Sept. 9, 2008

Funding isn't linked to student success, but parents' education and income are: CU sociologist

Most people believe that school funding levels have a strong and direct connection to academic performance, says Cornell sociologist Stephen Morgan.

But research data reveal that money does not explain the vast majority of differences in scores. Better predictors of whether a student succeeds: the education level and socio-economic status of her or his parents.

Morgan called the topic "perhaps the most famous and ongoing debate" in education, during a lecture Sept. 4 at the Cornell Club in New York City.

The seminar, "Opportunity 102: Inequality in Education," is the second in a four-lecture series designed to deepen understanding of issues of inequality and provoke thought about "why social science is important for questions we think about every day," said David Harris, Cornell sociology professor and interim provost, who helped organize the series. Harris gave the first lecture of the series, "Opportunity 101: What Affects Access," June 18.

To support his case, Morgan, an associate professor of sociology and director of the Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality, cited an analysis of the U.S. Department of Education's Education Longitudinal Study. It showed that math test scores of more than 15,000 high school sophomores in 751 public high schools in 2002 revealed little link between funding levels and academic performance. There was only a slight increase in test scores between lower and higher funded schools, Morgan showed.

The vast majority of differences in students' scores are "not between schools but within schools," said Morgan, citing studies that find overwhelmingly that students from families with higher socio-economic status score much higher on tests within the same school.

Some research findings suggest that students from affluent backgrounds may strive to out-do their parent's success, and this alone can account for some of the differences. But "a much bigger piece is parental influence," said Morgan. "Parents who are college graduates are much better at convincing children that schooling pays off." Also, teachers themselves may have expectations that students should end up like their parents, and may therefore introduce their own biases and preferences when they teach.

Newer research suggests that college-educated parents are more comfortable intervening when schooling goes awry, and that an imbalanced structure common to schools has the best teachers in challenging, advanced classes and worse teachers in remedial classes. Remedial classes can too often become traps that reinforce the underperformance they are meant to address.

Morgan said that throwing more money at schools will not help much unless some of that money is used to compensate for differences created by family background. New strategies include charter schools with systems to address differences; simple, rigorous, coherent curricula; and managing student behavior by training students to remain focused in class (such as the strategy known as SLANT -- sit up straight, lean forward, act interested, nod and smile occasionally, track the teacher).

The next lecture, "Opportunity 103: Inequality at Work," to be led by Francine Blau, the Frances Perkins Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Labor Economics, will take place at the Cornell Club Oct. 2.