New study reveals vast gap between rich and poor students

by James Reid06 Oct 2015

A new study, published last week in Educational Research has revealed a vast gap between rich and poor in the opportunity to learn rigorous mathematics in the nation’s schools.

The study used data from the OECD’s 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to measure differences in learning opportunities in mathematics.

The data estimated how much unequal access contributed to the overall effect of socio-economic status (SES) on maths results in 33 OECD countries and found that the most affluent students generally received better opportunities to learn rigorous mathematics across the OECD.

However, they had a particularly large advantage in Australia, which was shown to have the sixth largest gap between the top and bottom socio-economic status (SES) quartiles in access to rigorous mathematics of 33 OECD countries.

The study also found that over half the gap in mathematics results between high and low SES students was due to the unequal access to rigorous curriculum. The impact of unequal access to rigorous maths accounted for 52% of the achievement gap in Australia.

This is the third largest in the OECD, exceeded only by the Netherlands (58%) and Korea (56%).

In contrast, unequal access to rigorous maths content accounted for only one per cent of socio-economic differences in maths results in Sweden and only 10% in Iceland.

Public school advocate group, Save Our Schools (SOS) said the results indicate that “schools are actually exacerbating the performance gap” between high and low income students by providing differential access to rigorous mathematics curriculum content.

The study stated:

“This suggests that the perceived role of schooling as the “great equalizer” may well be a myth and that the reality is better characterized as the “exacerbater.”

As one of the authors, Professor William Schmidt, Distinguished Professor of Statistics and Education at Michigan State University, wrote in the OECD’s Education Today blog:

“Because of differences in content exposure for low- and high-income students in each 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,” Schmidt wrote.

“The study highlights Australia as a prime example of this phenomenon.”