Pre-COVID Learning Inequities Were Already Large Around the World

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 29, 2020 4 min read
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The pandemic has laid bare deep existing education inequities, in the United States and around the world, which will make it more challenging for districts to respond.

A new study, “Effective Policies, Successful Schools,” by the Organization for Economic Development and Opportunity finds that even before global school closures, countries have made little progress in closing gaps between students in low-income and wealthier schools, particularly when it comes to the staff and structure students need to weather periodic moves to remote online learning.

And students in low-income schools, who have disproportionately experienced learning loss this spring, may be particularly at risk of falling behind: OECD found students in low-income schools were three times as likely to repeat a grade as their peers in wealthier schools, even if both students had the same reading score on the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment.

“People could say, well, disadvantaged students perform less well in school and therefore they are more likely to repeat a grade,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills. “But even if you account for performance, you take a privileged and a disadvantage student with exactly the same [PISA performance], and disadvantaged students are still two, three, four, sometimes eight times more likely to repeat a grade, than a student from a privileged background. So you can see really how those mechanisms work against disadvantaged students.”

Globally, the study found countries with higher percentages of students repeating grades tended to have both lower reading performance and larger disparities between low- and higher-income students.

The study includes data from 79 countries and education systems, including the United States, which participated in the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment, as well as its accompanying background survey for principals and more targeted surveys for teachers, parents, and students. It included a representative sample of more than 600,000 15-year-olds.

Digital Learning Divide

Across countries, 49 percent of students in disadvantaged schools had access to effective online learning platforms, 10 percentage points less than students in wealthier schools. And principals reported that on average, only 65 percent of 15-year-olds had teachers who have the technological and pedagogical skills to use digital devices in instruction.

Teachers in disadvantaged schools were also less likely to have mentors and professional development on digital learning. However, more than half of teachers reported having some kind of training or incentives to incorporate digital learning.

“We’ve got massive inequities here in technology access, in ways that will have massive impact,” said Jon Schnur, chief executive officer of the nonprofit education group America Achieves, in an online discussion of the findings today. “The U.S. is just one country, but looking at the difference in terms of percentage of schools with teachers who are getting the professional development, they need to make use of [online learning], we have 84 percent of teachers in more advantaged schools, compared to 54 percent in more disadvantaged schools. “It’s becoming more important than ever to find how do we really invest in the supports that our teachers need and our school leaders need” for digital learning.

Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged schools also were less likely to have supports at home to enable remote learning, like a computer for schoolwork and Internet access.

“In addition to the computer at home, the internet and the quiet space to work, as an individual learner, you need social validation from your family, from your peer group” to learn effectively online, according to Hilary Spencer, former director of the United Kingdom Government Equalities Office and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Ambition Institute in London, which supports education for disadvantaged students. “So at times of COVID, that’s really problematic, because you can’t provide that homework and social support in school. So we need to look at how we can provide that social support to increase the effectiveness and the productivity of the use of the online platform, particularly for disadvantaged students.”

The analyses are based on data from the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment, as well as its accompanying background survey for principals and more targeted surveys for teachers, parents, and students.

Grouping, Digital Savvy

Interestingly, OECD also found that grouping students by ability could help or hurt their reading skills, depending on how it was implemented.

In schools that grouped students within classes for individual subjects, the practice was associated with higher reading scores. However, on average students who attended schools that grouped by ability for all subjects—either through outright class tracking or by ability grouping within every class—had lower reading scores than students in schools without grouping. In the United States, nearly 70 percent of 15-year-olds are grouped by ability in some subjects.

More U.S. students than their global counterparts could distinguish fact from opinion when reading, but it was faint praise: more than 1 in 7 U.S. 15-year-olds showed reading savvy, compared to 1 in 10 on average for students participating in PISA. “Reading is no longer mainly about extracting information; it is about constructing knowledge, thinking critically and making well-founded judgements,” OECD researchers wrote.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.