How socioeconomic background makes a difference in education outcomes

Educational disadvantage is a significant factor in students’ educational outcomes. In Australia there is a staggering level of inequality between outcomes for students from high socioeconomic background and those from low socioeconomic background. Even attending a school with a high or low average socioeconomic background can make a difference to how a student will perform educationally.

So we know socioeconomic background makes a difference. I am interested in how and why it makes a difference.

The OECD sees educational disadvantage as a lack of access to quality education and a lack of positive environment for learning experiences at school and at home. In Australia it can result in gaps of approximately three years of schooling. We hear about these gaps when mainstream media, usually with a sensationalist spin, publish the results of national or international standardised tests, such as PISA, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment.

Such media coverage is always simplistic and is not much help if we want to understand the ways in which socioeconomic differences result in different educational outcomes of reading, maths and science literacy.

PISA’s attempts to explain the how and why

PISA publishes its PISA context assessment framework to supplement its regular international PISA testing of reading, maths and science.  The idea is to help us understand students’ background, home and schooling contexts and how these contexts relate to students’ PISA test scores.

This framework includes students’ backgrounds, processes at schools, students’ motivation, interests and beliefs, career aspirations, general attitudes and behaviours, and their dispositions to problem solving and collaborative learning.

Although the framework does try to fill some gaps of information for us, these are just snapshots rather than an analysis of the impact of students’ background characteristics on their participation in these processes, or whether the educational system, schooling processes and classroom practices may favour certain groups over others.

I believe they do not capture how and why these contextual aspects lead to different engagement and performance in school nor the students’ developmental processes underlying the PISA test scores. In other words, they do not help to shed light on how and why some students perform better than others.

As Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Sen put it, knowing the “inequality of what” is important to improve equality.  We should shift our focus from measuring schooling contexts and processes, with the assumptions that they are positive for all students, to understanding how these aspects shape students’ opportunities and participation in school.

In order to truly understand what is happening with inequality I believe we have to recognise the implicit social relationships and social structures in the schooling processes that position students in different vantage points.  I have taken an analytical approach to look at what can be done at the student and school level.

I want to take you there, to look at what the PISA team is saying and to add my own comments and ideas.

What PISA says about socioeconomic background and my reactions

What Pisa says about students’ family background

PISA 2015 says that students’ socioeconomic background contributes to positive academic performance. More educated parents are able to provide

  • a richer set of learning opportunities at home
  • more access to written materials for reading and other resources that engage their child’s curiosity
  • engagement in discussions and cultural experiences at home which contribute to their children’s PISA reading achievement
  •  high expectations for their children’s academic performance and interest in their schoolwork which lead to parental participation in school and
  • additional tuition for their children out of school.

My reaction

These measures suggest that economic capital provides material resources that give students the means to achieve educational achievements. Associated with economic capital is familial capital, that is, parents’ interest and expectations shape students’ attitudes and aspirations in ways that align with schools’ interest and expectations.

I believe what is important here is this alignment of values and expectations between the school, parents and the students that enable students to take part effectively in the schooling processes. It is about being accustomed to similar communication and learning cultures at home.  So it is less about the schooling environment, and more about students finding the school environment to be an extension of home life experience and thus they are able to align with the school norms.

When principals, teachers, parents and students value learning and learning practices in similar ways, there appears to be more parental interactions with schools. However parental contact is not always an indicator of those shared values about learning.

In fact, PISA also found that across education systems globally, more parents from lower socioeconomic schools participate in more school-related activities than parents of children who attend advantaged schools, and performance of students tend to be lower for those that attend schools with higher level of parental contact with schools.

This means that we must look at the school context and interactions between parents and schools to understand the nature of engagement and effects on student participation.  

What PISA says about student ethnicity

PISA 2015 reports that students from ethnic backgrounds on average perform worse than those with English as first language. However, students from ethnic background who are in top quartile of socioeconomic status performed better than their counterparts whose first language is English.

PISA also concludes that educational aspirations correlate with career aspiration and vary between different ethnic groups with students in the higher socioeconomic quartile reporting higher career aspirations.

My reaction

PISA results indicate that linguistic diversity impacts educational performance in nuanced ways. Students from ethnic backgrounds have linguistic capital that can be a resource for learning. The extent that they can mobilise this resource in schools depends on the linguistic skills and knowledge of teachers, other students, and whether the curriculum and teaching practices promote linguistic diversity.

If students are not able to share their linguistic skills or if these skills are not appreciated, they can encounter barriers in the classroom, particularly if teachers do not have adaptive teaching skills required to deal with comprehension difficulties and likely cultural differences.

Ethnicity intersects with socioeconomic background so it is too simplistic to suggest that students from ethnic backgrounds will not do well in schools. The issue should not be ethnicity itself but the contexts in which ethnicity enables or limits students’ opportunities and participation in schooling practices.

Recognising that educational performance is not symptomatic of students’ ethnic or socioeconomic backgrounds in singularity is important. Learning outcomes vary as students try to mobilise their linguistic capital within the classrooms and school communities.

The effects of linguistic capital also amplify or alleviate impacts of economic capital. If some students are more aligned with certain ways of teaching and learning and that is what the school prefers and expects, then those students are favoured over those that may not have such linguistic or literacy dispositions.

Educational inequality actually arises from teachers and schools’ lack of recognition of students’ diverse linguistic dispositions in their teaching practices and implementation of the curriculum, even if they do so with good intention.

What PISA says about policies to improve educational inequality

PISA 2015 has called for Australian policy makers to address students and schools with lower socioeconomic background to improve their educational performance. The policy debate tends to revolve around issues of school funding to improve access and participation for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

My reaction

Providing additional economic resources is important but may not always reduce educational inequality. This is because educational inequalities that appear in socioeconomic or cultural differences actually carry broader social and cultural processes into educational systems, schools and classrooms. Students, parents, teachers and principals are placed in and have to operate within these processes.

While the PISA context assessment framework recognises that socioeconomic and schooling contexts impact learning outcomes, its snapshot measurements of these contexts do not shed light on how and why these contexts impact teachers and students. and in turn unequal student access to and participation in schools.

We need to delve beneath PISA’s proxies for contexts to understand how students engage with teachers and their peers and how their own individual characteristics or family upbringing may lead to positive or negative relationships within these interactions. For example, if the school recognises students’ linguistic and cultural diversity and permits their representation in the learning curriculum or other school activities, these contexts can promote collaboration between students and teachers, school leaders and teachers and parents and school.

Understanding how student-teacher and family-school relations shape different educational values and appreciation for certain teaching practices is important. For example, while PISA finds that inquiry-based learning is positive for learning outcomes, it does not explain how and why, for whom and in which situations this mode of teaching is effective. Such a linear assumption about teaching and learning does not account for the marginalisation of those who might not have the disposition for this type of learning environment.

Reducing inequality needs more than just access to resources

Thus, while PISA points to the need to address inequality by addressing economic resources, I believe there is a clear case to go beyond this.  We need to deeply understand students’ “real” opportunities within our systems of education. I believe we need to look more closely at what students can reasonably do (or not do) with those resources given their backgrounds and situations.

Resources are important, but just because a school has a wide variety of resources doesn’t mean all of its students will benefit from those equally.

I am arguing that policy attention to improve educational inequality should place student agency and diversity at the forefront, rather than focussing on resources with the assumption that all students will be able to access them in similar ways with similar outcomes.

More in my paper Capital and capabilities in education: Re-examining Australia’s 2015 PISA performance and context assessment framework

Lien Pham is a Lecturer in the Graduate Research School, University of Technology Sydney. Her research interests are international education and development, political participation in non-democracies, language and identity, and Vietnam studies. She has collaborated in research projects about political participation in non-democracies, and international education practices in Australia. She has also consulted for various NSW government agencies in public policies research and evaluations, and multilateral organisations including UNESCO Bangkok on educational policy reforms. Lien can be found on Twitter @LienPha42919006

Serious flaws in how PISA measured student behaviour and how Australian media reported the results

International student performance test results can spark media frenzy around the world. Results and rankings published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are scrutinized with forensic intensity and any ranking that is not an improvement is usually labelled a ‘problem’ by the politicians and media of the country involved. Much time, energy and media space is spent trying to find solutions to such problems.

It is a circus that visits Australia regularly.

We saw it all last December when the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were published. We were treated to headlines such as ‘Pisa results: Australian students’ science, maths and reading in long-term decline’ from the Australian edition of the Guardian.

In March a follow-up report was published by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) highlighting key aspects of the test results from an Australian perspective.

Australian mainstream media immediately zeroed in on one small part of the latter report dealing with classroom ‘disciplinary climate’. The headlines once again damned Australian schools, for example, Education: Up to half of students in Australian classrooms unable to learn because of ‘noise and disorder’ from The Daily Telegraph and Australian students among worst behaved in the developed world from The Australian.

This is pretty dramatic stuff. Not only do the test results apparently tell us the standard of Australian education is on the decline, but they also show that Australian classrooms are in chaos.

As these OECD test results inform our policy makers and contribute to the growing belief in our community that our education system is in crisis, I believe the methods used to derive the information should be scrutinised carefully. I am also very interested in how the media reports OECD findings.

Over the past few years, many researchers have raised questions about whether the PISA tests really do tell us much about education standards. In this blog I want to focus on the efficacy of some of the research connected to the PISA tests, specifically that relating to classroom discipline, and examine the way our media handled the information that was released.

To start we need to look closely at what the PISA tests measure, how the testing is done and how classroom discipline was included in the latest results.

What is PISA and how was classroom discipline included?

PISA is an OECD administered test of the performance of students aged 15 years in Mathematical Literacy, Science Literacy and Reading Literacy. It has been conducted every three years since 2000, with the most recent tests being undertaken in 2015 and the results published in December 2016. In 2015, 72 countries participated in the tests which are two hours in length. They are taken by a stratified sample of students in each country. In Australia in 2015 about 750 schools and 14,500 students were involved in the PISA tests.

How ‘classroom disciplinary climate’ was involved in PISA testing

During the PISA testing process, other data are gathered for the purpose of fleshing out a full picture of some of the contextual and resource factors influencing student learning. Thus in 2015, Principals were asked to respond to questions about school management, school climate, school resources, etc; and student perspectives were gleaned from a range of questions and responses relating to Science which was major domain in 2015. These questions focused on such matters as classroom environment, truancy, classroom disciplinary climate, motivation and interest in Science, and so on.

All these data are used to produce ‘key findings’ in relation to school learning environment, equity, and student attitudes to Science. Such findings emerge after multiple cross correlations are made between PISA scores, student and schools’ socio-economic status, and the data drawn from responses to questionnaires. They are written up in volumes of OECD reports, replete with charts, scatter plots and tables.

In 2015 students were asked to respond to statements related to classroom discipline. They were asked: ‘How often do these things happen in your science classes?

  • Students don’t listen to what the teacher says
  • There is noise and disorder
  • The teacher has to wait a long time for the students to quieten down
  • Students cannot work well
  • Students don’t start working for a long time after the lesson begins.

Then, for each of the five statements, students had to tick one of the boxes on a four point scale from (a) never or hardly ever; (b) in some lessons; (c) in most lessons; and (d) in all lessons.

Problems with the PISA process and interpretation of data

Even before we look at what is done with the results of the questions posed in PISA about classroom discipline, alarm bells would be ringing for many educators reading this blog.

No rationale for what is a good classroom environment

For a start, the five statements listed above are based on some unexplained pedagogical assumptions. They imply that a ‘disciplined’ classroom environment is one that is quiet and teacher directed, but there is no rationale provided for why such a view has been adopted. Nor is it explained why the five features of such an environment have been selected above other possible features. They are simply named as the arbiters of ‘disciplinary climate’ in schools.

Problem of possible interpretation

However, let’s accept for the moment that the five statements represent a contemporary view of classroom disciplinary climate. The next problem is one of interpretation. Is it not possible that students from across 72 countries might understand some of these statements differently? Might it not be that the diversity of languages and cultures of so many countries produces some varying interpretations of what is meant by the statements, for example that:

  • for some students, ‘don’t listen to what the teacher says’, might mean ‘I don’t listen’ or for others ‘they don’t listen’; or that students have completely different interpretations of ‘not listening’;
  • what constitutes ‘noise and disorder’ in one context/culture might differ from another;
  • for different students, a teacher ‘waiting a long time’ for quiet might vary from 10 seconds to 10 minutes;
  • ‘students cannot work well’ might be interpreted by some as ‘I cannot work well’ and by others as ‘they cannot work well’; or that some interpret ‘work well’ to refer to the quality of work rather than the capacity to undertake that work; and so on.

These possible difficulties appear not to trouble the designers. From this point on, certainty enters the equation.

Statisticians standardise the questionable data gathered

The five questionnaire items are inverted and standardised with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1, to define the index of disciplinary climate in science classes. Students’ views on how conducive classrooms are to learning are then combined to develop a composite index – a measurement of the disciplinary climate in their schools. Positive values on this index indicate more positive levels of disciplinary climate in science classes.

Once combined, the next step is to construct a table purporting to show the disciplinary climate in the science classes of 15 year olds in each country. The table comprises an alphabetical list of countries, with the mean index score listed alongside each country, so allowing for easy comparison. This is followed by a series of tables containing overall disciplinary climate scores broken down by each of the disciplinary ‘problems’, correlated with such factors as performance in the PISA Science test, schools and students socio-economic profile, type of school (eg public or private), location (urban or rural) and so on.

ACER reports the results ‘from an Australian perspective’

The ACER report summarises these research findings from an Australian perspective. First, it compares Australia’s ‘mean disciplinary climate index score’ to selected comparison cities/countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and Finland. It reports that:

Students in Japan had the highest levels of positive disciplinary climate in science classes with a mean index score of 0.83, followed by students in Hong Kong (China) (mean index score: 0.35). Students in Australia and New Zealand reported the lowest levels of positive disciplinary climate in their science classes with mean index scores of – 0.19 and – 0.15 respectively, which were significantly lower than the OECD average of 0.00 (Thomson, Bortoli and Underwood, 2017, p. 277).

Then the ACER report compares scores within Australia by State and Territory; by ‘disciplinary problem’; and by socio-economic background. The report concludes that:

Even in the more advantaged schools, almost one third of students reported that in most or every lesson, students don’t listen to what the teacher says. One third of students in more advantaged schools and one half of the students in lower socioeconomic schools also reported that there is noise and disorder in the classroom (Thomson et al, 2017, p. 280).

What can we make of this research?

You will note from the description above, that there would need to be a number of caveats placed on the research outcomes. First, the data relate to a quite specific student cohort who are 15 years old of age, and are based only on science classes. That is, the research findings cannot be used to generalise about other subjects in the same year level, let alone about primary and/or secondary schooling.

Second, there are some questions about the classroom disciplinary data that call into question the certainty with which the numbers are calculated and compared. These relate to student motivation in answering the questions, and to the differing interpretations by people from many different cultures about the meaning of the same words and phrases.

Third, there are well-documented problems related to the data with which the questionnaire responses are cross-correlated, such as the validity of the PISA test scores.

In short, it may well be that discipline is a problem in Australian schools, but this research cannot provide us with that information. Surely the most one can say is that the results might point to the need for more extended research. But far from a measured response, the media fed the findings into the continuing narrative about falling standards in Australian education.

The media plays a pivotal role

When ACER released its report, the headlines and associated commentary once again damned Australian schools. Here is the daily paper from my hometown of Adelaide.

Disorder the order of the day for Aussie schools (Advertiser, 15/3/2017)

Australian school students are significantly rowdier and less disciplined than those overseas, research has found. An ACER report, released today, says half the students in disadvantaged schools nationally, and a third of students in advantaged schools, reported ‘noise and disorder’ in most or all of their classes…. In December, the Advertiser reported the (PISA) test results showed the academic abilities of Australian students were in ‘absolute decline’. Now the school discipline results show Australian schools performed considerably worse than the average across OECD nations…. Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said the testing showed that there was ‘essentially no relationship between spending per student and outcomes. This research demonstrates that more money spent within a school doesn’t automatically buy you better discipline, engagement or ambition’, he said (Williams, Advertiser 15/3/17).

Mainstream newspapers all over the country repeated the same messages. Once again, media commentators and politicians had fodder for a fresh round of teacher bashing.

Let’s look at what is happening here:

  • The mainstream press have broadened the research findings to encompass not just 15 year old students in science classrooms, but ALL students (primary and secondary) across ALL subject areas;
  • The research report findings have been picked up without any mention of some of the difficulties associated with conducting such research across so many cultures and countries. The numbers are treated with reverence, and the findings as the immutable ‘truth’;
  • The mainstream press have cherry picked negative results to get a headline, ignoring such findings in the same ACER report that, for example, Australia is well above the OECD average in terms of the interest that students have in their learning in Science, and the level of teacher support they receive;
  • Key politicians begin to use the research findings as a justification for not having to spend more money on education, and to blame schools and students for the ‘classroom chaos’.


These errors and omissions reinforce the narrative being promulgated in mainstream media and by politicians and current policy makers that standards in Australian education are in serious decline. If such judgments are being made on the basis of flawed data reported in a flawed way by the media, they contribute to a misdiagnosis of the causes of identified problems, and to the wrong policy directions being set.

The information that is garnered from the PISA process every three years may have the potential to contribute to policy making. But if PISA is to be used as a key arbiter of educational quality, then we need to ensure that its methodology is subjected to critical scrutiny. And politicians and policy makers alike need to look beyond the simplistic and often downright wrong media reporting of PISA results.


Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia. Professor Reid’s research interests include educational policy, curriculum change, social justice and education, citizenship education and the history and politics of public education. He has published widely in these areas and gives many talks and papers to professional groups, nationally and internationally. These include a number of named Lectures and Orations, including the Radford Lecture (AARE); the Fritz Duras Memorial Lecture (ACHPER); the Selby-Smith Oration (ACE); the Hedley Beare Oration (ACE -NT); the Phillip Hughes Oration (ACE – ACT); the Garth Boomer Memorial Lecture (ACSA); and the national conference of the AEU.