Across the World, Where Kids Go to School Matters

Children are pictured during a lesson at Jozefow primary school on June 14, 2013, Poland.

POLICYMAKERS AND politicians spend a lot of time wagging fingers over stubborn education achievement gaps in the U.S., lamenting especially the educational level of poor kids, who often go to school with lots of other poor kids in resource-starved communities with less access to good teachers and rigorous classes.

But the U.S. is actually doing better than most when it comes to leveling the playing field, according to a new report that concludes no country in the world has completely resolved socio-economic inequalities in education.

“If you come from a poor family, you really only have single card to play: a good school,” Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which published the report Tuesday, said during a press call.

“If you miss that boat, you’re unlikely to get a second chance. So providing more equitable education is certainly our most powerful bet to creating a more level playing field.”

The 192-page report, “Equity in Education,” assessed the levels of student achievement in more than 70 countries, broken down by socio-economic status and relying most heavily on data from the internationally benchmarked exam known as the Programme for International Student Assessment.

The most important factor in a student’s performance is the school’s socio-economic profile, the researchers found. Students who attend more advantaged schools perform better on the international exam, a finding that’s been replicated by dozens of researchers in the U.S. in states and school districts across the country.

“Where they go to school really matters a lot,” Schleicher says. “What’s also interesting is that those things are not written in stone.”

Between 2009 and 2015, he said, some countries have shown improvement in equity, suggesting that learning outcomes are depending less on socio-economic factors than they have in the past.

“The U.S. is a good example,” Schleicher said, pointing out that even though education attainment levels of students in the U.S. overall have been largely stagnant, the education attainment level of students from disadvantaged backgrounds has creeped upward.

The researchers also found that in every country they assessed nearly half of all disadvantaged students attended disadvantaged schools – a problem policymakers in the U.S. have long bemoaned.

“Basically those students get penalized twice: They come from a poor family and they go to a school that is also disadvantaged,” Schleicher said.

Case in point: On average, disadvantaged students attending advantaged schools scored 78 points higher than those attending disadvantaged schools, equivalent to more than two and a half years of schooling. That was especially true in countries like Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and the Netherlands, where disadvantaged students attending advantaged schools score more than 130 points higher in science than those in disadvantaged schools.

But there are a handful of countries, researchers found, that buck the trend, proving that education systems that serve all children well do exist. In Finland, Norway and Poland, for example, students who attend disadvantaged schools still perform well.

“Poverty need not be destiny,” Schleicher said.