environment, school culture and teacher quality. Marks is not the only researcher questioning the over-emphasis on the importance of social class.

On examining the impact of schools on students’ transition to university, the authors of an LSAY survey of Australian Youth Sinan Gemici, Patrick Lim and Tom Karmel conclude:

… the average socioeconomic status of students at a school does not emerge as a significant factor, after controlling for individual characteristics…

Additional evidence that social class is not such an influential factor determining success or failure can be found in a 2008 University of Melbourne publication by Professor Kaye Stacey and Doctor Max Stephens analysing Australia’s performance in international mathematics tests.

In relation to the impact of social class the authors conclude:

… the correlations in Australia between socioeconomic background and performance have never been particularly strong when compared internationally. This means that socioeconomic background is not a particularly strong predictor of performance…

Associated with the argument that social class is the strongest predictor of educational achievement is the belief that “inequity is entrenched in the Australian school system”.

Once again, the evidence suggests otherwise. Centre for Independent Studies Research Fellow Benjamin Herscovitch, after analysing what people from different social classes are able to earn, concludes “Australia is extremely socially mobile”.

After citing a number of overseas studies, Herscovitch goes on to argue that Australia has a high degree of educational mobility and that, compared to a number of other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, Australia is a “world leader in educational mobility”.

Evidence that education provides a ladder of opportunity is also supported by a 2008 OECD study, Growing Unequal?: Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries Country Note: Australia, where Australia rates highly.

The paper notes:

Australia is one of the most socially mobile countries in the OECD.

It also observes that public services such as education “reduce overall income inequality by more than in most other countries”.

Based on the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment results, Geoff Masters from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) makes a similar point when he writes:

In the popular jargon, Australia is high quality/high equity.

As noted in the National Catholic Education Commission’s submission to the Gonski review of school funding, it’s also true that Catholic schools, in particular, are very effective at promoting equity in education.

Based on an analysis of the 2009 PISA test results carried out by ACER, the submission notes that:

… the equity of outcomes achieved by Catholic schools in Australia exceeds Finland, which is widely regarded by many groups as the international benchmark on equity.

When education minister, Julia Gillard argued that demography was not destiny and that it was the responsibility of teachers, schools and education sectors to do more to ensure equity of outcomes for all students, regardless of background.

Central to such an endeavour, as noted by the OECD paper Do parents’ occupations have an impact on student performance? exploring why some Asian education systems appear more effective in promoting equity in education, is having high expectations and working on the assumption, notwithstanding the influence of social class, that:

… it is possible to provide children of factory workers the same high-quality education opportunities that the children of lawyers and doctors receive.

Instead of accepting what can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, believing that with a rigorous curriculum, motivated and talented teachers, sound school leadership and strong parental engagement, it is possible to raise standards for all students across a range of backgrounds.

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