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Education and Inequality

“The local government school in Nizamuddin has received a comprehensive makeover funded by the Aga Khan Foundation in collaboration with one of India’s oldest charities, the Sir Ratan Tata Trust. In addition to bright new classrooms, well designed for children, a vital outcome of the project, the headmaster suggests, is the renovated toilet block with separate cubicles for girls and boys. In Delhi—as in rural Gujarat, where similar conditions prevail—school dropout rates have been highest among girls. Purely cultural factors—such as the demands of mothers for domestic help—are partly responsible. But teachers and aid workers see the lack of toilets as the primary reason girls have not been attending school, since there is no private place where they can relieve themselves… Since the introduction of the new toilets in the Nizamuddin school, female dropout rates have declined dramatically: girls now make up 55 percent of the pupils.”

Malise Ruthven, ‘Excremental India’, New York Review of Books 13 May 2010

One of the most important determinants of educational attainment is family socioeconomic background: lower status means poorer performance, a fact confirmed by a multitude of data but often ignored. The often quoted solution to overcoming poverty is economic growth: unfortunately data from worldwide surveys, published as ‘Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries’ show that to be untrue. Further, it is now understood that self-control and self-confidence are major outcomes of growing up in an advantaged home; both are better predictors of success in later life than IQ, test scores or parents’ educational background.

The Real Wealth of Nations: Human Development

In 2010 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) published its 20th Annual Human Development Report, titled The Real Wealth of Nations: Pathways to Human Development. The Report series was launched in 1990. Its goal was to put people at the centre of development, to go beyond income in assessing peoples long-term well-being. As such, it was influenced by the thinking of Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen who has been a leader in elaborating the notions of freedom and justice through a focus principally on the individual rather than the community. In Sen’s view individual claims to freedom are to be assessed in terms of the freedoms the individual actually enjoys to choose the lives they have reason to value.  This is different from the utilitarian view of ethics promoted by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham that society should choose those options which likely deliver the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Over the 40 years from 1970 to 2010 average increase in school enrolment was almost the same in countries whether growth was negative or positive. “Growth of a global consensus for universal education likely reflected deeper political processes at home.” Democratisation and urbanisation have generally positive effects  is a key positive influence on changes in education and income and trade had no significant impact on income but a positive correlation with health and education. Constraints on executive power had positive effects on education and income but not health.

Policies which redress gender inequity contribute to human development because women generally have poorer health and lower educational attainment than men. Closing the gender gap in schooling has been linked in studies to higher growth. Women have a higher propensity to invest in their children than do men.

Strong institutions as assessed by levels of corruption, rule of law, quality of the bureaucracy and internal conflict together with higher government spending on wages, goods and services is conducive to faster progress in human development. Improved literacy leads to improved life expectancy, improved health predicts improvement in school enrolment.


People are the real wealth of a nation.’ With these words the 1990 Human Development Report (HDR) began a forceful case for a new approach to thinking about development. That the objective of development should be to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives may appear self-evident today. But that has not always been the case. 

Overview, UN Human Development Report 2010


Markets can be very inadequate in providing public goods such as security, health and education because firms may simply want cheap labour with no more than basic skills Firms producing cheap labour-intensive goods or exploiting natural resources may not want a more educated workforce. Markets are necessary but they are not enough.

The Real Wealth of Nations notes ‘The past 20 years have seen substantial progress… Most people today are healthier, live longer, are more educated and have more access to goods and services. And there has been progress also in expanding people’s power to select leaders, influence public decisions and share knowledge. Yet not all sides of the story are positive. Progress has varied: in regions such as Southern Africa and the former Soviet Union there have been periods of regress, especially in health.’

One of the most important conclusions is that a significant correlation between economic growth and improvements in health and education is lacking. Whereas many economists regard income growth as fundamentally important in driving improvements that is not so! ‘The correlation [between income growth and non-income HDI or HDI excluding the income measure] is remarkably weak and statistically insignificant.’

Countries more often become top performers on the HDI scale through exceptional progress in health and education due to unprecedented increase in the cross-country flow of ideas, not through fast income growth. Many of these innovations have enabled countries to improvements at low cost. ‘In other words, over time progress has come to depend more on how countries exploited these ideas—with differences among countries traceable, in part, to variations in institutions and in the underlying social contract.’

The dramatic decline in poverty levels in developing countries of the South often overshadows the increasing inequality in developed countries of the North. Moreover, the pace of development continues to vary substantially with countries such as India once thought of as likely to rival China in economic growth faces severe problems because of obsolete university curricula, continuation of the traditional teaching method of rote learning resulting in students who are good at memorising but deficient in analytical skills as well as English. Underinvestment in technical education continues: India has only 11,000 vocational training schools compared with Chinas 500,000.

Amartya Sen continues to express outrage at the defective development in India which is a consequence of class, caste and gender discrimination which leads, for instance, to the fact that planning requirements for urban condominium development contain no requirement that toilets be provided for servants. Sen points to 50% of children are stunted because of undernourishment and 50% of women suffer anaemia for the same reason. Modern India is a disaster zone in which millions of lives are wrecked by hunger and by pitiable investment in health and education services.

One thing that almost everywhere that parents want for their children is better education! It is policy at community and government level which influences the situation of families: the relative disadvantage influences relationships and opportunities and therefore explains much of the eventual difference in educational and social attainment. The experiences that people have had in their own life also influences their relationships with their children, what is known as attachment theory developed by British psychologist John Bowlby.

The consequences of growing up poor affects millions worldwide: in some countries poverty has increased: more people live below the poverty line in India than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time the numbers of people in poverty has decreased in China and some other Asian countries and some South American countries. Quoting other research Bill Mulford of the University of Tasmania and colleagues in the study of successful principalship of high-performance schools in high-poverty communities (Journal of Educational Administration 46(4), p. 461-480, 2008) recall that personal and social skills have become much more important in determining relative life chances and social immobility is clearly due to the connection between family background and personal and social skills. The United Nations Development Programme in 2004 (Empowering the Poor: Local Governance for Poverty Reduction) argued that greater involvement of local populations in decision-making may contribute to significant poverty reduction.

Mulford and colleagues point out, “One of the distinguishing features of schools in high-poverty communities (compared with others) is the number of distressed students who require support in multiple ways. School education may be, in fact, one of the few ways a society has available to do something about improving the situation of people living in areas of growing poverty.” Amongst other things, children living in poverty attend school less often and have fewer educational opportunities. Schools with large enrolments of children from low social and economic backgrounds face special demands. Mulford and colleagues, again quoting previous research, point out that features common to high-performance schools in high-poverty communities including relative freedom of principals, eliciting of parental support, demands for high teacher quality, teamwork and setting of high standards, encouragement of self-control, self-reliance and self-esteem.

Personal Development and the Home Environment: How Differences shape later Life and Learning

The reasons for the close relationship that exists between poor educational achievement and social and economic advantage are direct. Those advantages feed through to the entire way of life, starting with early childhood and the relationships with parents and relatives and continuing with the opportunities that the home environment provides.

In disadvantaged communities, the home environment is of much lower quality and the schools attended are characterised by less well-qualified and experienced teachers, teacher turnover is high and school facilities are significantly poorer.

Amongst the significant issues with children at disadvantage are the experiences and economic situation of the parents including their experiences of schooling. And for all children, irrespective of economic background, the physical conditions of the school, the facilities and diversity of opportunity to participate in a variety of activities in a safe and supportive environment responsive to the needs of the children, are critical. One would think the latter was so self-evident that attention would be paid to it.

How the home situations in different social class (regardless of race) affect student performance has been documented by sociologists for decades. Richard Rothstein, Research Associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, former columnist and author of several books on social, economic and educational reform in the USA, reviewed research by Annette Lareau (University of Maryland) and (the late) John U. Ogbu (University of California Berkeley).

Middle-class children are encouraged from an early age to negotiate with their parents over what to wear or eat, to question adult statements if they seem implausible, and to interact with adults as equals, for example to describe their symptoms to paediatricians. Money tends to be less frequently discussed so it seldom occurs that the child’s ambitions might be blocked by a lack of money.

Working-class children have no such sense of entitlement. Most of them, black and white, speak to adults only when spoken to; they are not expected to express opinions that challenge what adults say. Money is a frequent topic of conversation at home, and children become aware early of the limits to their futures.

Middle-class parents organize a hectic schedule of after school activities for their children, the children earn trophies and parental praise for their performances which promotes teamwork and easier relations with strangers. Working-class children mostly stay in their neighbourhoods, playing games only among themselves.

Middle-class parents are more likely to encourage children to figure out problems for themselves. Working-class parents are more likely to tell them what to do. Whilst both middle- and working-class parents encourage their children to read, and read aloud to their young children, middle-class parents are more likely to read themselves so showing the importance of reading by their own behaviour. Middle-class parents more frequently intervene in schools when they feel it to be in their children’s interest to do so. In high school middle-class white parents are aggressive in guiding their children’s decisions on curriculum.

And by no means the least important difference is that in middle-class families children become familiar with a wide vocabulary (of ‘academic English’) because of the ongoing conversations. They have a head start over children from poorer backgrounds on this score alone which influences performance in almost every other area of education.

Self-control and self-confidence

Some now well-known studies demonstrate a relationship between self-control and later success. The marshmallow experiments conducted by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in the late 1960s and early 1970s were an early confirmation of this. Children were offered the choice between one small reward provided immediately, or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, generally 15 minutes. The children’s later life was followed through: better life outcomes as measured by standardised tests, educational attainment, body mass index and other indicators showed those who waited. Mischel reported (on the BBC Radio 4 program The Forum that the children who waited played imaginary games in their head or otherwise entertained themselves.

In later experiments by “Positive Psychology” advocates Anglea Duckworth and Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania (reported in Psychological Science 16(12), 2005), self-discipline, as measured by self-report and reports from parents and teachers, monetary choice questions and other behaviours, was found to be a more reliable predictor of final grades than IQ measures.

Separately, studies by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley reported in 2003 examined the conversations and acquisition of vocabulary by children in high income families and in families on welfare. They found that children in advantaged homes were exposed to some 30 million more words by age 3 than children in poorer homes. Between 86% and 98% of the words used by the child at age 3 were derived from their parents’ vocabularies; moreover the average number of words used, duration of conversations and speech patterns were “strikingly similar” to those of their caregivers. Higher income families also provided their children with far more words of praise compared with children from low-income families.

The relationships which children develop in their earliest years and their ability to develop social and emotional relationships are critical. The family situation, including the effectiveness of the relationships parents develop are also vital. Parenting is substantially affected by the parent’s experience when they themselves were young children. In later life children develop where parents provide varied and stimulating experiences and encourage the child to do so.

For the most part, disadvantaged families, those in lower socioeconomic circumstances, tend to build these relationships less well and to provide less in the way of enriching experiences. All of these issues affect later educational attainment. These in turn influence the child’s behaviour through to later life. By and large these issues are being dealt with inadequately. The consequence is a continual cycle of failed parenting, low educational attainment, high likelihood of unemployment and involvement in socially negative behaviour. These features which characterise the differences between economic and social advantage and disadvantage apply worldwide!

Ten years ago the UK Treasury reported, “Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to succeed in education… On ‘difficult to let’ estates, one in four children gain no GCSEs (the national average is one in twenty) and rates of truancy are four times the national average… There is considerable evidence that growing up in a family which has experienced financial difficulties, damages children’s educational performance… The differences … are apparent from a very early age.”

In the recent report, The High Cost of Low Educational Performance – The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes the significance of education is starkly summarised:

“While governments frequently commit to improving the quality of education, it often slips down the policy agenda. Because investing in education only pays off in the future, it is possible to underestimate the value and the importance of improvements.

This report uses recent economic modelling to relate cognitive skills – as measured by PISA and other international instruments – to economic growth, demonstrating that relatively small improvements to labour force skills can largely impact the future well-being of a nation.

“The report also shows that it is the quality of learning outcomes, not the length of schooling, which makes the difference. A modest goal of all OECD countries boosting their average PISA scores by 25 points over the next 20 years would increase OECD gross domestic product by USD 115 trillion over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010. More aggressive goals could result in gains in the order of USD 260 trillion.”

Of course this analysis assumes that the additional more highly educated students emerging into adult life and the workforce will find employment and better economic situations as a result of their education!

Education Reform and Economic and Social Disadvantage

Attention to improving educational achievement requires attention to removing the causes of economic and social inequality. Poor children grow up in a social and physical environment of little stimulation, attend poorly resourced schools with high teacher turnover and are often poorly fed. Their physical and mental health is poor and in later life they are more likely to be unemployed, poorly housed and involved in criminal activities and substance abuse. Life expectancy is low.

Substantial proportions of the populations of developed countries live in poverty. The media reinforces the perception that the poor are deliberately antisocial and involved in crime, unwilling to attend school or get work and are happy to subsist on welfare. Substantial research shows that failure to address the causes of poverty contributed to the failure of the program ‘No Child Left Behind’.

The GFC, which began around 2008, has had huge effects on young people particularly as well as on single-parent families. Young people are expected to play a major role in the future yet we are not asking them what they think and we mostly pay little attention to the circumstances in which they grow up. Austerity policies in many countries are driving young people into long-term unemployment. The ranks of the homeless increase, the women among them almost invisible.

It is extraordinary surely that governments can consider it economically and politically sensible to subsidise the manufacture of aluminium, the growing of corn to turn it into corn syrup and drilling for oil but not fund actions in urban planning and education which would reduce crime, increase health and wellbeing, increase employment and in the end reduce government outlays.

Reports by Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessman of Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, The High Cost of Low Educational Performance – The Long-Run Economic Impact of Improving PISA Outcomes and The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development address the contribution that improvement in cognitive development can make to economic development. In the first report they observe, “While governments frequently commit to improving the quality of education, it often slips down the policy agenda. Because investing in education only pays off in the future, it is possible to underestimate the value and the importance of improvements”.

Education and Poverty

Confronting the ongoing criticisms of teachers in the US, one of the major features of the debate, leading educational researcher Professor David Berliner of the State University of Arizona gathered the evidence to refute every claim from ‘any reasonably smart person can teach through teacher education is out of touch’ to ‘teachers are borne, not made’. He responded, in ‘A personal response to those who bash teacher education’ (Journal of Teacher Education, 51: 358-371, 2000) with a list of 12 principles of effective teaching including creating cohesive and caring learning communities, ensuring classroom management systems which maintain engagement with curriculum-related activities, preparing a structure which clarifies intended outcomes, giving opportunities for students to apply what they have learned, encouraging students to work in pairs or small groups, using a variety of formal and informal assessment methods and following through on expectations for learning outcomes. He also emphasized that as in other activities from wrestling to violin playing, practice is vitally important.

‘No Child Left Behind’ failed because it did not address the factors mainly relating to low educational achievement, namely the economic and social inequality in the community and the impacts they have on the opportunities available as well as the health of the child. Nor did it address the relative resourcing of schools determined principally at district level or issues concerning language spoken in the home which may be different from that used at school, factors shown to be important by Johns Hopkins University researchers Doris Entwisle and Karl Alexander in their report, ‘Summer setback: race, poverty, school composition. and mathematics achievement in the first two years of school’ (American Sociological Review, 57: 72-84).

An outstanding Presidential Address to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management in 2011 by Professor Helen F. Ladd of the Sanford School of Public Policy and Duke University shows unequivocally that not only are there large disparities facing the educational achievement of children in poverty but those disparities have been increasing and now greatly exceed the differences between the achievement levels of white and African American children.

The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) program is the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what Americas students know and can do in various subject areas. Ladd points out that analysis of scores over a 55 year period show significant differences for students of individual states. For instance, differences between Massachusetts and California students are most likely due for the former to ‘aggressive and comprehensive education reform’ instituted in 1998 and for the latter probably to the continually limited spending by California. Students from many of the southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and Georgia score poorly compared with students from Maryland, New Hampshire, Minnesota and New Jersey.

A similar situation is revealed by PISA: even in countries such as Finland and Korea whose students achieve a relatively high average score, the scores of students from poor backgrounds ‘fall far short of their more advantaged counterparts’. However, the students from disadvantaged backgrounds in those countries perform better than poor students from the US, reflecting the commitment to education in those countries. The percentage of students living in low economic, cultural and social status (an OECD measure) in the US is more than 2 1/2 times that of Finland and Canada.

Another set of studies on Family hardship, family instability, and cognitive development by Ingrid Schoon of the University of London and colleagues, published in 2011, complement those cited by Ladd. A survey of 18,819 babies born between September 2000 and January 2002 into 18,553 families living in the UK showed persistent poverty as the crucial factor undermining children’s cognitive development. The study considered various measures of family stability as well as poverty.

Education doesn’t by itself fix poverty. But it makes a very great contribution to the quality of life and to the greater control over one’s future. Eliminating poverty requires government intervention, not least in giving every encouragement to the cross border exchange of ideas and the application of those ideas to advance humanity. The notion that economic growth is the way out of poverty is one of the more dangerous ideas which have currency: instead it leads eventually to stripping the world of its resources and greater poverty for more and more people.

Advancing educational attainment requires government intervention to adjust the inequities inevitable in a market driven economy. The greatest threat to that is the notion that small government will empower everyone to achieve their own goals. That will only be achieved by genuine leadership, a feature sadly and tragically lacking in 2015.