Egalitarian School Systems Breed Better Student Performance

Cross-posted from the international education blog

Imagine you are a policymaker tasked with overhauling your countries education system. You are faced with a bewildering list of competing claims, all advanced with absolute certainty by proponents. Should you listen to the economists who want to expand school choice? What about the trendy calls to replicate the ‘Finnish miracle’? Should you try to produce a near carbon copy of the Finnish system? What about a return to old fashion tracking like the Germans and the Dutch? Empirical data exists but most of the best stuff is on local interventions that are unlikely to tell you much about how a particular policy will affect the whole education system.

This is why high quality, multi-cycle, and multi-nation studies like PISA are so valuable. They allow policymakers to compare countries with different policy environments on a common metric; literacy, numeracy, and science achievement. Policy makers can also compare results across time to see how the introduction of some policy has benefited or harmed the performance of a country’s students.

Policy Question: Does Achievement Stratification Help or Harm?

Using PISA we asked: do countries that stratify their schools by academic achievement do better in PISA tests than countries that do not? Stratification refers to lots of different policies such as school tracking, private schooling, selective schools, magnet schools, school choice polices, and school catchment area policies in countries that are highly geographically segregated by income and wealth. All these policies result in smarter children being schooled together and separately from less smart children. You can read the full text of our article here.

There are many good reasons for doing this. Perhaps smarter children can only flourish when educated among their peers. Teachers may be able to target their teaching to the level of the students. School choice may provide parents with latitude to select a school that has the right fit for their child. But stratification may also have negative effects.

Poorer performing students may enjoy the help of smarter children. And smarter children may gain a richer understanding of a topic by teaching it to other students. In addition, a now extensive body of research shows that children educated in selective schools have poorer motivation, worse self-beliefs, and lower academic interest than similarly able peers educated in comprehensive schools.

What We Found

With these competing views we collated data from five cycles of PISA to look at the relationship between the amount of stratification in a countries education system and their performance. We also looked at whether increases or decreases in stratification over time are related to improvements or declines in average academic performance. The figure below tells the story. Countries where stratification increased experienced declines in average performance.


Our research argues that policies that increase achievement stratification are associated with declines in academic performance. Should policy makers change school systems based on our research? On its own: no. Yet the results are illuminating and, taken as part of a larger body of research, suggest policymakers should aim to create more egalitarian school systems.

Thingification: Bad Writing Leads to Bad Theory

Repression, according to Freud, is a common phenomenon. Note repression is a noun here. People don’t repress. Rather repression is the name of a state that seems to happen all on its own. This is the point that Michael Billig makes in his book Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Billig points out that Freud’s theory turns the verb to repress into the noun repression. Freud does this to make his theory sound scientific. But in doing so we lose a heap of important theoretical information. Who does the repression? How does it happen? What processes result in it?

My colleague in my writing circle calls this thingification. But in keeping with the theme of this post I suppose I should talk about when researchers thingify an abstract process.

I see this is my field a lot. “Growth mindset is associated with persistence”. This sounds like a sufficiently science like expression that we let it go by unexamined. We then expect the scientist to collect survey data on growth mindset and persistence and then test their relationship to determine the strength and direction of the association. But the statement “growth mindset is associated with persistence” leaves so much unsaid. 

A better statement would be: children who believe their ability is fixed, and thus cannot change, are unlikely to persist in overcoming obstacles to their learning. Notice how I replace the weak term associated with richer causal language? See how this language specifies a process for the association? The child is now an actor in the sentence who believes things and acts accordingly. 

In the original statement, it is the variables doing things to each other. But as John Goldthorpe states “variables don’t do things, people do”. Notice further that this sentence invites further specification? We can now ask:

  • How did the child come to believe this? 
  • Do they believe only their ability is fixed or everyones? 
  • What do such children make of a school system that demands they practice, practice, practice?

Social scientists thingify to sound more scientific. But in doing so we have created a myriad of under-specified theories and a science about people that is almost entirely absent of people.

STEM Gender Gaps in Motivation, Interest, and Self-belief are Huge Right?

We recently had a meta-analysis on STEM gender differences in motivation, interest, and self-belief in Educational Psychology Review. We could not be more thrilled. And a big thank you to my former PhD student Brooke for all her work on this. The results are in the paper poster download below. But first some context for why there is a download in the first place.

I have been thinking about using Kudos for new papers and this seemed like a good paper to give it a try. I spent longer than I like setting up a design brief for this. But now it is done, I have a template in In Design I can use for all new papers as well as themes for ggplot and a standard color pallet. My design choices were:

  1. Use of three colors only; all blues. I think this is elegant but is also advantageous for me as I am color blind.
  2. For plots I have modified the economist white theme from ggthemes. So here on out all my plots will be consistent.
  3. I used a combination serif and san-serif set of fonts the work nicely together. I chose Avenir book and EB Garamond. I am not super happy with these but I don’t like the idea of paying $400 for the fonts I really want. I may want to swap out EB Garamond for Nanum Myeong to have a more crisp feel. Not sure yet.

Anyway, you can see the result here:

Comments welcome; particularly on fonts, general look, and plot theme as I will want to role these out for other papers. I still need a lot of work on distilling the message of my papers down to 100 or so Sticky words. And my In Design skills are weak (though I think I am getting better with my R to Illustrator workflow).

Variables Don’t Do Things

Drone shot high angle shot man 2120084

Variables don’t do things, people do.

John Goldthorpe, On Sociology, 2006

Modern social sciences have a very paradoxical flaw. Social sciences are supposed to be about people and why they do what they do. But read a modern education, sociology, or psychology journal and not a single person is in sight. Instead abstract theoretical concepts predict other abstract theoretical concepts. In short people have disappeared from the people sciences. The aim of this blog is to provide people first social science.