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Department of Political and Social Sciences

Does Schooling Decrease Socioeconomic Inequality in Early Achievement?

SPS Research Fellow Giampiero Passaretta and Jan Skopek, former Research Fellow and now Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin, recently co-authored an article published in the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

16 December 2021 | Research


Schools are often seen as the culprits of socioeconomic inequalities in children’s learning and cognitive achievement. And yet the extant research suggests schooling tends to equalise social inequality in learning because schools expose children from different social backgrounds to more similar learning environments than the ones they would experience out of the school.

But how can we separate the role of school- and non-school factors for learning and the socioeconomic inequality therein?

In their article, Does Schooling Decrease Socioeconomic Inequality in Early Achievement? A Differential Exposure Approach published in the American Sociological Review, Giampiero Passaretta and Jan Skopek develop a differential exposure approach that mimics an experiment in which same-age children at the day of testing are given extra “doses” of schooling at random. This design separates the effects of school factors from non-school factors on learning and the related inequalities. When applying the design to first-grade students in Germany, they found astounding results. Schooling did not decrease socioeconomic gaps in children achievement. However, schooling did not increase socioeconomic inequality either.

These findings challenge the dominant critical narrative that sees schools as the engines of social inequality in learning. And yet they challenge over-optimistic ideas about schooling being a social equaliser for children’s learning. So, are schools guilty? This piece suggests that we may blame schools because they do not hold on to the promise of reducing learning inequality, and not because they contribute toward increasing inequality.

Last update: 05 January 2022

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