American students score lower on international mathematics tests than students from countries that are poorer but with more equal distributions of family income, such as Finland, according to a University at Buffalo professor who has found links among income equality within countries, school equality and higher mathematics achievement in 41 countries.
"In countries with more equal incomes, governments tend to spend more money on better public schools and teachers," says Ming Ming Chiu, the author of an international study that explains this connection, and a professor in the Department of Learning and Instruction in UB's Graduate School of Education. "This typically helps poorer students more than richer students, who often have more computers and better-educated parents at home."
The study, "Effects of Inequality, Family and School on Mathematics Achievement: Country and Student Differences" analyzed country inequalities, family inequalities, school inequalities and almost 108,000 15-year-olds' math tests (including nearly 4,000 U.S. students) in 41 countries. It was published in the winter edition of the sociology journal Social Forces. The educators used data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International Student Assessment.
"While money matters, equality also matters," says Chiu, who says that his study found that students' math scores are highest in countries that are both rich and equal.
"Wealth and equality are not enemies," he says, "Many countries have become both richer and more equal. Hence, government and school leaders can improve student achievement through both larger education budgets and more equal distribution policies."
The study showed into how country, family and school characteristics were linked to mathematics scores. In countries with more equal distributions of income, students scored higher in mathematics.
Chiu also found that books and other physical educational resources were linked to higher math scores in all countries, but intangible educational processes (family communication and teacher-student relationships, for example) had stronger links to math scores in richer countries. "In richer countries, everyone has access to books, so discussions with teachers or parents about those books become more important," says Chiu.
Chiu's study also explains the puzzling Heyneman-Loxley problem. Professors Stephen Heyneman and William Loxley found that family characteristics have a stronger effect on student achievement in richer countries than in poorer countries. This result was puzzling because richer countries typically have more public resources such as library books that are substitutes for family resources like books at home, which would reduce their importance.
"After distinguishing between physical vs. intangible educational resources, such as books vs. discussions," says Chiu, "the results show that public vs. home substitution does occur for physical resources, but not for intangible resources. For example, teachers in poorer schools do not adequately substitute for the educated parents in richer families."