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How Schools Matter: The Need for a Contextual Perspective

Family Environments, School Resources, and Educational Outcomes

ISBN: 978-1-78441-628-7, eISBN: 978-1-78441-627-0

ISSN: 1479-3539

Publication date: 28 June 2016


Most social scientists believe that schools serving the disadvantaged provide considerably poorer learning environments than schools serving advantaged students. As a result, schools are thought to be an important source of social problems like inequality. However, an important subset of research employing seasonal comparisons (observing how achievement gaps change when school is in versus out) disputes this position. These studies note that socioeconomic-based gaps in skills grow faster when school is out versus in, suggesting that achievement gaps would be larger if not for schools. I discuss the advantages of seasonal comparison studies and how they provide a more contextual perspective for understanding several important questions, such as: (1) What is the distribution of school quality? (2) How does inequality outside of school condition the way schools matter? and (3) Which policies, school or non-school, most effectively reduce achievement gaps? I conclude that our understanding of how schools influence inequality would be improved by employing the more contextual perspective offered by seasonal comparisons. Seasonal comparison studies have not played a meaningful role in public discussions and so the public lacks a proper understanding of the extent to which social context shapes achievement gaps. This is unfortunate because we continue to try and address achievement gaps primarily through school reform when the real source of the problem lies in the inequalities outside of schools.



Downey, D.B. (2016), "How Schools Matter: The Need for a Contextual Perspective", Family Environments, School Resources, and Educational Outcomes (Research in the Sociology of Education, Vol. 19), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 1-18.



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