Unequal access to high-quality education is a major issue in Russia today. The lack of equal opportunities hinders social mobility and forces schools to perpetuate and legitimise social inequality. Inequality in secondary schools has particularly important implications, since it lays the foundation for graduates’ markedly different paths in adult life.
Using findings from the Monitoring of Education Markets and Organisations conducted by the HSE jointly with the Levada Centre, Gordey Yastrebov and Alexei Uvarov examined the connection between Russian school students' academic performance and their parents’ socioeconomic status in an attempt to find out whether the Russian schooling system supports equal opportunities in secondary education or whether it only adds to the preexisting advantages conferred by some students' social background. This discussion is particularly relevant in light of various proposed approaches to evaluating school performance as part of switching to a per capita funding of secondary schools.
Yastrebov and Uvarov presented their findings in the paper Schools and Socioeconomic Standing of Russian Families as Competing Factors in Promoting Social Inequality in Russia.
The authors note that social class differentiation in education increased considerably in the perestroika years and continues to grow in today's Russia, meaning that children's education today depends more on the social and financial situation of their parents and less on the child's own efforts and abilities. Yastrebov and Uvarov note, however, that this problem is not exclusive to Russia.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the prevalent concept in the West, particularly in the United States, was that education was one of best means of social mobility, giving people from different social backgrounds an equal chance of success. However, despite the requirements for equal opportunities, the elites devised strategies to ensure their own continuing success, and the educational system played a key role in these strategies. The use of certain teaching techniques, teacher-student relations, courses, methods, and student selection helped economically privileged and well-educated students gain an advantage over not so privileged and less educated peers – that was the conclusion Western researchers made.
In the process of schooling, children tend to tap into their families' cultural capital, i.e. their parents' education, manners, language, and so on. Thus, children from families with higher social standing are much more likely to seek help from teachers and to do it persistently. In addition, affluent parents are more likely to interact with teachers and the school, and even to engage directly with the educational process.
According to Yastrebov and Uvarov, Russian academic literature also contains significant evidence of inequality in the country's system of general education. They note, however, that existing research has never attempted to assess the relative contribution of socioeconomic factors and the quality of education in a particular school in relation to Russian school students' academic performance.
In an attempt to answer this question, Yastrebov and Uvarov built a two-level regression model, describing students and their families as the first-level observation units and the schools that students attend as the second-level units. They used data from the Monitoring of Education Markets and Organisations (MEMO) which has been conducted since 2002, using a stratified sample taking into account school characteristics such as location, type of settlements, ownership, size, and specialisation. MEMO includes surveys of students, teachers, and school administrators; in addition, 30 parents of students from different classes are interviewed in each school.Yastrebov and Uvarov grouped students' families into three categories:
They also identified two groups of factors that could affect educational opportunities, such as family resources (economic, social, and cultural) and school parameters (teachers, facilities, financing, characteristics of the principal, student backgrounds, type of school, and location).
Parents can convert their financial resources into educational opportunities for children by investing into various supplementary courses, private tutoring, etc., and affluent families can also choose the best schools for their children, including private schools.
Families' cultural and social resources, such as the ability to network effectively with the school and other parents, and to receive feedback about their children's successes and challenges, also contribute to a student’s academic performance.
Yastrebov and Uvarov conclude that «children's success at school is highly sensitive to their families' socio-economic status,» and students from families with higher incomes, where parents are better educated and have steady and well-paying employment, consistently show better academic performance compared to children from less socially advantaged families.
In contrast, their analysis shows very little correlation between individual students' academic success and the characteristics of the school they attend. For example, individual academic performance indicators are in no way associated with the human, material, and financial resources available to a particular school, nor with the school’s location (rural or urban community).
According to Yastrebov and Uvarov, these findings point to at least two potential problems with Russia's educational system – its relative failure to support equal opportunities at the secondary school level and the limitations of school performance evaluation criteria which focus on outcomes, such as the USE test results or the number of winners of various student competitions, while ignoring the factors contributing to these outcomes, such as the students' socioeconomic background.