A New Perspective on the International Achievement Gap: Is Academic Autonomy Good for Everyone?

Jorge Cimentada , Max Planck Institute of Demographic Research

There is a growing literature and interest on the study of the cognitive achievement gap between the top and bottom SES groups. Amidst public concern for this distancing between social classes, researchers have been unable to find an adequate explanation for the increasing cross-country inequality. In this paper, I argue that we need to refocus our efforts towards understanding better what correlates with the academic performance of both SES groups separately. By shifting attention to the amount of school autonomy that different schools have, I show that school autonomy over academic content, courses and text books is associated with a decrease of test scores of nearly .4 standard deviations for the bottom 10% performers in mathematics and literacy -- a whole grade's worth of knowledge. I show that this relationship holds under several specifications, including fixed effect models. In contrast, the same relationship turns positive when relating to the top 10% of students but it's much weaker than for the bottom performers. These results point out that perhaps an explanation to the changing gaps is not symmetrical between groups but rather group specific. The importance of understanding what affects separate SES groups is paramount to understanding the achievement gap and these preliminary results can have important implications in policy making as they speak directly to education policy makers trying to fine tune the autonomy measures of their country.

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 Presented in Session 44. Aspiration, Education and Achievements