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Addressing Educational Inequalities in the Classroom...

Updated: Sep 23, 2019

...or how to start reconciling teacher quality with social justice

By Alejandro Paniagua

Teachers have historically been seen as performing a special mission in our society. Although the role of “distal” and “proximal” factors in the reproduction of educational inequalities continues to be a controversial issue, the renewal of the teaching centrality discourse over the last two decades has been accompanied by heroic conceptualisations of teachers and salvation discourses that implicitly impose unfair demands on the profession. An emphasis on teacher centrality not only risks understating the political and economic variables affecting schooling, but also implies simultaneously praising and blaming teachers, leaving teachers to shoulder “the ‘Atlas complex’ of teaching, whereby teachers perceive themselves as having to be everything to everyone, all of the time”, to borrow the words of Marianne Larsen.

As Jean Anyon stated years ago, schools did not create poverty or precarious jobs and, consequently, schools alone will not solve these problems. In fact, some scholars have highlighted how educational panic is used as a tool by policy makers to shape public opinion, thus emphasis on raising “teacher quality” becomes a smoke screen that effectively obscures the issue of equity in education. Echoing the seminal work of Jean Anyon in the 80s, this brief post aims at helping to balance these apparent contradictions by focusing on how certain innovations within the classroom can contribute to lessening the effects of inequality and increasing the success of those students more at-risk of suffering from educational inequalities.

It is important to highlight that it is one thing to fight against low socio economic status (SES) and a very different thing to change the educational inequalities that derive from these inequalities. Too often, social and educational inequalities are used interchangeably, but they are distinct. Research continues to show the links between low SES and educational gaps, as well as the impact on early school leaving. However, it is no less true that research and our own experiences are filled with cases of schools and classrooms that, working against the odds, are successful or at least do better than other schools facing similarly complex contexts. A paramount idea arises from this contradiction that has been discussed using data from PISA 2012: part of the educational inequalities understood as directly derived from SES inequalities are the result of unequal curricular opportunities. In other words, schools offer fewer opportunities to learn (OTL) to students from low SES backgrounds.

The idea of OTL, initially proposed by Carroll in 1963, highlights something hardly surprising: as students spend more time exposed to the content they have to learn, learning outcomes improve. However, educational research has long shown that this exposition to the content varies enormously between schools, classrooms and teachers. On the one hand, between- and within- school level segregation and ability grouping produce poor curricular adaptations for particular groups (usually those from low SES backgrounds) who are exposed to less rich curricular content or content that is not age appropriate. Yet on the other hand, teachers’ expectations and their capacity to engage students also explain differences in the opportunities to learn available to each student.

In 2012, PISA included the idea of OTL for the first time and asked students how frequently they were exposed to key curricular concepts according to their educational level. Building on their responses, it was possible to calculate OTL gaps, that is to say, the difference between those students who spend more time receiving curricular content and those who spend less. As illustrated in Figure 1, all OECD countries showed OTL gaps between higher SES students and students from more vulnerable contexts, which are stronger when measured at the between-school level. Even though the relationship between OTL and performance gaps is not completely proportional (e.g. Mexico shows an OTL gap two times higher than Poland but has a smaller performance gap), the regression describes an overall and rather clear relationship between OTL gaps and performance gaps.

Figure 1. OTL and performance gaps in PISA countries. Source: Schmmidt et al., 2015. “The role of Schooling in perpetuating educational inequality: an International perspective.” Educational Researcher, 44, 7: 371-386.

The existence of OTL gaps linked to SES appears as a key starting point from which social inequalities translate into particular educational processes that perpetuate educational inequalities. Hence, we can better understand the importance of SES and how schools interact with these different students´ backgrounds to offer more or less opportunities to learn.

As we can see in Table 1, a significant part of the SES impact on achievement gaps is the result of the indirect impact of social class, that is, the impact of school decisions based on SES differences. The variation across OECD countries supports the plasticity of this variable, which is a consequence of school organization and teaching practices and expectations, encapsulated by the notion of opportunities to learn. This means that schools could potentially, on average, lessen up to 37% of the educational inequalities associated with SES if they offered more equitable opportunities to learn to all students.

Table 1. Direct and indirect effects of socioeconomic background on educational inequality. Source: Schmmidt et al., 2015. “The role of Schooling in perpetuating educational inequality: an International perspective.” Educational Researcher, 44, 7: 371-386.

The development of variables of this kind in future assessments or the inclusion of new ones (e.g. OECD TALIS is developing a video study to identify those teaching practices that work better in the classroom) will allow us to have more detailed information about what really happens inside schools and, consequently, produce new knowledge to inform how to improve them. It is in this window of opportunity where innovative pedagogies and the role of teachers should be placed. Rather than trying to use innovation to confront poverty or the impact of precarious family backgrounds, innovation must approach poverty in terms of particular educational mechanisms at work. Being able to measure these mechanisms, in this case by using the idea of opportunities to learn, provides a vantage point on which the discourses around teacher quality and teaching innovations must build in order to connect with wider approaches to social justice and equity in education.


Alejandro is an International Education Consultant, currently working for the OECD and Brookings Institute. To learn more about Alejandro's work or get in touch about this piece, visit his member profile page.

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