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Fewer opportunities to learn for disadvantaged students

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In classes with a high proportion of disadvantaged students, less of the curriculum in mathematics are covered and more teachers state they are not well-prepared to teach. The result from Victoria Rolfe’s dissertation calls for measures to create more equity in Swedish schools.

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Porträtt på Victoria Rolfe.
Victoria Rolfe.

– There is an unequal distribution of teacher competence in Swedish schools. Disadvantaged pupils, that is pupils with less favorable socioeconomic background, are in classes where there are less opportunities to learn compared to advantaged pupils, says Victoria Rolfe, doctoral student in education at the University of Gothenburg.

Victoria Rolfe has used data from the international study TIMMS to analyze inequality in learning opportunities – how much subject content student are exposed to – and student achievement. TIMMS is conducted in around 80 countries and examines knowledge in mathematics and science in grade 4 and 8. Victoria Rolfe has made an international comparison between the countries that participated at grade 8 in TIMMS 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015.

– When we looked at the relationships between students’ socioeconomic backgrounds, opportunities to learn, and achievement across many countries and cycles of TIMSS data, we found that in almost all countries, there is an inequality in results based on students' socio-economic backgrounds. These inequalities in student achievement are more pronounced in countries with higher levels of income inequality, says Victoria Rolfe.

In many countries there are also unequal opportunities to learn based on students' socio-economic backgrounds, and in a few countries that difference in opportunities further increases the inequality in result.

– Interestingly, unequal opportunity is correlated with how urbanized a country is, that is the proportion of the population living in urban areas, says Victoria Rolfe.

Inequality in Swedish classrooms

While Sweden has low levels of income inequality, there is still a clear inequality in results based on students' socio-economic backgrounds. In some, but not all, years, there are also a tendency for unequal opportunities and even the possibility for further increased inequality in results due to differences in opportunities to learn.

In order to better understand these inequalities in Swedish classrooms, Victoria Rolfe has examined teacher characteristics in 8th grade classes. In addition to inequality in achievement and opportunity based on students’ social background, there is also an unequal distribution of teachers who consider themselves well prepared in teaching different mathematics topics. Unqualified teachers in classes with resourceful students consider themselves better prepared to teach mathematics than those in classes with less favorable socioeconomic conditions. When teachers are qualified to teach mathematics, their preparedness does not differ for socioeconomically advantaged or disadvantaged classes.

– The results show that there is an inequity in Swedish classrooms and give us an understanding of what it looks like. The dissertation calls for actions to develop a more egalitarian society and more effective teacher education to facilitate equal learning opportunities for all children. Hopefully it can be a starting point for a more nuanced discussion about interventions that can create a more equal school, says Victoria Rolfe.

Victoria Rolfe defended her dissertation Exploring socioeconomic inequality in educational opportunity and outcomes in Sweden and beyond on June 8, 2021.

TIMMS

TIMMS is a study that is conducted every four years in around 80 countries. It examines knowledge in mathematics and science in grade 4 and 8.
TIMMS also collects information about pupils’ attitudes, their socio-economic background, and teachers’ and principals’ perceptions of, among other things, teaching, competence and security in school.