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Family inequality, school inequalities, and mathematics


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Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and
Mathematics Achievement in 65 Countries:
Microeconomic Mechanisms of Rent
Seeking and Diminishing Marginal Returns
MING MING CHIU
University at Buffalo, SUNY

Background: While many studies show that greater economic inequality widens the achieve-
ment gap between rich and poor students, recent studies indicate that countries with greater
economic inequality have lower overall student achievement.
Purpose: This study explores whether family inequalities (family income) or school inequali-
ties (educational materials or teachers with university degrees) reduce overall student achieve-
ment through micro-economic mechanisms, such as fewer educational resources (via rent-
seeking) or inefficient resource allocation (via diminishing marginal returns).
Population/Participants/Subjects: The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and
Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (OECD-PISA) selected 475,760
representative fifteen-year-olds and their principals from 18,094 schools in 65 countries.
Research Design: In this secondary analysis, we tested whether family or school inequalities
were related to students’ mathematics test scores, and whether fewer educational resources or
inefficient resources allocation mediated these relationships.
Data Collection and Analysis: Each student received a mathematics test. The students and
their principals also received a questionnaire. World Bank economic data on each countries
were merged with the OECD-PISA data. To analyze this data, we used item response models,
Warm indices and multilevel analyses.
Findings/Results: In countries with greater family inequality (GDP Gini) or school inequali-
ties (of educational materials or teacher quality), students had lower mathematics achieve-
ment. The results were similar in all student subsamples (high vs. low SES; high vs. low
achievement). As the mediation results for each inequality differed, they suggest that these
inequalities operate through different mechanisms. Family inequality and school inequal-
ity of teacher quality are linked to fewer teachers with post-secondary education and lower
mathematics achievement. Meanwhile, school inequality of educational resources is linked to
diminishing marginal returns and lower mathematics achievement.
Conclusions/Recommendations: Family inequality and school inequalities (educational
materials, teacher quality) are distinct inequalities that are all linked to lower mathematics
achievement, but not substantially correlated with one another. Thus, each inequality can

Teachers College Record Volume 117, 010305, January 2015, 32 pages


Copyright © by Teachers College, Columbia University
0161-4681
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Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

be addressed separately. As none of the subgroups of students (not even the richest ones) ben-
efit from any of the inequalities, disseminating the results widely can help more laypeople
(especially the richest ones) recognize their mutual benefit in reducing these inequalities –or
reduce their inclination to support policies that exacerbate these inequalities. As reducing
family inequality can be extremely costly and politically controversial, a strategic interven-
tion at the inequality mechanism level (e.g., increasing teacher quality in schools with few
high quality teachers) might be improve mathematics achievement more effectively.

While many studies show that greater economic inequality widens the
achievement gap between rich and poor students, recent studies indicate
that countries with greater economic inequality also have lower overall
student achievement, and this study explores whether microeconomic
mechanisms, such as rent seeking and diminishing marginal returns,
help account for this relationship. Rent seeking refers to using resources
to acquire wealth without producing new goods or services (e.g., lobby-
ing, fraud, extortion, etc.), resulting in less overall society productivity.
Diminishing marginal returns occurs when increasing one type of re-
source yields decreasing benefits, which can result in inefficient allocation
of resources. Previous research has shown that greater economic inequali-
ty widens the gap between privileged and disadvantaged students for many
individual outcomes such as learning, crime, and health. For example,
students who are economically disadvantaged experience less learning,
poorer health, and more crime (D. P. Baker, Goesling, & Letendre, 2002;
Phillips & Chin, 2004; Wilkinson 2001, 2004). Specifically, students in
countries with greater inequality (family inequality or school inequalities)
have lower achievement levels (e.g., Chiu, 2007, 2008, 2010; Chiu & Khoo,
2005). Hence, greater inequality in a country is linked to lower overall
academic achievement.
Extending this line of research in microeconomic theory (Mankiw,
2004), I propose that microeconomic mechanisms might account for the
relationships between inequalities and academic achievement; specifi-
cally, countries with greater family inequality or greater school inequali-
ties might have more rent-seeking and diminishing marginal returns.
These microeconomic mechanisms can reduce educational resources or
allocate resources less efficiently, resulting in fewer learning opportuni-
ties and lower student academic achievement. This study tests the pro-
posed relationships with PISA achievement data from 475,760 fifteen-
year-olds in 65 countries and questionnaire responses from their school
principals. First, I tested whether family inequality or school inequalities
in a country were related to its overall mathematics test scores. Second,
I tested whether microeconomic mechanisms help explain how fam-
ily inequality or school inequalities are related to overall mathematics

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

achievement in each country. Understanding how family and school


inequalities are related to achievement can help inform decisions by
countries about allocation of their limited resources to maximize their
students’ learning.

How Family and School Inequalities Affect Student


Achievement

Family inequality and school inequalities might reduce student achieve-


ment through different mechanisms. After defining each type of inequal-
ity, I explicate two microeconomics mechanisms. Then, I discuss how fam-
ily and school inequalities might operate through these microeconomics
mechanisms to reduce student achievement.

Family and School Inequalities

In this article, family inequality is defined as the income difference across


households (specifically, a Gini index, which is suitable for nonnormal
distributions such as income; see computational definition in methods
section; Mankiw, 2004). At one extreme, if all families in a country have
identical income, the Gini index = 0. At the other extreme, if one family
has all the income, the Gini index = 100.
National policies can increase or reduce family inequality. For example,
poor families pay more tax in a regressive tax system and less tax in a
progressive tax system. In contrast, rich families pay less tax in a regres-
sive tax system and more tax in a progressive tax system. As a result, the
difference in after-tax income between poor and rich families is greater
in a regressive tax system and smaller in a progressive tax system; hence,
regressive tax systems tend to increase family inequality and progressive
tax systems tend to reduce family inequality, ceteris paribus. In France, the
progressive tax and social welfare system cuts its income inequality Gini
index of 0.48 before taxes to 0.29 after taxes (OECD, 2009a). Regressive
taxes, corruption, and a weak legal system can increase family inequal-
ity, while progressive taxes, welfare, transparency, and minimum health
and safety standards (e.g., clean water) can reduce it (Mankiw, 2004;
Merryman & Perez-Perdomo, 2007; Rothstein, 2000; Schenk & Oldman,
2007; Schubert, 2006; Williams, 2005).
As family inequality is defined across households, school inequality is
defined as differences in educational resources across schools (Gamoran
& Long, 2006). Two types of educational resources are educational materi-
als and teacher quality. As with family inequality, absolute school equality
of educational materials entails that every school has identical educational
materials, while absolute school inequality entails that one school has all

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Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

the educational materials and other schools have none (McKenzie, 2005).
Likewise, similar teacher quality across schools yields greater school equal-
ity of teacher quality, while concentrating the best teachers in a few schools
yields less school equality of teacher quality (McKenzie, 2005).
Countries with greater family inequality often have greater school in-
equalities (Rothstein, 2000). Countries with less household income in-
equality are more likely to have a universal public school system with
minimum teacher certification standards, which result in fewer school
inequalities among students (Hanushek & Wöbmann, 2006). Consider
Finland versus Papua New Guinea. Finland has one of the lowest family
income Gini indices in the world (0.27) and her citizens largely believe
in the basic equality of each person (egalitarian cultural value; House,
Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2004) and support government pro-
vision of education to all of their children (Antikainen & Luukkainen,
2008). As a result, Finland has universal, compulsory, free education with
free meals and free transportation for all students. Furthermore, Finland’s
distribution of educational materials and teacher quality is similar across
all students (in part because Finland does not separate students by achieve-
ment scores—no tracking).
In contrast, Papua New Guinea has one of the highest family income
Gini indices in the world (0.51; CIA, 2012) and most of her citizens be-
lieve that power is naturally distributed unequally, so they do not expect
equal educational opportunities for all (hierarchical cultural value, Rao,
Manohar, & Mellam, 2008). Unlike Finland, Papua New Guinea schools
charge fees, and prestigious schools typically have more educational ma-
terials, better quality teachers, and charge higher fees than other schools
(UNESCO, 2010). As a result, 22% of primary school-age children in
Papua New Guinea did not attend any school in 2009 (UNDP, 2010).

Microeconomic mechanisms

Economists have shown how distribution of resources can influence


productivity in microeconomic theory; specifically, unequal distribution
of resources can reduce economic productivity through two microeco-
nomic mechanisms, rent seeking and diminishing marginal returns
(Mankiw, 2004). This section explicates each mechanism and the fol-
lowing section will apply them to education. (Other potential inequality
mechanisms, such as psychological inferiority [e.g., Wilkinson, 2001]
and less social bonding [e.g., homophily, McPherson, Smith‑Lovin, &
Cook, 2001], are not supported by the data and are not discussed due
to space considerations.)

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

Rent Seeking

A company can invest its resources to produce new wealth (new goods or
services for sale, profit seeking) or use its resources to acquire a greater
share of existing wealth (without producing new goods or services, rent
seeking, Ilzetzki, 2011). For example, a textbook company can invest in a
new factory to produce more books (goods) to sell (profit seeking). Or,
the same company can instead pay lobbyists to persuade government of-
ficials to cut its taxes; this rent-seeking behavior seeks to increase its share
of existing wealth without creating any new goods or services to sell.
Profit-seeking behavior aims to increase social wealth, while rent-seek-
ing behavior reduces social wealth (Murphy, Shliefer, & Vishny, 1993).
As profit-seeking behaviors increase goods and services, it increases so-
cial wealth. In contrast, rent-seeking behaviors spend resources without
increasing goods or services; by diverting resources from potential profit-
seeking behaviors (opportunity cost), social wealth is lower than it would
be otherwise (Ilzetzki, 2011). Continuing with the above example, the
textbook company has limited resources, so the amount that it invests in
lobbying and other rent-seeking activities reduces its profit-seeking activi-
ties (factories, online services, etc.), resulting in less overall social wealth.
In industries with greater inequality of assets among companies, compa-
nies with more assets have greater incentive and greater means to engage in
rent-seeking behavior, resulting in less social wealth (Murphy et al., 1993).
For example, sugar cane farmers in India often jointly own regional coop-
erative sugar processing facilities and divide the revenues from the resulting
sales (Sukhtankar, 2012). In regions whose sugar cane farmers produce simi-
lar amounts of raw sugar, the revenues are divided according to the sugar
cane produced by each grower, who then invests in more farm equipment
to produce more sugar cane. In regions whose farmers produce sharply dif-
ferent amounts of sugar cane, larger sugar growers exert their greater in-
formation, influence, and control to divert revenues (e.g., in Maharashtra,
sugarcane cooperatives build temples and donate money to these temples,
which they control), thereby paying proportionately less to smaller farmers
who have less time and information to monitor the larger farmers’ decisions
(Banerjee, Mookherjee, Munshi, & Ray, 2001). Not only do larger farmers
spend their money on temples rather than farm equipment, smaller farmers
are also less likely to invest in expensive farming equipment if their sugar
revenues are too low. As a result, regions with greater inequality among sugar
cane farmers typically produce less sugar while regions with greater equality
among sugar cane farmers typically produce more sugar. In short, regions in
India with greater inequality among sugar cane farmers showed more rent-
seeking behavior and produced less sugar (Banerjee et al., 2001).

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Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

Diminishing Marginal Returns

When a company has a fixed set of labor and materials, increasing one type
of input will often eventually yield smaller additional benefits (diminishing
marginal returns; Samuelson & Nordhaus, 2009). Consider for example, a ta-
ble-making company with one carpenter. The company decides to buy some
hammers for her. The first hammer is extremely useful because she can use
it more effectively than other tools to drive a nail into a wood plank. The sec-
ond hammer might be marginally helpful as a backup, but is less useful than
the first hammer. A third hammer offers little additional benefit. The high
value of the first hammer, the lower value of the second hammer, and the
miniscule value of the third hammer is an example of diminishing marginal
returns in which each additional hammer has less value, ceteris paribus.
Hence, diminishing marginal returns yields less productivity (Demirguc-
Kunt & Levine, 2009). Figure 1 shows a productivity curve with diminishing
marginal returns (increasing at a slower rate, positive first derivative, and a
negative second derivative). Imagine that calculators are equally distributed
throughout a country, so that each person has a calculator. Now imagine
an unequal distribution in which some of the calculators are moved from
poorer people to richer people, so that poor people have no calculators and
richer people have multiple calculators (e.g., one at home and one at the of-
fice). As shown by Figure 1, when a calculator is moved from a poor person
to a rich person, its productivity falls as its benefit to the rich person (who al-
ready has a calculator) is smaller than its benefit to the poor person. Hence,
unequal distributions of calculators (or other educational resources) can
result in inefficient allocation of resources at the societal level, which re-
duces productivity (student learning in the realm of education).
Figure 1. Inequality and diminishing marginal returns

The productivity of a hammer falls if moved from a poor person with only one
hammer (thick, solid vertical line) to a rich person who already has many ham-
mers (thin, dashed line)

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

Inequalities, microeconomic mechanisms, and academic


achievement

These microeconomic mechanisms of rent-seeking behavior and dimin-


ishing marginal returns may help explain how family and school inequali-
ties reduce students’ academic achievement. These inequalities may re-
duce educational resources via rent seeking or reduce resource allocation
efficiency via diminishing marginal returns, both of which result in stu-
dents’ lower academic achievement.

Fewer educational resources

Family and school inequalities may reduce students’ academic achievement


via rent seeking at both the national and school levels. In countries with sub-
stantial family income inequality, privileged parents often have many more
educational resources (e.g., books) at home than others and send their chil-
dren to private schools (Rothstein, 2000). Hence, they have a strong eco-
nomic incentive to engage in rent-seeking behavior—paying for lobbyists or
personally lobbying politicians or government officials to reduce spending
on public schools (e.g., Benabou, 2000). Likewise, in unequal school sys-
tems, richer schools may lobby government officials for more educational re-
sources for their schools—and fewer educational resources to other schools
(e.g., the Pennsylvania Association of Private School Administrators spent
$190,000 on lobbyists during 2008–2012, CRP, 2012). For example, private
school officials typically favor educational vouchers for their schools over
spending on public schools (e.g., Miller, 1992). Such rent-seeking behavior
diverts education resources to lobbying and can reduce national spending
on public school resources, resulting in fewer educational opportunities,
less learning and lower academic achievement (Chiu & Khoo, 2005).
Parents’ rent-seeking behavior within schools can also reduce overall edu-
cation resources. For example, some parents lobby teachers and principals
to cater to the academic needs of their children, sometimes at the expense
of other children (Chiu, 2009). Not only is this lobbying unfair, it also takes
away teacher time from instruction, which harms all of the students in her
classes. In short, rent seeking at both the national and school levels can
reduce educational resources (whether educational materials or teacher
time), which can reduce educational opportunities and student learning.

Inefficient allocation of resources

Family and school inequalities can also reduce student achievement


through unequal distribution of resources, which results in diminishing
marginal returns and inefficient resource allocation (Stiglitz, 2012). In a

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Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

country with substantial family inequality, richer students have many more
calculators and other educational resources than poorer students do. As
noted above, the values of additional calculators are typically lower, ceteris
paribus, so a richer student typically benefits less from an extra book than
a poorer student does (Demirguc-Kunt & Levine, 2009). Given a fixed
amount of educational resources, distributing them less equally across
families (or across schools) within a country allocates these resources
inefficiently and magnifies the impact of diminishing marginal returns.
Students are likely to learn more overall when all students have one calcu-
lator than when some students have multiple calculators and others have
none. Hence, when educational resources are less equally distributed,
they have less educational value for students on average, who then learn
less overall and show lower academic achievement (Chiu, 2009).
Rent seeking can also exacerbate inefficient allocation of resources and
diminishing marginal returns to further reduce overall academic achieve-
ment. Privileged parents can ask their children’s school principal to assign
their child to a course with a better teacher (Lloyd & Blanc, 1996) or ask
for more attention to their children’s needs. As privileged children often
learn the social norms of classrooms at home and have greater cultural
capital to create greater affinity with teachers (Bourdieu, 1993), many
middle-class teachers already have higher expectations of these privileged
students and often give them more attention and assistance (Roscigno
& Ainsworth-Darnell’s cultural gatekeeping, 1999). Hence, lobbying for
extra attention for privileged children might divert much more teacher
time to them rather than less privileged children and result in diminish-
ing marginal returns of teacher time.
In short, countries with greater family or school inequalities might
have more rent-seeking behaviors or diminishing marginal returns. Such
rent-seeking behaviors can reduce educational resources while dimin-
ishing marginal returns can reduce resource allocation efficiency. Both
of them might reduce learning opportunities and students’ academic
achievement overall.

This study

In short, this study tests how three sets of hypotheses about whether family
and school inequalities are related to overall student academic achieve-
ment in a country and whether these relationships are mediated by fewer
educational resources or diminishing marginal returns (see Figure 2).

8
1

1 117, Calculators
TCR, / person
010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement
The productivity of a hammer falls if moved from a poor person with only one hammer (thick, solid, blue
vertical line) to a rich person who already has many hammers (thin, dashed, red line)

Figure
Figure 2. Theoretical
2. Theoretical model ofand
Model of Inequalities inequalities and inequality
Inequality Mechanisms mechanisms
that May Influence
Students’
that mayMathematics Achievement
influence students’ mathematics achievement

• H-1a. Students in countries with greater family (household income)


inequality have lower academic achievement on average.
• H-1b. The relationship between family inequality and student aca-
demic achievement is mediated by fewer educational resources.
• H-1c. The relationship between family inequality and student aca-
demic achievement is mediated by diminishing marginal returns.
• H-2a. Students in countries with greater inequality of educational
materials across schools have lower academic achievement on
average.
• H-2b. The relationship between inequality of educational materials
across schools and student academic achievement is mediated by
fewer educational resources.
• H-2c. The relationship between inequality of educational materials
across schools and student academic achievement is mediated by
diminishing marginal returns.
• H-3a. Students in countries with greater inequality of teacher qual-
ity across schools have lower academic achievement on average.
• H-3b. The relationship between inequality of teacher quality across
schools and student academic achievement is mediated by fewer
educational resources.
• H-3c. The relationship between inequality of teacher quality across
schools and student academic achievement is mediated by dimin-
ishing marginal returns.
Other variables shown to affect student’s mathematics achievement in-
clude past achievement (Chiu & Klassen, 2010), country income (e.g.,
Chiu, 2007), family socioeconomic status (SES) (Bradley & Corwyn,

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Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

2002), cultural capital (Chiu & Chow, 2010), schoolmate SES (Chiu &
McBride-Chang, 2006), separation of richer and poorer students into
different schools (economic segregation; Chiu & Khoo, 2005), school
characteristics (Chiu & McBride-Chang, 2010), and gender (Halpern,
2000). Cultural values (e.g., individualism, egalitarianism, and so on)
were also tested (House et al., 2004). The operational definitions of
these factors are presented in the next section. These variables were
added to the regression to reduce the likelihood of omitted variable bias
(Kennedy, 2008).

Methods

Multilevel analyses of 475,760 fifteen-year-olds in 65 countries tested


whether family and school inequalities are related to overall student aca-
demic achievement in a country and whether these relationships are me-
diated by fewer educational resources or diminishing marginal returns.

Data

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s


Programme for International Student Assessment 2009 (OECD, 2012)
assessed the mathematics achievement of students across 65 countries
and asked students and principals to fill out questionnaires. Participating
students completed a 2-hour mathematics test, and then a 30–40-min-
ute questionnaire (from which family variables were computed). Their
school principals also completed a questionnaire about their school at-
tributes. Countries’ economic data (World Bank, 2010) and cultural val-
ues data (House et al., 2004) were imported from the cited sources and
merged with the PISA data.

Methodological Design

Investigating the above three sets of hypotheses regarding inequalities


and academic achievement across many countries and schools requires
representative sampling, precise tests and questionnaires, and suitable sta-
tistical models. In each country, OECD (2012) chose a minimum of 150
representative schools based on neighborhood SES and student intake,
and sampled 35 fifteen-year-olds from each school (stratified sampling).
OECD excluded students who were mentally incapable of taking the
exam, physically unable to take the exam, refused to take the exam, or did
not speak the test language (less than 5% of the sample did not complete
the exam). With suitable weights, OECD created representative samples of
each country’s schools and 15 year olds.

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

Variables

Primary variables of interest include the outcome variable mathematics


test score, economic growth of each country, inequality variables at the
country level, family variables, and school variables (see Table 1). Control
variables are briefly described.
Table 1. Variable Descriptions
Variable Description
Mathematics test score 2-hour, balanced incomplete block test mathematics translated
into the national language of each country.
Country level variables (Country)
Log GDP per capita Log of the gross domestic product per capita. Source: World
Bank, 2010.
GDP Gini (inequality) Gini is defined as the integral of the cumulative distribution func-
tion of a perfectly equal income society minus the integral of the
cumulative distribution function of the actual society’s income.
Scores range from 0 (perfect equality; everyone has equal in-
come) to 100 (perfect inequality; one person has all the income,
and everyone else’s income is zero). Source: World Bank 2010.
Clustering of school- Ratio of family SES variance across schools/country variance of
mates by family SES family SES.
School inequality of Country SD of educational resources across schools. See educa-
educational resources tional resources index below.
School inequality of % Country SD of proportion of teachers with university degrees
univ. degree teachers across schools.
Family variables at the student level (Family)
Cultural possessions Index from factor analysis of availability of “works of art,” “po-
etry,” and “classical literature.” Choices were: yes or no.
School variables at the school level (School)
Log (hours spent in Computed from [(number of class periods students spent in
math classes per week) math courses during last full week) × (number of instructional
minutes in average single class period) / 60].
Log (educational Inverted index of the quality of schools’ educational resources
resources) hindered by: inadequate science laboratory equipment; lack of
instructional materials; not enough computers for instruction;
inadequate internet connectivity; lack of computer software for
instruction; lack of library materials; inadequate audio-visual
resources. Choices: not at all, very little, to some extent, or a lot.
% univ. degree
Percentage of teachers with university degrees.
teachers
Note. Data are from PISA, unless otherwise noted.

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Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

Mathematics test score. International experts from OECD and non-OECD


countries defined mathematics achievement, built assessment frame-
works, created test items, forward- and backward-translated them, and pi-
lot tested them to check their validity and reliability (for details and sam-
ple items, see OECD, 2012, and http://www.pisa.oecd.org). Students did
not respond to all items on the entire test. Instead, they received subtests
(overlapping subsets of all multiple choice and open-ended questions) for
wider coverage of mathematics skills while reducing student fatigue and
test-learning effects (balanced incomplete block test; F. B. Baker & Kim,
2004). All data are from OECD (2012) unless otherwise noted.
Country-level variables. Country-level variables include economic growth,
family income inequality, schoolmate inequality, school inequality of teach-
ers, and school inequality of educational resources. Economic growth is
measured through gross domestic product per capita (GDP per capita,
World Bank, 2010). Family income inequality is measured through GDP
Gini (the integral of the cumulative distribution function of a perfectly
equal income society minus the integral of the cumulative distribution
function of the actual society’s income, World Bank, 2010). Scores range
from 0 (perfect equality; everyone has equal income) to 100 (perfect in-
equality; one person has all the income, and everyone else’s income is
zero). (The Gini index is suitable for nonnormal distributions like house-
hold income, and its computational definition is available in Table 1,
McKenzie, 2005.)
Economic segregation is the degree of clustering of richer students in
a few schools away from poorer students and is measured as the ratio of
the variance of family SES across schools divided by the total variance
of family SES in the country. Family SES is a student-level index created
from each parent’s schooling and the highest job status of either parent
(OECD, 2012). Meanwhile, school inequality of teachers is measured as
the standard deviation of the percentage of teachers with university de-
grees across schools (OECD, 2012). As the percentage of teachers with
university degrees in a school is expected to be normally distributed, its
standard deviation is a suitable measure of inequality (McKenzie, 2005).
Each of the three above measures of inequality (family, schoolmate, teach-
ers across schools) are directly comparable across countries.
School inequality of educational resources is measured as the standard
deviation of the index of educational resources across schools (OECD,
2012). Educational resources is an inverted index of the degree to which
quality of schools’ educational resources is hindered by: inadequate sci-
ence laboratory equipment; lack of instructional materials; not enough
computers for instruction; inadequate internet connectivity; lack of com-
puter software for instruction; lack of library materials; or inadequate

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

audio-visual resources. A school principal’s possible responses were: not


at all, very little, to some extent, or a lot. As its index is expected to be nor-
mally distributed, its standard deviation is a suitable measure of inequality
(McKenzie, 2005).
To reduce measurement error, multiple questionnaire items were used
for three theoretical constructs (SES, educational materials at school,
cultural possessions) to create indices via a Rasch model (Warm, 1989).
In previous studies, the multigroup Rasch models for each item in PISA
questionnaires in each country yielded similar parameters, indicating
measurement equivalence across countries (May, 2006). While several
studies showed consistent questionnaire responses and participant under-
standings across countries in earlier PISA studies (Brown, Micklewright,
Schnepf, & Waldmann, 2005; Lee, 2009; Schulz, 2003), results involving
cultural variables require cautious interpretation.
Family variable. Family cultural capital was measured as an index of cul-
tural possessions at home (OECD, 2012). The index was created from stu-
dent responses (yes or no) to questions regarding the availability of “works
of art,” “poetry,” and “classical literature.”
School variables. School variables included time spent in mathematics les-
sons, educational resources, and proportion of teachers in a school with
university degrees (OECD, 2012). Time spent in mathematics lessons was
measured as the hours that a student reported spending in mathematics
classes in the most recent week.
Control variables include collectivism, family SES, school mean SES,
percent certified teachers, school discipline climate, classroom discipline
climate, teacher-student relations, relative grade, remedial course, and
girl. Collectivism (vs. individualism) is country-level index of this cultural
value dimension (House et al., 2004). Family SES is a student-level index
created from each parent’s schooling and the highest job status of either
parent (OECD, 2012). School mean SES is each school’s mean of family
SES (OECD, 2012). Percent certified teachers is the proportion of teach-
ers in each school who have a teaching certificate (OECD, 2012). School
discipline climate is an index of school principals’ responses to questions
concerning school discipline (OECD, 2012). Classroom discipline is an in-
dex of students’ responses to questions concerning discipline during class
lessons (OECD, 2012). Teacher-student relations is an index of students’
responses to questions concerning the quality of their relationships with
their teachers (OECD, 2012). Girl indicates a female student. Relative
grade indicates whether a student was retained one grade (−1) or more
(−2, −3, etc.), skipped one grade or more (1, 2, etc.) or followed the typi-
cal grade schedule (0). Remedial course indicates whether a student had
taken any remedial course at any time (OECD, 2012).

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Missing questionnaire response data (6%) can reduce estimation effi-


ciency, complicate data analyses, and bias results. Hence, I used Markov
Chain Monte Carlo multiple imputation to estimate the values of the
missing data, which addresses these missing data issues more effective-
ly than deletion, mean substitution, or simple imputation (Peugh &
Enders, 2004).
This study used multilevel analysis (three levels: country, school, stu-
dent) of all the plausible values of students’ mathematics test scores,
which yields more precise standard errors than does ordinary least squares
(Goldstein, 1995; Monseur & Adams, 2009). Plausible values are estimated
values that resemble individual test scores with approximately the same
distribution and yield consistent estimates of population characteristics
when individuals respond to a small subset of the questions on the entire
test (Monseur & Adams, 2009).

Analyses

A variance components model tested for significant differences among


the three levels of country, school and student.

Mathijk = β + eijk + fjk + gk (1)

The outcome variable Mathijk of student i in school j in country k has


a grand mean intercept β000, with student-, school-, and country-level
residuals (eijk, f0jk, g00k). The above explanatory variables were entered
in sequential sets into the regression models to estimate the variance
explained by each set (Kennedy, 2008). Country attributes might influ-
ence family characteristics. As some parents choose their children’s
school, family characteristics might influence school attributes. Hence,
country attributes were entered before family characteristics, followed
by school attributes. All continuous variables were centered around
their country means.

Mathijk = β +eijk + fjk + gk + βuCountryk + βvjkFamilyijk + βwkSchooljk


(2)
To test whether country inequalities are linked to mathematics test
scores, I entered a vector of u variables at the country level: GDP per cap-
ita, family inequality (GDP Gini—which tests hypothesis H-1a); school in-
equality (country standard deviation [SD] of educational materials across
schools, country SD of proportion of teachers with university degree across
schools—which tests hypothesis H-2a and hypothesis H-3a); and economic
segregation (ratio of family SES SD across schools over total family SES SD
in each country) (Country). I tested whether sets of explanatory variables

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

were significant with a nested hypothesis test (χ2 log likelihood, Kennedy,
2008). After entering each set of explanatory variables, nonsignificant
ones were removed.
Next, I applied the procedure for Country to family cultural posses-
sions (Family), which are a proxy for cultural capital. Then, I tested if the
Family regression coefficients (βvjk = βv00 + fvjk + gv0k) differed significantly
at the school level (fvjk ¹ 0?) or the country level (gv0k ¹ 0?). If so, larger as-
sociations (slope) might correlate with higher outcomes (intercept).
Next, I applied the procedure for Country to w school variables: hours
spent on mathematics classes per week, educational materials, and pro-
portion of teachers with university degree (School). Lastly, I tested inter-
actions among significant explanatory variables.

Rent-seeking and Diminishing Marginal Returns

Next, I test whether the data are consistent with the microeconomic
phenomena of rent seeking and diminishing marginal returns. If family
or school inequalities increase rent seeking, then a country would have
fewer school resources. Hence, we test if any of the school variables me-
diate the relationships between the three inequalities and mathematics
test score (hypotheses H-1b, H-2b, and H-3b), using multilevel M-tests
(MacKinnon, Lockwood & Williams, 2001). For significant mediators,
the proportional change was 1 – (b’/b), where b’ and b were the regres-
sion coefficients of the explanatory variable, with and without the media-
tor in the model, respectively.
As discussed above, an explanatory variable (e.g., educational materi-
als at school) that shows diminishing marginal returns for an outcome
variable (e.g., mathematics test score) increases at a slower rate (posi-
tive first derivative and a negative second derivative), which are the key
attributes of a logarithmic (aka log) curve. Hence, a log curve shows
diminishing marginal returns. To test for diminishing marginal returns
(hypotheses H-1c, H-2c, H-3c), the results of GDP per capita, educa-
tional materials at school, and proportion of teachers with university
degrees were compared with additional models using logs of their coun-
terparts. The results (linear explanatory variable vs. log of the explana-
tory variable) that accounted for more mathematics achievement vari-
ance were retained.
To test whether these results differed across types of students (rich vs.
poor, high achieving vs. low achieving), the above analyses were done
on student subsamples. A subsample of the top 5% of students by fam-
ily SES was created from each country. These were pooled together to
yield a top 5% SES subsample. This procedure was repeated for the top

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10% SES, top 20% SES, bottom 5% SES, bottom 10% SES, and bottom
20% SES subsamples. Then, this procedure was repeated for the highest
achieving students (5%, 10%, 20%) and lowest achieving students (5%,
10%, 20%) subsamples.
An alpha level of .05 was used. To control for the false discovery rate
(FDR), the two-stage linear step-up procedure was used, as it outper-
formed 13 other methods in computer simulations (Benjamini, Krieger,
& Yekutieli, 2006). Control variables and standardized scores were used
for further robustness tests. The small sample of countries (N = 65) limits
identification of nonsignificant country-level results (for a 0.4 effect size at
p = .05, statistical power = 0.81; Konstantopoulos, 2008). Lastly, I analyzed
residuals for influential outliers.

Results

Summary Statistics

This sample included a variety of countries (ranging from Liechtenstein


[n = 329] to Canada’s oversample [n = 23,207]). They ranged from poor
countries with high household income Gini indices (e.g., Kyrgystan) to
rich countries with low household income Gini indices (e.g., Finland).
Inequality of educational materials across schools in a country was cor-
related with family inequality (GDP Gini) at r = .53 and somewhat corre-
lated with economic segregation of rich versus poor students into separate
schools in a country at r = .22. However, the other correlations of these
inequalities (family inequality, school inequalities of educational materials
and teacher quality, economic segregation) were all below 0.10. See Table
2 for overall summary statistics.

Explanatory Model

Country, family, and school variables accounted for differences in stu-


dents’ mathematics scores (see Figure 3 and Table 3). The variances in
mathematics scores at the country, school, and student levels were 31%,
27%, and 42%, respectively. All results discussed below describe first en-
try into the regression, controlling for all previously included explana-
tory variables.

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

Table 2. Summary Statistics


Variable Mean SD Min Max Reliability
Outcome variable at the student level
Mathematics test score a 469 108 15.00 1022.00
Country level variables (Country)
Log GDP per capita b 9.83 0.98 6.76 11.81
GDP Gini (Inequality) 37.24 8.52 24.00 59.00
Clustering of schoolmates by family SES 0.30 0.09 0.14 0.56
School inequality of educational
0.93 0.17 0.32 1.29
resources
School inequality of % univ. degree
0.19 0.08 0.04 0.39
teachers
Family variables at the student level (Family)
Cultural possessions c −0.04 1.05 −2.37 1.29 0.81
School variables at the school level (School)
Log (hours spent in math classes per
3.69 1.51 0.00 16.67
week)
Log (educational resources) c −0.07 1.08 −3.37 1.93 0.84
% univ. degree teachers 0.78 0.32 0.00 1.00

Note. OECD (2012) created Warm (1989) indices and tested them for reliability.
a
Calibrated to mean = 500 and SD = 100 with OECD nations’ data. Many non-
OECD nations scored below the OECD mean; overall mean < 500.
b
Log GDP per capita fit the data better than Linear GDP per capita.
c
PISA indices were initially standardized (M = 0; SD = 1) for OECD nations.
Negative means indicate lower values for non-OECD nations.

Country

Country economic growth, family inequality, school inequality, and eco-


nomic segregation were related to mathematics test scores. Students in
countries with higher economic growth (log GDP per capita) had high-
er math test scores than students in other countries (Table 3, Model 1).
Regressions with log GDP per capita fit the data better than linear GDP
per capita, explaining more of the differences in mathematics test scores
across countries (12% vs. 6%). This result is consistent with inefficient al-
location (diminishing marginal returns) of family resources with respect
to mathematics achievement and supports hypothesis H-1c.

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Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

Figure 3. Path diagram with standardized regression coefficients

Solid boxes and arrows indicate positive total effects and positive direct effects,
respectively. Dashed boxes and arrows indicate negative total and negative direct
effects, respectively. Thicker lines indicate larger effect sizes. *p < .05, **p < .01,
***p < .001.

Inequalities

Family inequality, school inequalities, and economic segregation were re-


lated to mathematics test scores. Students in countries with greater family
inequality (GDP Gini) had lower mathematics scores than those in coun-
tries with less family inequality, supporting hypothesis H-1a. Students in
countries with greater inequality of teacher quality across schools (SD of
school proportion of teachers with university degrees) or greater inequal-
ity of education materials (SD of school educational materials) had lower
mathematics test scores than students in other countries, supporting H-2a
and H-3a. Also, students in countries with greater economic segregation
of rich students away from poorer students had lower mathematics test
scores. Country variables accounted for 12% of mathematics scores’ total
variance (and for 39% of the differences across countries).

Family

Students in families with higher SES or more cultural possessions had


higher mathematics test scores than other students (Table 3, Model 2).
Family variables accounted for an extra 6% of the variance in students’
mathematics scores (and for 7% of the differences across students).

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

Table 3. Summaries of Four Multilevel Regressions Predicting Students’


Mathematics Scores, With Unstandardized Coefficients (and Standard
Errors)
Three-Level Regressions Predicting Mathematics Achievement
Explanatory variable Model 1 Model 2 Model 3 Model 4
Country
Log GDP per capita 43.05 *** 39.30 *** 36.56 *** 36.26 ***
(4.81) (4.45) (3.85) (3.97)
GDP Gini −3.02 *** −2.99 *** −1.98 *** −1.95 ***
(0.59) (0.60) (0.60) (0.57)
School inequality −81.82 *** −80.21 *** −84.01 *** −98.46 ***
Educational materials (21.70) (21.76) (21.37) (20.47)
School inequality −117.35 *** −105.59 *** −82.23 *** −81.63 ***
% teachers w/ univ. deg. (33.33) (31.45) (18.17) (18.73)
Economic segregation −113.34 ** −97.85 ** −132.18 *** −124.2 ***
of students (38.27) (37.88) (25.14) (26.32)
Family
Cultural possessions 5.82 *** 5.78 *** 5.07 ***
(0.31) (0.50) (0.47)
School
Log (hours spent in math 14.92 *** 12.96 ***
courses per week) (1.16) (1.11)
Log educational materials 2.34 * 2.26 *
(1.15) (1.12)
% univ. degree teachers 33.16 *** 36.23 ***
(4.09) (4.16)
Cultural possessions 4.59 *** 4.43 ***
* % univ. degree teachers (0.51) (0.50)
Control variables added a No No No Yes
Variance at each level
Country (31%) 0.39 0.34 0.37 0.44
School (27%) 0.00 0.18 0.27 0.38
Student (42%) 0.00 0.07 0.11 0.15
Total variance explained 0.12 0.18 0.23 0.30  
a
Significant control variables included relative grade, remedial courses, collectiv-
ism, family SES, school mean SES, % certified teachers, school discipline climate,
classroom discipline climate, teacher-student relations, and girl.

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School
School variables (mathematics class time, educational materials, and per-
centage of teachers with university degrees) were also related to math-
ematics scores. Students who spent more time in mathematics classes,
attended schools with more educational resources, or attended schools
with proportionally more teachers with university degrees had higher
mathematics test scores than students in other schools (Table 3, Model 3).
School variables accounted for an extra 5% of the variance in students’
mathematics scores (and for 9% of the differences across students).

Diminishing marginal returns


Log of educational materials fit the data better than its simpler, linear
counterpart, consistent with the view that school inequality of educa-
tional materials operates through diminishing marginal returns (ineffi-
cient resource allocation)—thereby supporting H-2c. Log of hours spent
in mathematics classes per week also fit the data better than its simpler,
linear counterpart. Both results are consistent with resource allocation
inefficiency across schools. However, log of the proportion of teachers in
a school with university degrees did not fit the data better than its simpler,
linear counterpart, showing no support for H-3c.

Fewer educational resources


Controlling for proportion of teachers with university degrees significantly
reduced mathematics test score’s links with family inequality (GDP Gini)
and with school inequality of teacher quality (country SD of proportion of
teachers with university degree) by 30% and 23%, respectively (z = –2.15, p =
.031; z = –6.11, p < .001). These results are consistent with the views that fam-
ily inequality and school inequality of proportions of teachers with univer-
sity degrees might operate through rent seeking that reduces educational
resources, supporting H-1b and H-3b. However, the relationship between
school inequality of educational materials and mathematics achievement
was not significantly mediated by educational materials at school, showing
no support for H-2b. (Also, the results showed that economic segregation
did not operate through either microeconomic mechanism.)
The positive interaction term between cultural possessions and propor-
tion of teachers at a school with a university degree shows that among stu-
dents with the same proportion of teachers with university degrees, those
with more cultural possessions at home often had higher mathematics
achievement scores than other students. This result suggests that students
with more cultural capital benefit more from teachers with university de-
grees compared to other students.

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

Analyses of SES and achievement subsamples (see Tables 4 and 5),


with control variables or standardized scores within each country yielded
similar results. These results show that the negative relationships between
inequalities and mathematics achievement through the hypothesized
microeconomic mechanisms occur across SES strata and across student
achievement levels. In particular, these inequalities are negatively related
to mathematics achievement for the richest students, suggesting that in-
equality harms the richest students as well as the poorest students.
Analyses of residuals showed no influential outliers. Table 6 summarizes
the results of the hypothesis tests.

Discussion

Unlike past research showing that greater economic inequality widens the
achievement gap between rich and poor students, this study showed that
greater family and school inequalities were related to lower overall math-
ematics achievement in 65 countries. Furthermore, this study explored
whether these relationships might be explained by the microeconomic
phenomena of rent seeking and diminishing marginal returns.

Different types of inequalities

This study showed that family inequality (GDP Gini), inequality of edu-
cational materials across schools, inequality of teacher quality across
schools, and economic segregation of rich students away from poor stu-
dents into separate schools were quite distinct; that is, they were largely
uncorrelated with one another and were related to different explanatory
variables. While inequality of educational materials across schools was
moderately correlated with family inequality (GDP Gini) and somewhat
correlated with economic segregation, most of the correlations between
inequalities were negligible. A comprehensive theory of inequality and
academic achievement must include each distinct type of inequality
and specify each inequality’s relationship with academic achievement.
Furthermore, educators cannot expect that the presence (or absence) of
one type of inequality dictates the presence (or absence) of other types
of inequalities, and reducing one type of inequality will not necessarily
reduce other inequalities.
As all of these distinct inequalities were negatively related to mathemat-
ics achievement, they likely have separate, negative, and cumulative links
to mathematics achievement. Hence, increasing any of these inequalities
is unlikely to improve students’ mathematics achievement overall and
might reduce it. Thus, researchers and educators must detect and address
each inequality separately.

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Table 4. Multilevel Regressions of Six Subsamples by Socioeconomic Status (SES), the Bottom 5%, 10%, and 20%,
and the Top 5%, 10%, and 20%.
  Regressions of SES subsamples
Top Bottom
Explanatory variable 5% 10% 20% 20% 10% 5%
Country
Log GDP per capita 19.29 * 27.89 *** 33.35 *** 37.79 *** 35.38 *** 27.48 ***
(8.10) (6.63) (5.64) (5.32) (6.41) (7.50)
GDP Gini −2.12 * −2.13 * −1.75 ** -2.07 ** −2.59 *** −2.72 *
(0.90) (0.85) (0.65) (0.70) (0.79) (1.15)
Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

School inequality −63.11 −84.75 * −81.70 ** −69.08 * −67.53 * −80.52 *

22
Educational materials (36.04) (34.97) (30.96) (27.48) (32.01) (32.48)
School inequality −165.08 * −98.50 * −88.42 * 32.70 38.07 −120.66
% teachers w/ univ. deg. (82.80) (47.41) (40.53) (36.46) (41.70) (74.02)
Economic segregation −96.12 * −86.17 * −103.79 * −88.83 * -87.41 * −94.21 *
of students (45.89) (40.84) (43.18) (44.02) (42.58) (44.66)
Family
Cultural possessions 9.12 *** 7.26 *** 5.95 *** 1.11 1.10 1.11
(0.96) (0.82) (0.72) (0.70) (0.80) (1.01)
School
Log (hours spent in math 17.67 *** 21.46 *** 18.84 *** 11.68 *** 9.03 ** 15.39 ***
classes per week) (2.13) (3.88) (2.78) (2.29) (3.22) (1.85)
Log educational materials 4.92 *** 3.60 * 3.38 * 3.15 * 3.07 * 1.70 *
  Regressions of SES subsamples
Top Bottom
Explanatory variable 5% 10% 20% 20% 10% 5%
(0.82) (1.67) (1.34) (1.39) (1.55) (0.74)
% univ. degree teachers 13.34 *** 10.38 21.05 *** 24.20 *** 21.63 *** 14.88 ***
(3.36) (6.46) (5.24) (4.72) (5.62) (2.95)
Cultural possessions 4.29 *** 4.00 *** 3.76 *** 0.72 0.70 0.66
* % univ. degree teachers (1.07) (0.66) (0.57) (0.47) (0.64) (1.02)
% certified teachers 9.37 ** 14.55 * 13.87 ** 9.34 * 9.60 6.86 *
(3.30) (5.84) (4.63) (4.50) (5.69) (3.32)
Explained variance at each level

23
Country 0.28 0.24 0.28 0.30 0.29 0.36
School 0.47 0.47 0.50 0.36 0.33 0.31
Student 0.09   0.10   0.11 0.13   0.13   0.13
Total variance explained 0.25   0.24   0.26 0.23   0.22   0.24
Note. Each regression included a constant term.
*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.
TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement
Table 5. Multilevel Regressions of Six Subsamples by Mathematics Achievement, the Bottom 5%, 10%, and
20%, and the Top 5%, 10%, and 20%
  Regressions of Mathematics Achievement Subsamples
Top Bottom
Explanatory variable 5% 10% 20% 20% 10% 5%
Country
Log GDP per capita 35.80 *** 36.66 *** 35.01 *** 20.71 *** 17.77 *** 21.13 ***
(7.12) (3.19) (2.72) (2.64) (3.27) (6.09)
GDP Gini −2.18 * −2.29 * −1.73 * −1.83 ** −2.16 * −2.46 *
(1.03) (0.90) (0.75) (0.71) (0.85) −1.07
Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

School inequality −30.16 −114.91 *** −112.83 *** −44.02 *** −35.00 * −17.14

24
Educational materials (34.24) (13.59) (12.63) (12.22) (13.94) (29.74)
School inequality −159.92 * −57.23 *** −51.08 *** −43.18 ** −59.07 ** −100.16 *
% teachers w/ univ. deg. (70.35) (17.38) (15.21) (16.14) (18.55) (43.63)
Economic segregation −59.14 −16.20 −53.41 ** −61.63 *** −34.67 −56.93
of students (65.30) (21.66) (19.51) (18.37) (23.13) (54.61)
Family
Cultural possessions 5.97 *** 5.28 *** 5.47 *** 5.18 *** 5.06 *** 5.04 ***
(1.11) (0.90) (0.83) (0.76) (0.93) −0.91
School
Log (hours spent in math 2.44 * 4.13 * 6.18 *** 2.50 −0.84 0.58
courses per week) (1.01) (2.06) (1.59) (1.28) (1.49) (0.82)
Log educational materials 0.53 1.30 * 1.74 ** 1.86 *** 1.97 ** 0.26
  Regressions of Mathematics Achievement Subsamples
Top Bottom
Explanatory variable 5% 10% 20% 20% 10% 5%
(0.28) (0.64) (0.59) (0.54) (0.65) (0.32)
% univ. degree teachers 31.98 ** 35.69 *** 30.13 *** 33.45 *** 33.10 *** 32.50 **
(10.59) (8.27) (7.04) (7.01) (8.62) (11.54)
Cultural possessions 4.39 *** 4.21 *** 4.16 *** 3.54 *** 3.97 *** 3.34 **
* % univ. degree teachers (1.04) (0.69) (0.50) (0.43) (0.66) (1.04)
Explained variance at each level
Country 0.48 0.39 0.40 0.39 0.33 0.41
School 0.05 0.07 0.13 0.09 0.06 0.08

25
Student 0.02 0.03 0.04 0.04 0.03 0.02
Total variance explained 0.40 0.31 0.31 0.26 0.22 0.28
Note. Each regression included a constant term.
*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001.

Table 6. Results of the Hypothesis Tests


TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement
Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

Furthermore, the results are robust, as shown especially by the analyses


of the student subsamples (high vs. low SES; high vs. low achievement).
None of these inequalities (family, school resources or schoolmates) were
positively related to mathematics achievement scores for any subsample—
indeed, most of them were negatively related to mathematics achieve-
ment. Even the richest students do not benefit overall from inequalities;
instead most students (often including the richest students) had lower
mathematics achievement when facing greater inequality. The results of
this study may help policy makers recognize that greater inequality of edu-
cational resources is linked to lower mathematics achievement for both
rich and poor students, and dissuade them from supporting policies that
increase inequality of educational resources.

Microeconomics

The results suggest that the relationships between inequalities and stu-
dents’ academic achievement are linked to microeconomic phenomena:
rent seeking (fewer educational resources) or diminishing marginal re-
turns (inefficient resource allocation). The family inequality results are
consistent with both rent seeking and diminishing marginal returns, sug-
gesting that family inequality might occur through both. In contrast, the
two school inequalities are linked to different microeconomic phenom-
ena. While the school inequality of teacher quality result is consistent with
rent seeking, the school inequality of educational materials result is con-
sistent with diminishing marginal returns. Hence, each type of inequality
can occur through different microeconomic means, and each microeco-
nomic phenomenon might be triggered by different types of inequalities.
These results suggest that specific strategic interventions can have po-
tential benefits. While greater family inequality is linked to lower math-
ematics achievement, reducing family inequality can be extremely costly
and politically controversial (Bartels, 2012). Instead, a strategic interven-
tion can address issues such as fewer educational resources (namely teach-
ers with university degrees) and unequal distribution of resources across
schools to improve mathematics achievement. For example, increasing
the proportion of teachers with university degrees in schools with few of
them is less costly and faces less political resistance than reducing fam-
ily inequality. Indeed, Hong Kong increased teacher quality overall and
reduced school inequality of teacher quality by requiring university de-
grees of their new high school teachers (EMB, 1998). By doing so, they
dramatically increased the proportion of such teachers in less prestigious
schools, and their subsequent international test scores rose (OECD, 2003,

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TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

2005, 2009b, 2012). Whether this type of change reliably improves student
learning should be tested more rigorously with further research.
Likewise, family inequality and school inequality of educational materi-
als are linked to diminishing marginal returns. To address school inequal-
ity of educational materials and diminishing marginal returns, govern-
ments can require that all schools receive the same amount of money for
each student. For example, the state of New Jersey in the United States was
successfully sued and forced to fund its schools in poor districts and those
in rich districts equally (Abbott v. Burke 188 NJ. 578.8332 A.2d 891), result-
ing in substantial education progress in many areas (Walker, Achilles, &
Frances, 2007) and higher test scores on national exams (NAEP, 2005,
2011). Future studies should rigorously test whether these government
interventions improve students’ academic achievement overall.

Implications

These results (distinct inequalities, their robust harmful effects and their
economic mechanisms) have three primary implications for parents, edu-
cators, and policy makers: (a) prioritizing which inequality to address first,
(b) disseminating these results to build support for reducing inequality,
and (c) addressing inequality through its economic mechanisms. First,
family inequality, inequality of educational materials across schools, in-
equality of teacher quality across schools, and economic segregation are
all distinct inequalities that are not substantially correlated with one an-
other. Thus, a single strategy is unlikely to address all of these inequali-
ties effectively. On the other hand, each inequality can be addressed
separately, so focusing on reducing one type of inequality will likely be
both easier and more successful than trying to address all four inequalities
simultaneously. Specifically, school inequalities might be easier for a su-
perintendent to address (especially with supportive parents, teachers, and
other constituents), compared to family inequalities, which might require
a national intervention.
Second, none of the subgroups of students (not even the richest ones)
benefit from any of the inequalities. If these results are disseminated wide-
ly, and more laypeople (especially the richest ones) understand how they
suffer from the negative effects of these inequalities, they might be more
likely to recognize their mutual benefit in reducing these inequalities. Or
at the very least, they might be less inclined to support policies that exac-
erbate these inequalities.
Lastly, the economic mechanism results have implications for redressing
the harmful consequences of these inequalities. Some inequalities (e.g.,
of teacher quality) reduce productivity (through rent seeking). Other

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inequalities (e.g., inequality of educational materials) reduce efficiency


(through diminishing marginal returns). And, still other inequalities
(family inequality) reduce both productivity and efficiency. In addition
to using redistribution or welfare to reduce inequality and its harmful ef-
fects, policy makers might consider disrupting the rent-seeking mecha-
nisms of some inequalities. For example, extensive monitoring might
prevent some people from engaging in rent-seeking behaviors. Whether
monitoring is a useful strategy depends on its coverage, its legality, and its
cost. In contrast, the inefficiency of diminishing marginal returns is inher-
ent in the inequality and cannot be addressed separately without reducing
the inequality.

Limitations

This study had several limitations. First, the students sampled were not
necessarily fully representative of all 15 year olds. For example, students
with very low achievement levels or very poor children might not attend
school in some countries (e.g., UNICEF, 2011). Future studies should ex-
amine the mathematics competences of similarly aged children who do
not attend school by visiting their neighborhoods1 (e.g., Saxe & Esmonde,
2012). Second, this correlation-based study of cross-sectional data does
not warrant causal interpretations and does not address developmental
changes across time; future studies should address these issues by col-
lecting longitudinal data. Third, the absence of other possibly relevant
variables might result in omitted variable bias, so future studies should
include other variables in their statistical models, such as past mathemat-
ics achievement of siblings or neighborhood friends who attend different
schools. Fourth, while past studies have shown consistent questionnaire
responses and participant understandings across countries in earlier PISA
studies (Brown et al., 2005; Lee, 2009; Schulz, 2003), researchers should
test whether these results hold for future international studies.

Conclusion

While many studies show that greater economic inequality widens the
achievement gap between rich and poor students, this study of 15 year
olds in 65 countries also showed that countries with greater economic in-
equality have lower overall student achievement and that the results are
consistent with two microeconomic mechanisms: rent seeking and di-
minishing marginal returns. Specifically, this study showed four distinct
inequalities (largely uncorrelated with one another) and showed that
three inequalities linked to different microeconomic mechanisms were
related to mathematics achievement. Students had lower mathematics

28
TCR, 117, 010305 Family Inequality, School Inequalities, and Mathematics Achievement

achievement in countries with greater family inequality (GDP Gini),


greater inequality of educational materials across schools, greater in-
equality of teacher quality across schools, or greater economic segre-
gation of rich students away from poor students into separate schools.
Furthermore, these results held across different types of students (high
vs. low SES; high vs. low achievement), as none of these inequalities ben-
efited any of the subsamples of students; instead, most of these students
(including the highest SES students) had lower mathematics achieve-
ment in countries with greater inequality.
Furthermore, these inequalities did not operate in the same manner.
Family inequality and school inequality of teacher quality were both nega-
tively related to mathematics achievement and these relationships were
mediated through fewer educational resources, specifically proportion of
teachers with university degrees, consistent with rent-seeking behaviors.
Meanwhile, family inequality and school inequality of educational mate-
rial were both linked to diminishing marginal returns for household in-
come and educational materials. If future interventions based on similar
inequality research successfully reduce inequality or their inequality mech-
anisms, future students can learn and understand more mathematics.

Acknowledgments

This research was partially funded by a Spencer Foundation grant. I ap-


preciate the research assistance of Yik Ting Choi.

Notes
1. For example, many children in Papua New Guinea do not attend school and
instead work with their parents in fields or in markets. In the marketplace, chil-
dren often sell fruit and give change using parts of their body to mark specific
numbers (such as 18). We can observe whether their mathematics is correct or
not. Furthermore, we can pose hypothetical customers and purchases to test their
mathematics understanding. For example, each closed box has an unknown, iden-
tical number of mangos. One person buys two boxes for 30 kina while another
person buys three boxes of mangos and 10 bags of figs for 50 kina. How many
mangos are in each box and how many figs are in each bag?

29
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MING MING CHIU is the Charles R. Hicks Professor of Educational


Psychology and Research Methodology at Purdue University. He invents
statistics methods to analyze conversations, corruption and generally, Big
Data. He studies systemic inequalities and classroom conversations.

32

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