Inequality, institutions and educational achievement: evidence from large-scale assessments (1995-2012)

Robin Shields, Hugh Lauder, Andrés Sandoval-Hernández

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review


Contradictory views have emerged about the relationship between national inequality and educational achievement. While some literature shows that higher inequality is associated with lower achievement, others have argued that inequality creates incentives to improve educational performance. We analyze educational achievement using data from all cycles of three international achievement tests (PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS) between 1995 and 2012. Our analysis uses a larger dataset than previous research, and we utilize methods to screen high-leverage outliers that create validity concerns in cross-national research. We also draw upon the concept of varieties of capitalism – institutional differences in the coordination of national economies – to help explain differences in achievement. Our results show that national income moderates the influence of inequality: in low-income countries the relationship between inequality and achievement is consistently negative. In high-income countries, there is some evidence of a positive association, but results are less consistent. More coordinated economies also show higher levels of mean achievement. We discuss how institutional and economic perspectives both explain variation in achievement, with implications for future research.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAmerican Journal of Sociology
Publication statusPublished - 2016

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