Education Law Prof Blog: International Body Confirms It: Our School Segregation Problem is Dragging Student Achievement Down

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development just released its report on education equity and mobility.  The results for the United States aren’t pretty.  For those unfamiliar, the report analyzes massive amount of data and makes international comparisons.  The organization is comprised of representatives from 36 different member countries.

As to the United States, these two findings struck me as particularly poignant:

  • Some 51% of disadvantaged students in the United States attend disadvantaged schools, i.e. schools where other students tend to be disadvantaged as well (OECD: 48%; in Finland, only 40% of disadvantaged students attend such schools). However, where disadvantaged students attend advantaged schools, they score 41 points higher, or the equivalent of almost one-and-a-half years of school, than those attending disadvantaged schools (OECD average: 78 points higher; among OECD countries with above-average performance, no performance difference is observed between the two groups of students in Finland, Norway and Poland; Figure 1.1).
  • Disparities in student performance related to socio-economic status take root at an early age and widen throughout students’ lives. In the United States, the magnitude of the socioeconomic gap in mathematics achievement at age 10 (as measured by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study [TIMSS]) is about 74% as large as the gap observed among 15-year-olds (as measured by PISA), and about 73% as large as the gap in numeracy proficiency among 25-29 year-olds (as measured by the Survey of Adult Skills [PIAAC]; Figure 1.1).

In other words, the school that a disadvantage students attends, not just that student's individual characteristics, correlate a year and a half worth of learning.  Assign those students to predominantly middle income school, their scores and graduation rates jump substantially.  Assign them to predominantly low-income schools, their chances drop precipitously. And because we don't do anything to deal with this reality, the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students widens each year that they remain in our schools.

There is nothing really new on this point in the report.  I and other scholars and advocates have been making this point for decades.  But it is reassuring to have an international body, with no real stake in the particulars of our domestic education policy, to make the point so bluntly based on data.

Zooming out even further, the report's findings suggest that our education system is nowhere close to making the American dream possible for disadvantaged students.  In terms of upward mobility, the United States ranks 29 out of 33 countries.

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Derek Black

Derek W. Black is a Professor of Law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. His areas of expertise include education law and policy, constitutional law, civil rights, evidence, and torts. The focus of his current scholarship is the intersection of constitutional law and public education, particularly as...