SES not the issue
9th November 2013

In the following, published in the Age online, I argue that SES is not the main factor influencing educational outcomes.

There is no denying that a student's socio-economic status (SES), whether measured by postcode, family wealth, parental occupation or education, affects their performance in areas such as NAPLAN and year 12 results, tertiary entry and school completion.

Where there is disagreement is on how influential SES is in determining outcomes and the best way to ensure that demography is not destiny, and that greater numbers of disadvantaged students achieve success.

One of the key messages in the Gonski report, and a motivating factor in much of Julia Gillard's policies when she was education minister, is that SES is the most important factor explaining student performance.

The equity argument is based on the belief that students from well-educated wealthy backgrounds will always have the advantage over students from less privileged and less affluent, working-class, migrant and non-English-speaking backgrounds.

In its submission to the Gonski review of school funding, the Australian Education Union argues that it is a "long-established and well-documented fact" that the SES background of students and their schools had a major influence on their education outcomes.

If only it were that simple. As those familiar with statistics will appreciate, correlation does not always mean causation. Just because two things appear to be linked does not mean one automatically leads to the other.

A good deal of research investigating the impact of SES on students' outcomes suggests there are many other factors, such as teacher effectiveness, curriculum quality, school environment, prior student ability and motivation, and parental expectations.

The authors of the 2013 Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) Report 61, investigating the impact of schools on tertiary entry, conclude that the "average socio-economic status of students at a school does not emerge as a significant factor".

A much earlier 2001 LSAY report carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research reaches a similar conclusion when the authors state that SES, "has a moderate relationship to tertiary entrance performance".

A 2008 report to the government analysing performance in international tests also belies the argument that SES is a major factor: "Correlations in Australia, between socio-economic background and performance, have never been particularly strong when compared internationally. This means socio-economic background is not a particularly strong predictor of performance."

Gary Marks, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, suggests SES has a much less dramatic impact than generally thought. "It accounts for less than 10 per cent of the variation in both tertiary entrance score and university participation." he says.

That students' SES is not as significant as some would like to believe should be cause for optimism. Instead of a student's background automatically equating with underperformance, there are other factors that schools, teachers, governments and policy makers can have a realistic chance of influencing.

For example, ensuring teachers are well-resourced and supported, and giving them the opportunity to mentor one another and share expertise, especially with beginning teachers, is crucial.

As important is ensuring that teacher training and professional development are effective and evidence-based. In addition, schools need to embrace a culture of high expectations, and classrooms need to promote a disciplined and focused learning environment where there is a high rate of time on task.

It might be unpalatable to some, but it also needs to be realised that not all students have an academic bent or are capable of university studies, and that achieving equity in education does not mean the same outcomes for all students.

As acknowledged in the Gonski report: "Equity in this sense does not mean that all students are the same or will achieve the same outcomes."

Equality of opportunity is a commendable and worthwhile ideal, but it should never be confused with equality of outcomes. 



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SES not the issue
9th November 2013
In the following, published in the Age online, I argue that SES is not the main factor influencing educational outcomes. There is no denying that a student's socio-economic status (...

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