Unequal Access to Curriculum is Widening Achievement Gaps in Schools

A new study has found that there is a vast gap between rich and poor in the opportunity to learn rigorous mathematics in Australia’s schools. Unequal access to the maths curriculum in Australia is amongst the highest in the OECD. The study also found that unequal access to the maths curriculum is a major factor behind the large achievement gap in mathematics between rich and poor.

The study was published last week in Educational Researcher, the journal of the American Educational Research Association. It used data from the OECD’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to measure differences in learning opportunities in mathematics and to estimate how much unequal access contributes to the overall effect of SES on mathematics results in 33 OECD countries.

It found that the most affluent students generally receive better opportunities to learn rigorous mathematics across the OECD, but they have a particularly large advantage in Australia. Australia has the sixth largest gap between the top and bottom socio-economic status (SES) quartiles in access to rigorous mathematics of 33 OECD countries. Inequality in the opportunity to learn mathematics is higher in only Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Spain. The countries with the lowest inequality are Estonia and Sweden.

The study also found that over half the gap in mathematics results between high and low SES students is due to the unequal access to rigorous curriculum. The impact of unequal access to rigorous maths accounted for 52 per cent of the achievement gap in Australia. This is the third largest in the OECD, exceeded only by the Netherlands (58 per cent) and Korea (56 per cent).

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 per cent in Iceland [see table attached]. On average, across 33 OECD countries studied, about one-third of the overall impact of SES on mathematics results was due to inequalities in access to mathematics curriculum content.

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 states:

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.” [p.9]

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.

The study highlights Australia as a prime example of this phenomenon [p.9].

The study also found that unequal learning opportunities for lower-income students both within and between schools exacerbated inequitable student outcomes. This is particularly the case in Australia. The large part of the impact of SES on the variance of student mathematics results within and between schools is due to unequal access to curriculum content. Fifty-four per cent of the SES impact on within-school variation in performance was due to inequalities in curriculum access. This was the 4th highest of the 33 OECD countries in the study. In addition, 60 per cent of the between-school variation was due to curriculum inequalities and this was the equal 6th highest.

Australia was one of only four countries where the contribution of unequal access to curriculum content was very high for the SES impact on both within-school and between-school variation in student performance.

The study adds to extensive research evidence showing that differences in curriculum access for different groups of students leads to unequal outcomes. Many studies have shown that the separation of students into different courses with different content exposure tends to mirror social background inequalities. However, most other studies have lacked detailed data on the content of instruction that are directly relatable to the individual student, are capable of differentiating within-school differences beyond those at the classroom level, and are more specific than broad categories or course titles. The latest study was able to use new data from the 2012 PISA study which surveyed students about the intensity of their exposure to selected mathematics topics.

Despite Australia’s very poor performance in providing equality of access to rigorous curriculum content, there is some room for hope. It is very hard for schools to overcome the effect of SES on student results because disadvantage is being constantly reproduced in society through low incomes, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, poor health and other factors. However, many countries have succeeded in reducing the variability in opportunities to learn across students and having much more socio-economically integrated schools. These include Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Poland and Sweden. Australia must be willing to learn from these countries.

Moreover, the large component of the impact of SES on mathematics results in Australia is due to inequality of access to curriculum content and this can be directly influenced by education policy. The problem to date is that policy makers have chosen to entrench a hierarchical curriculum in schools which, together with support for academically selective public and private schools, provides the affluent with privileged access to advanced learning.

In a recent book, Academic Success and Social Power, Professor Richard Teese from the University of Melbourne shows how schooling in Australia is dominated by the interlocking of a hierarchical curriculum and a stratified, socially segregated school system which is a major factor behind social inequality in school outcomes. He shows how the design and of the English, chemistry and mathematics curriculum favours students from affluent backgrounds while the cultural and professional resources of disadvantaged schools are too limited to offset home disadvantage.

The fundamental challenge is to unlock this iniquitous schooling model and increase social equality in curriculum access and school outcomes. It is a funding issue as well as a broader education issue.

Federal and state/territory government funding increases have strongly favoured the most advantaged school sectors and have entrenched Australia’s highly stratified school system. The Gonski funding model proposed a re-direction of funding to meet the needs of disadvantaged schools and students. Disadvantaged schools require greater funding to lift achievement through primary and junior secondary school and increase participation in the academic curriculum in senior secondary school. It would facilitate better targeting of resources to struggling students and more flexible staffing arrangements to meet the needs of these students. However, there is a lack of commitment by governments to the large increases in funding needed and, it must be said, there are questions about the adequacy of the loadings for disadvantage.

Attracting and retaining maths and science teachers is fundamental to improving access to extended maths and science for disadvantaged students. Disadvantaged schools are notoriously vulnerable to shortages of qualified mathematics and science teachers and experience high teacher turnover. These schools face enormous difficulties in attracting enough trained teachers to ensure that all students have the opportunity to engage deeply with mathematics and science.

More broadly, schools must have high expectations for all students, whatever their background, and strive for more equal access to the curriculum. Teaching methods in mathematics and science need reform to increase the attractiveness of these subjects. Student surveys consistently point to the need for more engaging teaching methods in mathematics and science and stronger emphasis on addressing individual learning needs. Students want more enjoyable coursework and course content that has stronger links to real life and involve more “hands on” learning experiences.

Trevor Cobbold

William H. Schmidt, Nathan A. Burroughs, Pablo Zoido & Richard T. Houang, The Role of Schooling in Perpetuating Educational Inequality: An International Perspective, Educational Researcher. Published online on 29 September 2015.

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