Equity & Diversity Opinion

Disadvantage Is Not Destiny: Equity From a Global Perspective

By Robert Rothman — December 05, 2018 5 min read

For decades, American educators and policymakers have placed a high priority on closing the “achievement gap.” Consistently, students from disadvantaged backgrounds—particularly students from low-income families and students of color—perform far less well than their more affluent and white peers. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, in 4th grade reading in 2017, 47 percent of white students performed at the “proficient” level, while 20 percent of black students performed at that level—a gap of 27 percentage points, the same gap that existed in 1992.

Similarly, the gap in proficiency rates in 4th grade reading between students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and those not eligible for them was 30 percentage points in 2017 (22 percent versus 52 percent), an even larger gap than in 2003.

As many commentators have pointed out, the achievement gap really reflects an “opportunity gap”: Students from disadvantaged backgrounds lack the resources—including well-prepared and experienced teachers, a challenging curriculum, and financial wherewithal—that their more advantaged peers have. Until those gaps are closed, these commentators state, schools have little hope of closing achievement gaps.

A recently released report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows that, whatever their cause, achievement gaps are a global phenomenon. Results from the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that, overall, 15-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds scored 88 points lower in science than their more advantaged peers—the equivalent of three years of schooling. “There is no country in the world,” the report states, “that can yet claim to have entirely eliminated socio-economic inequalities in education.”

However, the report also notes that some countries have succeeded better than others in improving the lot of disadvantaged students. The OECD refers to this success as “resilience"—a phenomenon in which disadvantaged students perform relatively well on the assessment.

The OECD measures resilience in three ways. The first is “national resilience.” This measure indicates the extent to which disadvantaged students perform in the top 25 percent in performance in their own country. The OECD average for national resilience is 11 percent; few countries have managed to bring large numbers of disadvantaged students into the top tier of performance. In fact, many high-performing countries, such as Singapore and the four provinces of China that participated in PISA, demonstrate lower-than-average rates of national resistance, perhaps because their top quartile perform at very high levels. In the United States, about 11 percent of disadvantaged students were nationally resilient, the OECD average.

A second measure of resilience is “international resilience"—the extent to which disadvantaged students perform in the top 25 percent across all countries that took part in PISA. Here, top-performing countries tend to do fairly well. In Hong Kong, more than 60 percent of disadvantaged students were internationally resilient, while in Canada, Estonia, Finland, Singapore, and Japan, more than 40 percent earned that designation. In the United States, about 32 percent of disadvantaged students were internationally resilient, just over the OECD average.

The third measure of resilience, “core-skills resilience.” is perhaps the most interesting. This measure indicates the extent to which disadvantaged students perform at Level 3 (out of six levels) in reading, mathematics, and science. Thus this measure is an absolute measure, not a relative one.

Students at Level 3 have demonstrated solid skills. According to the OECD, in mathematics, students at Level 3

“can execute clearly described procedures, including those that require sequential decisions. Their interpretations are sufficiently sound to be a base for building a simple model or for selecting and applying simple problem-solving strategies. Students at this level can interpret and use representations based on different information sources and reason directly from them. They typically show some ability to handle percentages, fractions and decimal numbers, and to work with proportional relationships. Their solutions reflect that they have engaged in basic interpretation and reasoning.”

And in reading,

“At Level 3, tasks require the reader to locate, and in some cases, recognize the relationship betwee, several pieces of information that must meet multiple conditions. Interpretative tasks at this level require the reader to integrate several parts of a text in order to identify a main idea, understand a relationship, or construe the meaning of a word or phrase. They need to take into account many features in comparing, contrasting, or categorizing. Often the required information is not prominent or there is much competing information; or there are other text obstacles, such as ideas that are contrary to expectation or negatively worded. Reflective tasks at this level may require connections, comparisons, and explanations, or they may require the reader to evaluate a feature of the text. Some reflective tasks require readers to demonstrate a fine understanding of the text in relation to familiar, everyday knowledge. Other tasks do not require detailed text comprehension but require the reader to draw on less common knowledge.”

In Hong Kong, more than 50 percent of disadvantaged students are core-skills resilient; in Estonia, Finland, Japan, and Singapore, more than 40 percent reach that level. In the United States, just over 20 percent of disadvantaged students are core-skills resilient, less than the OECD average.

These results mean that several countries have enabled large numbers of disadvantaged students to learn and demonstrate high levels of knowledge and skills, even if achievement gaps remain. They have established a very high floor of achievement and shown that disadvantage is not destiny.

Perhaps those countries have managed to close opportunity gaps. It might be worth finding out what they are doing.

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