School factors helping disadvantaged students to succeed: empirical evidence from four Italian cities
Written by Tommaso Agasisti, Mara Soncin & Riccardo Valenti
1. MOTIVATION, BACKGROUND AND RESEARCH QUESTION
A key challenge for policy-makers is to ensure that a country’s education system can guarantee equal access to education. An education system that is equitable both in terms of fairness and inclusion can reduce the negative effect of social and economic inequality (Field, Kuczera, and Pont 2007; OECD 2012a).
Lack of fairness and inclusion compounds school failure and dropouts, leading to higher economic and social costs. Among the factors that can cause low attainment levels and high failure rates at school, the students’ socio-economic background plays a fundamental role; indeed, some statistics reveal that students from a low socio-economic background have a double probability to be low performers (OECD 2012a). The impact of students’ socio-economic status (SES) on their achievement levels has been widely investigated since publication of the trailblazer report by Coleman et al. (1966).
In Italy, using a two-step regression, Brunello and Checchi (2005) found that better school quality is particularly significant for students from an underprivileged family background. According to their evidence, a good school can substitute parental education, helping children to overcome their social gap. Moreover, with the increasing disparity between rich and poor families, it is even more urgent to work towards greater equity in education. Students from a low-SES background tend to have less family support and to live in communities with fewer resources, and this has a negative impact on their attainment levels. The research line that investigates the effect of a student’s SES on their performance can be classified within the stream of literature that studies the determinants of educational results linked to student-type characteristics.
In this line of research, a person’s socio-economic standing is often associated to whether they are immigrants (e.g. Schnepf 2007; Meunier 2011) or the level of their parents’ education (e.g. Ermisch and Francesconi 2000; Lauer 2003). Chevalier et al. (2005) have investigated the causal effect of parental education and household income in the UK, highlighting the importance of permanent family income in determining whether the offspring will be early school leavers. Corak (2013) underlined that the parents’ investment in their children’s education is not only purely monetary (the result of higher household income), but also non-monetary (in terms of motivation and aspiration).
Research has also shown that a student’s performance is influenced both by his/her own socio-economic background and by the SES background and achievement of his/her peers (known as the peer effect, see van Ewijk and Sleegers 2010, for a summary), which in turn entails important policy implications concerning the school environment.