Gaps in Educational Attainment: Richard Breen

[MUSIC PLAYING] All countries have
educational systems. Educational systems
all try to achieve very, very similar goals. And every country in
the world, I think, is trying to find what is
the best way to organize our educational system. And so we see things like the
results of the PISA study, for example. And we see that the U.S. performs
kind of a middling range in the PISA studies. And so it would be
foolish, I think, not to look at the
results of those studies and say, what is it
that the countries that perform very well, countries
like Korea and Finland, what is it that they’re doing
that we’re not doing in the U.S.? And could we actually
take any of the things that they do and do them here to
improve our educational system? So if we go back to, let’s
say, the 19th century, then it seemed that in many
countries of the world, your fate in life was
pretty heavily determined by the kind of family
that you were born into. And that was because
the connections that that would give
you and the resources that those families had
in order to give you an education, and so on. They were so
unequally distributed between different social
classes that there was a very close link
between social class origins and social class destination. And then in the 20th
century, we believe those links began to weaken. And they began to
weaken in large part because of the
importance of education, and the fact that
education itself became less of the
preserve of people from more advantaged
backgrounds, and it spread to people
from poorer backgrounds. But starting around 1990,
a consensus developed. And this consensus was
called the hypothesis of persistent inequality. And this argued that,
despite all the increases in educational attainment
in these countries over the 20th century, the
differences in attainment between students from
different social class origins had actually remained
pretty much constant. I have to say, we thought it
was extremely implausible. In fact, we thought
it was ridiculous. So we thought what we should
do is we should test this ourselves. We shouldn’t take other
people’s word for it. We should get our own data. And we should see, does
this thesis hold or not? So we set up our
research to look at how class differences
in educational attainment might have changed
over the 20th century. And we adopted a
comparative perspective. We wanted to look at how
these things have changed in more than one country. And we ended up comparing
eight European countries. Not only did the
educational systems differ, they also changed in different
ways over the 20th century. And they changed
at different times. So we thought that by
comparing these countries and seeing at what
points in time the gaps between different
social classes had changed, that we might actually be
able to see whether some of these changes in
educational systems and in society in
general, whether they’d had any effect on
educational inequality. Our research
completely contradicted the persistent
inequality thesis. We found that over the
course of the 20th century, class inequalities in
education attainment actually did decline,
and in some countries, they declined by a lot. Countries where class
inequalities declined, they had made lots
of policy changes in their educational systems. Early in the 20th century,
many secondary schools actually charged fees. And over the course of the 20th
century, government stepped in. And they reduced these fees. And eventually, they
abolished them entirely. And they took over the
funding of secondary education themselves. But many countries went
a lot further than that. And Sweden is a very
good example of this. Starting back in the 1920s,
Swedish policy in schools was really quite revolutionary. They introduced, for
example, health care within schools, school
meals for children. And they very rapidly moved to
a comprehensive school system. In other words,
children were no longer streamed into academic
and non-academic tracks. They were all put
in what are now called comprehensive schools. Among the countries
that we compared, the U.S. was not included. That was because
we couldn’t find data that would
make the U.S. really comparable to these
eight European countries. Nevertheless, people have looked
at this in the U.S. context. And what they found is
that class inequalities in educational
attainment do seem to have declined over the 20th
century, but rather modestly. As inequality grows, this
trend may have come to a halt. And rather than educational
attainment continuing to be spread more
widely among people from different social
classes, it now becomes much more
dominated by people who have greater resources. And because resources are
more unequally distributed now at the beginning
of the 21st century than they have been for
almost the past 100 years, the concern is that
social mobility is then going to slow down as well,
because people from poorer backgrounds simply can’t
compete with people from better off backgrounds. Education is really
the thing that breaks the link between
the social class someone is born into and the social
class that they themselves end up in. And if an educational
system doesn’t do that, then clearly it’s failing. It’s failing not only the
people in the country, but it’s also failing
the country itself, because it’s not making the best
use of the potential resources of the people of that country. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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