Why are children from disadvantaged families left behind? The impacts of families, schools, and education systems on students’ achievement
Anne Christine Holtmann
Why do school children from families with lower socio-economic status fall behind those from better-off families? Is this because disadvantaged children are raised in disadvantaged families or because they attend lower-quality schools? Does it make a difference whether schools and education systems are socioeconomically segregated or integrated? In her thesis, Anne Christine Holtmann argues that the role of schools is often overstated, as it is intertwined with that of families. However, even when taking this into account, she finds that children from disadvantaged families perform better if they attend socioeconomically integrated schools.
Although the American Dream suggests that all children should have equal opportunities, US children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families are much more likely to perform poorly in reading or mathematics than disadvantaged children in many other countries. The Washington Monthly concluded: “If you want the American Dream, go to Finland”. However, international student assessments such as PISA do not tell us why. As education researcher Jack Buckley said: “That’s like taking a thermometer to explain why it is cold outside”.
There are different hypotheses on why countries differ in terms of students’ performance and inequality of educational opportunity. The most common hypothesis is that schools and education systems shape students’ performance. Hence, many parents and policymakers called for school reforms as a reaction to bad PISA scores. But there are two alternative explanations. First, students’ achievement may be the outcome of what happens outside schools. The second alternative argument is that disadvantaged children already lack skills when they enter school. In her thesis, Holtmann tries to find out which of these arguments is correct.
Low-SES children don’t lack the brains
Do disadvantaged children lack skills when they enter school? It is true that, on average, disadvantaged children have lower skills when entering school than children from more advantaged families. However, there are disadvantaged children who begin school with high test scores, and even these high-performing children fall behind their advantaged peers during elementary and middle school. The fact that this group of disadvantaged children initially performs well tells us that they are not genetically less capable. Something else other than ability must cause them to fall behind.
Too much hope in schools while underestimating families
The question then is why students from disadvantaged families fall behind. Are schools to blame or families? To distinguish the effect of families and schools, Holtmann compares learning during the school year, when families and schools are the driving force in students’ learning, to learning during the summer, when families alone play the crucial role. Holtmann finds that during the summer holidays, achievement gaps between children from different family backgrounds widen much more in the United States than in Finland. Because summer learning is influenced exclusively by non-school factors, this suggests that the lower degree of socioeconomic inequalities between families in Finland contributes to high educational equality in that country.
Socioeconomically integrated schools and education systems are better able to compensate for a disadvantaged family environment.
Holtmann presents three findings suggesting that socioeconomically integrated schools and education systems still boost disadvantaged children’s educational opportunities. First, she finds that in the USA, socioeconomically disadvantaged students learn more in schools with more advantaged children. Because the effect only arises during the school year and not during the summer holidays, this indicates an effect of better schools. However, in the USA, disadvantaged families tend to live in disadvantaged neighborhoods with low-quality schools. In contrast, in Finland, disadvantaged and advantaged students go to the same schools. So Holtmann asks whether schools are more equalizing in Finland than in the USA. The answer to this question is yes; Finnish students with less educated parents catch up during the school year, whereas they fall behind in the United States. This second finding suggests that schools in Finland help disadvantaged students catch up, unlike those in the United States. This may be because the socioeconomically integrated Finnish school system gives all children access to high-quality schools with higher quality teaching, peers with higher aspirations, and a school climate that is more conducive to better performance. To find out whether this applies elsewhere as well, Holtmann analyzes changes in the socioeconomic segregation of education systems in 35 countries. Her third finding is that disadvantaged students perform better when an education system becomes more socioeconomically integrated over time.
School conditions are more important for students from low-SES families
Contrary to the fears of many middle and upper class parents, their children do not learn less when an education system becomes more socioeconomically integrated. In fact, children from more privileged families perform well in all education systems.
To sum up, schools cannot fully compensate for inequalities in non-school resources and learning environments. Yet socioeconomically integrated schools can still provide opportunities for children from disadvantaged families. Even though students only spend a small proportion of their waking hours in school, this time is especially important for children from disadvantaged families. For these children who are not surrounded by books, do not learn an instrument during the afternoons, and do not play with science kits at home, schools can open up the worlds of literature, music, and science.
Anne Christine Holtmann is a research fellow in the project ‘New Opportunities or Reinforced Disadvantage? Variation in returns to low-achieving school leavers' participation in pre-vocational training measures’ at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). She defended her thesis in Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence in 2017. Her research interests are focussed on social inequalities, education, families, social policy, and the transition into the labour market.
- Holtmann, Anne Christine; Laura Menze, Heike Solga (forthcoming): Mangelt es wirklich an der „Ausbildungsreife“? Die Bedeutung von Handlungsressourcen und Gelegenheitsstrukturen für die Ausbildungschancen von leistungsschwachen Jugendlichen. In: Nele McElvany, Wilfried Bos, Heinz Günter Holtappels, Johannes Hasselhorn, Annika Ohle (eds): Bedingungen erfolgreicher Bildungsverläufe in gesellschaftlicher Heterogenität. Waxmann
- Holtmann, Anne Christine; Laura Menze, Heike Solga (forthcoming): Schulabgänger und abgängerinnen mit maximal Hauptschulabschluss. In: Gudrun Quenzel, Klaus Hurrelmann (eds): Handbuch Bildungsarmut. Springer VS Verlag.
- Holtmann, Anne Christine; Laura Menze, Heike Solga (2017): Persistent Disadvantages or New Opportunities? The Role of Agency and Structural Constraints for Low-Achieving Adolescents’ School-to-Work Transitions. Journal of youth and adolescence, Volume 46, Issue 10, pp 2091–2113, DOI: 10.1007/s10964-017-0719-z
- Holtmann, Anne Christine (2016): Excellence through equality of opportunity. Increasing education systems’ social inclusiveness benefits disadvantaged students without harming advantaged students. In Blossfeld, H.-P., Buchholz, S., Skopek, J., and Triventi, M. (Eds.), Models of Secondary Education and Social Inequality – An International Comparison. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing.
- Holtmann, Anne Christine (2014): "Wo hilft die Schule, wo die Familie? Kompetenzentwicklung in der Unterrichts- und Ferienzeit". In: WZB-Mitteilungen, H. 143, S. 33-35.