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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.

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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

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

inequalities are related to achievement can help inform decisions by

countries about allocation of their limited resources to maximize their

students’ learning.

Achievement

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.

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

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)

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

achievement

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.

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.

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

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,

9

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

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

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

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.

10

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

Variables

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.

11

Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

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

12

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

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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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

the three levels of country, school and student.

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.

(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.

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

[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

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

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

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)

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

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

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

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).

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.

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

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.

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)

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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.

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

Teachers College Record, 117, 010305 (2015)

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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(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

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

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

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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