Education seeks to provide equal learning opportunities for all: the poor and the rich. But… can education systems accomplish this goal? Can the poorest children and youth achieve high learning outcomes? To date, no clear response to either one of these two questions exists within the literature.
What the existing evidence tells us is that learning outcomes depend on a mix of different elements: the innate abilities of the students; home- and family-related factors; the quality of the school and the teachers; and the effectiveness of public policies and the education system of each community or country. Among the most important home-related factors the socioeconomic level of the family stands out. As the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and other national and international examinations demonstrate, the poorest students tend to score lowest. However, exceptions to this finding do exist: the same education assessments reveal that some students, schools, and countries exhibit high educational performances, despite facing adverse conditions, especially poverty.
To shed light on the question of whether it is possible that education systems offer equal opportunities for all, we decided to undertake a detailed macro-level analysis of the PISA 2012 tests. We found that, comparing across countries, some groups of students of similar socioeconomic conditions achieve markedly different results.
Let’s take a look at some examples. On one hand, some poor schools have achieved good results and thus should be used as role models within their systems. For example, of the top-scoring quartile of Peruvian schools in PISA 2012, 12 percent belong to the poorest segment of the country. For South Korea, this same percentage rises to 14%. Additionally,7 Peruvian students and 17 South Koreans, who come from socioeconomic backgrounds defined as poor in their respective countries, rank among the 100 best-performing students of PISA 2012.
On the other hand, coming from an affluent socioeconomic background is not a sufficient condition for performing well in education assessments. The graph displayed below uses PISA’s socioeconomic conditions index to visualize disparities among countries. It is important to note that 2 represents the highest possible socioeconomic background and -2 the lowest possible one on the index’s scale. In South Korea, the students from an index 1 socioeconomic level achieve, on average, a score of 600 in PISA’s Math section. In Peru, for the students of the same socioeconomic level, this score is 450. Similarly, the students from an index -2 reach a score of 500 in South Korea, while they only accomplish 350 points in Peru. In other words, even when including Peru’s richest youth, the Andean country’s students perform worse than their South Korean peers. This observation leads us to conclude that the way in which the education systems of Peru and South Korea are organized could possibly explain the differences in learning for individuals from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
2012 Math PISA Results by Socio-Economic Level: Korea vs. Peru
These differences in scores across countries between students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds demonstrate that while poverty poses an obstacle to learning, it can be overcome. PISA helps us identify successful cases that can serve as examples for other countries. Vietnam is one of them. However, we are sure that numerous experiences from Latin America and the world exist that demonstrate that poverty should cease to be a barrier to equal access to quality education. We would like to invite you to share these experiences with us and comment on this blog post.