I wanted to follow up on what I wrote last week about the American Mathematical Society article, “Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.” As you’ll recall, the data suggested that gender disparities in mathematics performance are entirely attributable to social factors, and not indicative of a fundamental biological difference between the sexes. However, that’s not all the study told us. A close look at the very last graph of that paper suggests something very interesting:
The horizontal scale plots the performance of different countries on the gender equity index, where 100% suggests perfect equity between males and females. The vertical scale plots two values, the solid dots represent the percentage of students scoring over 400 (a low pass) and the open dots the percentage of students scoring over 550 (a higher achievement). What’s interesting is that as gender equity improves, the overall achievement of students (i.e., both genders) improves.
And this is true both at the high and low ends of academic achievement. To translate this into letter grades for illustration purposes, this graph is telling us that in countries with better equity, more students at the lower end of achievement are achieving Cs and Ds rather than Fs. At the higher end, a greater percentage of students is achieving As rather than Bs. This graph was first brought to my attention by physicist Ethan Siegel’s analysis of the report.
Of course we always have to be wary about jumping to the conclusion that A causes B when we see a relationship like this. But I’ve heard this story before. Consider the recent US visit by Finnish education guru, Pasi Sahlberg. Finland has been doing something right, or several somethings, for some time. And it seems like US reform measures — be they “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top” or the current American charter schools fetish — miss the point.
Finland didn’t get to where it is now by pitting schools, districts or even different educational models against each other. Its focus from the start was eliminating social inequity. In Finland it doesn’t matter where you live or how much money your family has. Sahlberg tells us that every child will receive an equal education. And international rankings like the PISA tell us that this education is premier in the world.
They achieve this through cooperation rather than competition. While in the US, rich parents send their kids to the most prestigious private schools and poor parents desperately enter charter school lotteries, Finland works hard to ensure that the specific school a child goes to is irrelevant to a child’s future success. The country has maintained its high international standing even as immigration has drastically increased, suggesting this approach to education works for everyone, no matter what social, ethnic or economic group they are coming from.
Could it be a coincidence that closing the socioeconomic gap has also improved educational achievement for all students? In the United States, greater and greater social stratification has gone hand-in-hand with reports of failing schools. As Occupy Wall Street dominates headlines, simultaneously we are seeing the biggest (but most directionless) shake-up in US education reform in decades.
What does the correlation mean? Does improved equity (whether it’s gender equity or socioeconomic equity) automatically improve schools? Perhaps the privileged group is less likely to coast when they aren’t given every advantage and told they’re the “elites.”
Or does improved school instruction automatically improve equity? Perhaps the students with the most disadvantages have more to gain by better educational opportunities.
I submit that it doesn’t matter. What we can take away is that making schools better and making schools equitable go hand in hand. Since both things are desirable (to most of us, I hope), we have really good news. It’s possible to have better educational opportunity for everyone. Surely we can all get behind that. Is it finally time to reconsider the sink-or-swim, laissez-faire economics approach some politicians are promoting?
Photo credit: woodleywonderworks