“An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.”~ Anatole France
Introduction Many would agree that education is one of the most important pillars of our society, since it is the main form of training up the current generation for the future. However, individual students are often constrained by the schools they attend – sometimes understaffed, over budgeted, or prone to other external pressures, primary and secondary schools are sometimes unable to meet the lofty educational goals of our society.
As a result, students can suffer. However, this an even more important factor of society that affects educational achievement and academic performance: the socioeconomic status of individual students. In short, research has shown that lower socioeconomic status is correlated with lower education and, in turn, worse academic performance. This contention is backed up by dozens of academic studies and peer reviewed research, which is presented through this discussion.
At this point, the positive relationship between the two is certainly well established in academic literature. This short discussion paper examines the various effects that socioeconomic status can have on academic performance, primarily for primary and secondary school students. First, the paper briefly addresses what is meant by ‘academic success’ and ‘socioeconomic status’. Then, the discussion turns to the impact that socioeconomics has on education. Finally, the paper concludes that lower socioeconomic status has a detrimental impact on academic achievement because of the risk factors of poverty and the lack of educational resources available to them.
While this is not an exhaustive account of the research on the topic, the overview provides sufficient evidence to support its conclusion.
First of all, it is important to establish what is meant by the two relative terms discussed here. Socioeconomic status as a term is tossed around quite a bit, but may mean different things to each user. For the purpose of this discussion paper, socioeconomic status can be defined as “the social standing or class of an individual or group” and measured as a “combination of education, income and occupation” (APA, 2016, n.p.). Obviously, the most crucial element of these three is income, as it is directly correlated with family wealth. Even more contentious than this is the term ‘academic performance’, which can have many different meanings according to different pedagogies. Each of the journal articles cited below utilize varying methods for identifying academic success (such as test scores versus self-confidence in class). For the purpose of this paper, academic success, or achievement, can be defined as “an outcome that captures the quality of students’ academic work such as course grades or GPA” (York, Gibson & Rankin, 2015, 2). This umbrella term covers all of the measurements covered through the course of this discussion.
Socioeconomics & Education It is nearly on the level of common sense to say that socioeconomic status directly affects many different areas of an individual’s life. As noted above, socioeconomic status can be measured as a combination of education, income and occupation; these are ostensibly three of the most integral parts of a person’s identity in relation to society. As the American Psychological Association states, “Low socioeconomic status and its correlates, such as lower education, poverty and poor health, ultimately affect our society as a whole” (APA, 2016, n.p.). As a result, it is no surprise that research has shown that low socioeconomic status has an adverse effect on academic achievement and performance. More specifically, the the American Psychological Association also states quite clearly that research “indicates that children from low socioeconomic status households and communities develop academic skills more slowly compared to children from higher socioeconomic status groups” (APA, 2016, n.p.). In other words, low socioeconomic status directly impacts academic achievement because it affects the learning process itself.
But what does this positive relationship look like more specifically? Thankfully there is a great deal of research available to answer this question. For instance, one study examined the factors that affected the outcomes of composite test scores for a particular set of tenth grade students., including “student role performance, school, family, and peer factors” (Barry, 2005,3). The study found that the “strongest predictor of student test scores is socioeconomic status” (Barry, 2005, 3). This is a strong statement, as the findings were statistically significant and unquestionable. Another study backs this finding up, stating that “Extensive research in the sociology of education offers conclusive evidence of a positive relationship between family socio-economic status and the academic achievement of students” (Caro, 2009, 558). Therefore, both quantitative research and a qualitative review of research from past decades supports the positive relationship.
More specifically, the Caro (2009) study assesses how the academic gap works on a gradient – in other words, how academic achievement declines as students become older. This he calls the “cumulative advantage process” which “explains growing inequality when current levels of accumulation directly affect future levels of accumulation” (Caro, 2009, 561). The direct application to education and socioeconomic status is clear. As the scholar goes ont o explain, “learning develops in a hierarchical fashion: more complex forms of learning build on simpler forms of learning” (Caro, 2009, 561). Therefore, the disadvantages that students of low socioeconomic status face early on compound and create new, more complex learning problems later on. The studies examined above both describe and attempt to explain the effect that socioeconomic status has on academic performance. One final journal article reports on the specific statistics regarding this gap in educational achievements. According to the National Education Longitudinal Study, which followed 20,000 students from eighth grade through the freshman year of college, students in the lowest quartile are the most disadvantaged, while those in the highest quartile are the most advantaged” (Rouse & Barrow, 2006, n.p.). This is perhaps the most explicit statistic on this topic, and clearly shows that the two variables have a causal relationship.
As a final note, it is interesting to realize that the effect socioeconomic status has on education does not necessarily stop with an individual student’s own family. According to one study from just a few years ago, “Peer family social status…does have a significant and substantive independent effect on individual academic achievement, only slightly less than an individual’s own family social status” (Caldas & Bankston, 2012, 269). In other words, it is not only the socioeconomic status of individual students that affect those students’ academic achievement, but also the socioeconomic status of their peers. This is, perhaps, the most surprising finding regarding the impact of socioeconomic status on education, but one that researchers and administrators alike should keep in mind. However, this specific finding is supported by psychological theory as a whole. As one scholar states, “The prevailing theory among psychologists and child development specialists is that behavior stems from a combination of genes and environment” (Jensen, 2009, n.p.). More specifically, the author also states that the “complex web of social relationships students experience,” such as those with peers, “exerts a much greater influence on their behavior than researchers had previously assumed” (Jensen, 2009, n.p.). Because students in poverty are usually at more risk, it stands to reason that their peers would be affected by this particular kind of environment. But why is this the case at all?
There are varying theories on why low socioeconomic status has a causal relationship with lowered academic performance. The primary theory on this topic relates directly to money: those with a higher socioeconomic status are able to access more resources for learning opportunities for their children. In contrast, “children from poorer homes are subject to chronic stress, which research from the last 10 years has shown is more destructive to learning than was previously guessed” (Willingham, 2012, 33). In other words, the main driver of the educational achievement gap along socioeconomic lines has to do with students’ access to money and the resources they provide. Other theories focus on the environment of students with low socioeconomic status. For instance, “Children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance” (Jensen, 2009, n.p.). Therefore, while there may not be one single explanation for the causal relationship described above, the two most convincing accounts have to do with money and environment.
Conclusion The above discussion makes three conclusions clear. First, there is no question that socioeconomic status has a direct, causal impact on the academic performance of primary and secondary students. The research cited above is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, and is built on even more data. Second, the discussion also shows that the primary reasons low socioeconomic status has a negative impact on academic achievement is twofold: because of the risk factors of inherent in poverty and the lack of educational resources available to those of lower socioeconomic status. These may not be the only reasons for the relationship, but they certainly appear to be the primary factors. Finally, the discussion as a whole makes it clear that something must be done in the field of education to change this achievement gap. What this change could look like is a question for another time.