Educational Inequalities: Cumulative Effects of Social Origins over the Life Course

The persistence of social inequality has been declared as the main explanan- dum of sociological inequality research (Goldthorpe 1996). Seen as an almost universal feature of modern societies, explanatory models have been proposed at the micro level of social action and educational attainment in particular in order to explain the aggregated outcome of persistent inequality. The distinction between primary and secondary effects of social origin on educational attainment, as introduced by Boudon (1974), has proven to be particularly useful in this perspective. Primary effects capture the impact of parental class background on the development of skills and abilities of children. Once entering school, these differences in initial abilities transform into unequal grades and, consequentially, educational certificates. Primary effects might thus be interpreted as a meritocratic channel of class background into educational success. In a world where all children are treated equally in school and final grades and certificates purely reflect the abilities and skills of the children (ignoring their class backgrounds), there would still be a reproduction of educational inequalities due to these ‘primary effects’.[1]

However, the most striking and alarming finding is that the observed inequalities of educational attainment are only to a certain extent due to primary effects. Another large part is due to the ‘secondary effects’ of parental background. These secondary effects are thus independent of the children’s abilities and school performance. Although difficult to quantify, secondary effects have been estimated to be at least as large as primary effects, if not larger, for example, in Germany (Neugebauer et al. 2013). A core sociological explanation for these secondary effects is status maintenance (Breen and Goldthorpe 1997): parents tend to avoid downward mobility for their children. Hence, parents who have already achieved academic qualifications will try to push their children towards attaining at least the same level of academic qualification even if the children perform at a lower level. Under the assumption that parents from all social classes behave in the same (rational) way of avoiding downward mobility as far as possible, parents from higher social classes will, everything else being equal, invest more effort into obtaining higher educational certificates for their offspring than parents from lower social classes.

This explanation, as laid out by Boudon (1974), explains secondary effects as the result of class-specific educational decision-making. However, the distinction between primary and secondary effects can also be generalized to mechanisms that go beyond parental decisionmaking and that account for class-cultural norms and/or institutional discrimination. For example, empirical studies have shown that school grades not only reflect children’s cognitive abilities and test performance (that is, primary effects) but also the parental background (Maaz and Nagy 2009). Children from higher social classes or native parents receive higher school grades for the same performance than children from lower social classes and/or ethnic minorities. This bias can be conceptualized as generalized secondary effects. The important extension of Boudon’s work is that these generalized secondary effects are not due to parental decision-making, but due to class-biased assessments of teachers. Moreover, these effects cumulate over the life course due to educational tracking and the institutional and contextual effects on the development of abilities and skills. For example, it has been shown that the social and ethnic/ racial composition of school classes has an impact on the development of pupils’ abilities. This means that selection in more restricted contexts, which might be due to secondary effects (in the original sense of parental decisions), has detrimental effects on the further development of abilities and skills, which, at later transitions, might work as (generalized) ‘primary’ effects, that is, effects that follow the meritocratic rule.

A generalized model of secondary effects thus is capable of incorporating class biased assessments of teachers and institutional discrimination in terms of class biased tracking, while a generalized model of primary effects is capable of incorporating all class specific contextual effects that shape the skill formation of youngsters within and beyond family socialization. The family remains an important early context, but neighbourhoods, social networks and educational tracks and programmes constantly shape the skill formation and development of competencies. Due to the role of homogenous social networks or classroom composition, and partly also due to the unequal endowments of more or less prestigious neighbourhoods, school tracks and other institutional contexts, secondary effects that channel less privileged youngsters into less privileged educational contexts transform into primary effects of unequal development of competencies.

  • [1] The concept of ‘compensatory education’ has been introduced to counteract these primary effects.By this concept, the educational system has to make up for the different starting positions ofchildren entering school due to their family background and socialization.
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