How socioeconomic background makes a difference in education outcomes

By Lien Pham

Educational disadvantage is a significant factor in students’ educational outcomes. In Australia there is a staggering level of inequality between outcomes for students from high socioeconomic background and those from low socioeconomic background. Even attending a school with a high or low average socioeconomic background can make a difference to how a student will perform educationally.

So we know socioeconomic background makes a difference. I am interested in how and why it makes a difference.

The OECD sees educational disadvantage as a lack of access to quality education and a lack of positive environment for learning experiences at school and at home. In Australia it can result in gaps of approximately three years of schooling. We hear about these gaps when mainstream media, usually with a sensationalist spin, publish the results of national or international standardised tests, such as PISA, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment.

Such media coverage is always simplistic and is not much help if we want to understand the ways in which socioeconomic differences result in different educational outcomes of reading, maths and science literacy.

PISA’s attempts to explain the how and why

PISA publishes its PISA context assessment framework to supplement its regular international PISA testing of reading, maths and science.  The idea is to help us understand students’ background, home and schooling contexts and how these contexts relate to students’ PISA test scores.

This framework includes students’ backgrounds, processes at schools, students’ motivation, interests and beliefs, career aspirations, general attitudes and behaviours, and their dispositions to problem solving and collaborative learning.

Although the framework does try to fill some gaps of information for us, these are just snapshots rather than an analysis of the impact of students’ background characteristics on their participation in these processes, or whether the educational system, schooling processes and classroom practices may favour certain groups over others.

I believe they do not capture how and why these contextual aspects lead to different engagement and performance in school nor the students’ developmental processes underlying the PISA test scores. In other words, they do not help to shed light on how and why some students perform better than others.

As Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen put it, knowing the “inequality of what” is important to improve equality.  We should shift our focus from measuring schooling contexts and processes, with the assumptions that they are positive for all students, to understanding how these aspects shape students’ opportunities and participation in school.

In order to truly understand what is happening with inequality I believe we have to recognise the implicit social relationships and social structures in the schooling processes that position students in different vantage points.  I have taken an analytical approach to look at what can be done at the student and school level.

I want to take you there, to look at what the PISA team is saying and to add my own comments and ideas.

What PISA says about socioeconomic background and my reactions

What Pisa says about students’ family background

PISA 2015 says that students’ socioeconomic background contributes to positive academic performance. More educated parents are able to provide

  • a richer set of learning opportunities at home
  • more access to written materials for reading and other resources that engage their child’s curiosity
  • engagement in discussions and cultural experiences at home which contribute to their children’s PISA reading achievement
  •  high expectations for their children’s academic performance and interest in their schoolwork which lead to parental participation in school and
  • additional tuition for their children out of school.

My reaction

These measures suggest that economic capital provides material resources that give students the means to achieve educational achievements. Associated with economic capital is familial capital, that is, parents’ interest and expectations shape students’ attitudes and aspirations in ways that align with schools’ interest and expectations.

I believe what is important here is this alignment of values and expectations between the school, parents and the students that enable students to take part effectively in the schooling processes. It is about being accustomed to similar communication and learning cultures at home.  So it is less about the schooling environment, and more about students finding the school environment to be an extension of home life experience and thus they are able to align with the school norms.

When principals, teachers, parents and students value learning and learning practices in similar ways, there appears to be more parental interactions with schools. However parental contact is not always an indicator of those shared values about learning.

In fact, PISA also found that across education systems globally, more parents from lower socioeconomic schools participate in more school-related activities than parents of children who attend advantaged schools, and performance of students tend to be lower for those that attend schools with higher level of parental contact with schools.

This means that we must look at the school context and interactions between parents and schools to understand the nature of engagement and effects on student participation.  

What PISA says about student ethnicity

PISA 2015 reports that students from ethnic backgrounds on average perform worse than those with English as first language. However, students from ethnic background who are in top quartile of socioeconomic status performed better than their counterparts whose first language is English.

PISA also concludes that educational aspirations correlate with career aspiration and vary between different ethnic groups with students in the higher socioeconomic quartile reporting higher career aspirations.

My reaction

PISA results indicate that linguistic diversity impacts educational performance in nuanced ways. Students from ethnic backgrounds have linguistic capital that can be a resource for learning. The extent that they can mobilise this resource in schools depends on the linguistic skills and knowledge of teachers, other students, and whether the curriculum and teaching practices promote linguistic diversity.

If students are not able to share their linguistic skills or if these skills are not appreciated, they can encounter barriers in the classroom, particularly if teachers do not have adaptive teaching skills required to deal with comprehension difficulties and likely cultural differences.

Ethnicity intersects with socioeconomic background so it is too simplistic to suggest that students from ethnic backgrounds will not do well in schools. The issue should not be ethnicity itself but the contexts in which ethnicity enables or limits students’ opportunities and participation in schooling practices.

Recognising that educational performance is not symptomatic of students’ ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds in singularity is important. Learning outcomes vary as students try to mobilise their linguistic capital within the classrooms and school communities.

The effects of linguistic capital also amplify or alleviate impacts of economic capital. If some students are more aligned with certain ways of teaching and learning and that is what the school prefers and expects, then those students are favoured over those that may not have such linguistic or literacy dispositions.

Educational inequality actually arises from teachers and schools’ lack of recognition of students’ diverse linguistic dispositions in their teaching practices and implementation of the curriculum, even if they do so with good intention.

What PISA says about policies to improve educational inequality

PISA 2015 has called for Australian policy makers to address students and schools with lower socioeconomic background to improve their educational performance. The policy debate tends to revolve around issues of school funding to improve access and participation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

My reaction

Providing additional economic resources is important but may not always reduce educational inequality. This is because educational inequalities that appear in socioeconomic or cultural differences actually carry broader social and cultural processes into educational systems, schools and classrooms. Students, parents, teachers and principals are placed in and have to operate within these processes.

While the PISA context assessment framework recognises that socioeconomic and schooling contexts impact learning outcomes, its snapshot measurements of these contexts do not shed light on how and why these contexts impact teachers and students. and in turn unequal student access to and participation in schools.

We need to delve beneath PISA’s proxies for contexts to understand how students engage with teachers and their peers and how their own individual characteristics or family upbringing may lead to positive or negative relationships within these interactions. For example, if the school recognises students’ linguistic and cultural diversity and permits their representation in the learning curriculum or other school activities, these contexts can promote collaboration between students and teachers, school leaders and teachers and parents and school.

Understanding how student-teacher and family-school relations shape different educational values and appreciation for certain teaching practices is important. For example, while PISA finds that inquiry-based learning is positive for learning outcomes, it does not explain how and why, for whom and in which situations this mode of teaching is effective. Such a linear assumption about teaching and learning does not account for the marginalisation of those who might not have the disposition for this type of learning environment.

Reducing inequality needs more than just access to resources

Thus, while PISA points to the need to address inequality by addressing economic resources, I believe there is a clear case to go beyond this.  We need to deeply understand students’ “real” opportunities within our systems of education. I believe we need to look more closely at what students can reasonably do (or not do) with those resources given their backgrounds and situations.

Resources are important, but just because a school has a wide variety of resources doesn’t mean all of its students will benefit from those equally.

I am arguing that policy attention to improve educational inequality should place student agency and diversity at the forefront, rather than focussing on resources with the assumption that all students will be able to access them in similar ways with similar outcomes.

More in my paper Capital and capabilities in education: Re-examining Australia’s 2015 PISA performance and context assessment framework

Lien Pham is a Lecturer in the Graduate Research School, University of Technology Sydney. Her research interests are international education and development, political participation in non-democracies, language and identity, and Vietnam studies. She has collaborated in research projects about political participation in non-democracies, and international education practices in Australia. She has also consulted for various NSW government agencies in public policies research and evaluations, and multilateral organisations including UNESCO Bangkok on educational policy reforms. Lien can be found on Twitter @LienPha42919006

4 thoughts on “How socioeconomic background makes a difference in education outcomes

  1. Colin POWER says:

    Lien Good to see sensible comments on factors behind inequalities in education. I was Deputy Director-General of Education and former Professor of Education at Flinders Uni . Have written a papers on issues in assessment, PISA . <Lots on international education, e.g.

    Power,C. (2015).. The power of education:Education for All: Development, globalisation and UNESCO. .Singapore, London:: Springer.
    POwer,C.(2019). Comparing Nations States ad Education Performance. In Suter,L. et al( Eds) Sage Handbook of Comparative Studies in Education. (chapter 31)..
    imner" mseedemofert. and on educartion ionnst thisissuesds yosee

  2. Lien Pham says:

    Colin, thanks for sharing your publications. Will definitely read your works.
    Best regards, Lien

  3. Greg Ashman says:

    “PISA finds that inquiry-based learning is positive for learning outcomes”

    Could we please have a reference for this? Thank you.

  4. Lien Pham says:

    Hi Greg
    PISA 2015 context assessment framework p. 113, 114 states that a “number of processes at class room level found to be relevant for effectiveness in science education. The teaching and learning activities section lists inquiry-based learning and teacher directed inquiry activities to have positive effect on cognitive learning and improve achievement.” OECD draws on the works of Furtak et al (2012) meta-analysis of studies on inquiry-based science teaching and Blanchard et al (2012). These references can be found in the report.

    The results of the context questionnaire that supports these assumptions can be found in PISA 2015 Volume II see Figure 11.2.1 and Figure 11.2.3. page 49, 50. Australia’s results are significantly higher than OECD average i.e. high performing system. But note also that the key indicators presented here are a combination of resources and teaching practices. In other words, it is difficult to see which factor i.e. resources or teaching practices contribute to test performance and which direction, and moreover how and why.

    Best regards, Lien

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