The Role of Families, Schools and Education Systems in Creating Educational Inequalities. Summer and School Year Learning in Finland and the US
The PISA studies have prompted many researchers to look at differences in education systems that explain why some countries outperform others in PISA. Arguments put forward to explain the Finnish success are that the country recruits all its teachers from the best high-school graduates, has very equal schools in terms of student composition, and provides special support to students with learning difficulties. In the US, on the contrary, schools are very unequal in terms of student compositions, financial resources and teacher quality. In addition, competition between schools increases inequalities between schools. Therefore, US students from disadvantaged families attend much more disadvantaged schools than their Finnish peers. The argument is thus that the schools’ capacity to be “equalizers” might be stronger in Finland with its egalitarian education system.
However, critics argue that the focus on education systems takes away the focus from the underlying problem, namely socioeconomic inequalities (Berliner 2013; Condron 2013; Duncan and Murnane 2011; Merry 2013). The US is the developed country with the highest socioeconomic inequality (Pontusson 2005; Smeeding et al. 2011), while Finland is one of the most equal countries in this respect. Thus, Finland might perform well not so much because of its excellent education system but because child poverty is low, the welfare-state provides health care and preschools are of high quality. Thus, the question is whether the story is one about families or one about schools.
To separate the effects of the education system from the effect of families is methodologically challenging as students’ learning is shaped not only by education systems but also by families. If a country performs well in PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS, it is not clear whether this is due to its education system or because children are fostered well within their families. Analytical strategy
One possibility to analytically disentangle the influence of families and schools is a comparison: How much do students learn during the summer break und how much during term time? During term time, learning is shaped by families and schools. During the summer holidays, on the other hand, learning is shaped by non-school influences alone (Alexander et al. 2001; Downey et al. 2004; Lindahl 2001). If performance inequalities between students from different family backgrounds increase less during the school year than during the summer, it is possible to argue that schools counteract (part of the) inequality between families. I will use the strategy of comparing school year and summer learning to disentangle school and family effects in the US and Finland. The question is why Finnish students perform well much more independently of their social background than they do in the US. Is this due to the more equal family conditions in Finland or due to the egalitarian school system? If it is due to the more equal family conditions, then Finnish students from different social backgrounds are expected to learn at more equal rates during the summer than do US students. During the summer, schools are closed. Therefore, more unequal learning during the summer can be attributed mainly to families. If the egalitarian school system contributes to equalizing the performance of students from different social backgrounds in Finland, students from low social backgrounds are expected to catch up during the school year in Finland but not in the US. Data
For Finland the data comes from the Jyväskylä Entrance into Primary Schools Study(Rauno et al. 2005). The data for the US comes from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study Kindergarten Cohort of 1998-99 (ECLS-K). In both studies children were followed from kindergarten through middle school until age 14/16. Both studies measure children’s literacy and mathematics skills in the fall and spring of kindergarten and the fall and spring of first grade. This allows me to estimate learning rates during the last kindergarten year, the summer holidays, and the first grade.
Although children in the two countries were tested in reading and mathematics, because the tests were not the same, the scores between the two countries cannot be directly compared. As a result, it is not possible to judge whether children entering school are more advanced in reading in Finland or the US. This is a drawback in comparison to internationally comparative studies. The advantage is that within each country, it is possible to compare progress during the summer to progress during the school year, as scores are measured on the same scale at each wave. Main findings
I find that learning during the summer does not differ by parents’ education in Finland, while, in the US, gaps between children from different family backgrounds increase during the summer. As summer learning is not influenced by schools but mainly by families, this suggests that the lower degree of socioeconomic inequalities between families contributes to Finland’s high educational equality. In addition, students from lower-educated parents in Finland catch up during the school year, while they do not do so in the US. This suggests that schools play an equalizing role for reading performance in Finland that cannot be found in the US. As the gap between the US and Finland is concentrated among disadvantaged students, the findings indicate that families as well as schools play a role in explaining the Finnish advantage over the US.