Educational inequalitY


Cross-national comparisons

There is much cross-national variation in educational systems.  Comparisons across countries offer the opportunity to test theoretical claims and to identify empirical regularities.  The book Determined to Succeed? is a cross-national study of educational inequality (funded by the EU through EQUALSOC).


Jackson, M. (ed.).  (2013)  Determined to Succeed?  Performance versus Choice in Educational Attainment.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Summary: “In many countries, concern about socio-economic inequalities in educational attainment has focused on inequalities in test scores and grades. The presumption has been that the best way to reduce inequalities in educational outcomes is to reduce inequalities in performance. But is this presumption correct?

Determined to Succeed? is the first book to offer a comprehensive cross-national examination of the roles of performance and choice in generating inequalities in educational attainment. It combines in-depth studies by country specialists with chapters discussing more general empirical, methodological, and theoretical aspects of educational inequality. The aim is to investigate to what extent inequalities in educational attainment can be attributed to differences in academic performance between socio-economic groups, and to what extent they can be attributed to differences in the choices made by students from these groups. The contributors focus predominantly on inequalities related to parental class and parental education.”


Jackson, M., Jonsson, J.O. and Rudolphi, F. (2012). “Ethnic Inequality in Choice-Driven Education Systems. A Longitudinal Study of Performance and Choice in England and Sweden,” Sociology of Education, 85, 2, 158-178.

Abstract: “The authors ask whether choice-driven education systems, with comprehensive schools and mass education at the secondary and tertiary level, represented in this article by England and Sweden, provide educational opportunities for ethnic minorities. In studying educational attainment, the authors make a theoretical distinction between mechanisms connected with school performance on the one hand (primary effects) and educational choice, given performance, on the other (secondary effects). Using large national data sets and recently developed methods, they show that performance effects tend to depress the educational attainment of most, although not all, ethnic minorities, whereas choice effects increase the transition rates of these students. This pattern is repeated at the transition to university education. These results are true for many immigrant categories in both England and Sweden, although immigrant students are a heterogeneous group. Black Caribbean students in England and children of Turkish and South American descent in Sweden fare worst, while several Asian groups do extremely well. The authors conclude that it may be a generic feature of choice-driven school systems in Western societies to benefit non-European immigrants, and they discuss some possible explanations for this.”


An examination of educational inequality with respect to socioeconomic background in the United States.  We track trends in inequality in college enrollment and completion, and ask how far changing test-score inequalities account for these trends.  The project is funded by Russell Sage Foundation and the UPS Fund.


Jackson, M. (2019). “Expansion, Enrollment and Inequality of Educational Opportunity,” Sociological Methods and Research.

Abstract: “This article calls into question the view that educational expansion has a causal effect on class-based inequalities of educational opportunity. This view, the impetus for many studies, is flawed because the empirical literature is hampered by poor measures of expansion and because it rests on simplistic understandings of the causal structure that relates supply, demand, and inequality of educational opportunity (IEO). The literature arose as it did because the institutions that are actually expanding and allocating—schools, colleges and universities—are treated as black boxes in conventional macro-level theories of expansion. If the black box is opened, we see that educational institutions at once make decisions about expansion and allocation, thus undermining a simplistic model that has expansion affecting allocation. Drawing upon examples from college education in the United States, I argue that the field must develop new measures of educational expansion and supply in order to identify the true relationship between educational expansion and IEO.”

single-country studies (non-U.S.)

In addition to cross-national comparisons of educational inequality, I have carried out a number of single-country studies.  These include studies of class and ethnic inequality for the important transitions in the United Kingdom (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council), a study of socioeconomic inequality in test-scores and tracking in Egypt, and a study of socioeconomic and gender inequality in schooling in Russia.


Jackson, M., Khavenson, T. and Chirkina, M. (forthcoming). Raising the Stakes: Inequality and Testing in the Russian Education System.” Social Forces.

Abstract: “Sociologists have argued that high-stakes tests open to the door to high levels of educational inequality at transition points: in a high-stakes testing regime, parents and students are able to focus all energy and resources on test preparation, thus enhancing pre-existing inequalities in academic performance. But arguments about a special role for high-stakes tests are often prosecuted without explicit comparisons to other types of tests and assessments, usually because information on other tests is not available. In this paper we analyze a unique dataset on a contemporary cohort of Russian students, for whom we have PISA and TIMSS scores, low-stakes test scores (GIA), and high-stakes test scores (USE). We compare the role that each test plays in mediating socioeconomic background inequalities at the important transitions in the Russian educational system: the transition to upper secondary education, and the transition to university. We find evidence in favor of a special role for the high-stakes USE at the transition to university, but we also find evidence that gives cause to question the standard assumption that high-stakes tests should be a primary focus for those concerned about inequality of educational opportunity.”

Jackson, M. and Buckner, E.  (2016).  “Opportunity without Equity: Educational Inequality and Constitutional Protections in Egypt,” Sociological Science.

Abstract: “The claim that the law can be an inequality-reducing weapon is a staple of legal and political discourse. Although it is hard to dispute that legal provisions sometimes work to reduce inequality, we argue that, at least in the domain of equal opportunity in education, the pattern of these effects can be more perverse than has typically been appreciated. Positive laws implemented in the name of promoting equality of opportunity may yield only a narrowly formal equality, with the goal of substantive equality undermined because a high-profile reform will often expose the pathway to educational success. The pathway, once exposed, can then be navigated and successfully subverted by the socioeconomically advantaged. We illustrate such pitfalls of a positive legal approach by examining educational inequality in Egypt, a country with long-standing constitutional protections for equality of opportunity in education. Using data recently collected from a cohort of young people, we show that despite the institutional commitments to equality of opportunity present in Egypt, privileged families have a range of options for subverting the aims of positive legal provisions. We argue that the pattern of educational inequality in Egypt is distinctive relative to countries without similar legal protections.”


Jackson, M., Erikson, R., Goldthorpe, J.H. and Yaish, M. (2007)  “Primary and Secondary Effects in Class Differentials in Educational Attainment: The Transition to A-Level Courses in England and Wales,” Acta Sociologica, 50, 3, 211-229.

Abstract: “In this article we start from Boudon's important, but still surprisingly neglected, distinction between `primary' and `secondary' effects in the creation of class differentials in educational attainment. Primary effects are all those, whether of a genetic or socio-cultural kind, that are expressed via the association between children's class backgrounds and their actual levels of academic performance. Secondary effects are those that are expressed via the educational choices that children from differing class backgrounds make within the range of choice that their previous performance allows them. We apply a method introduced by Erikson and Jonsson to represent the relationship between primary and secondary effects in analysing class differentials in one crucial transition within the English and Welsh educational system: that which children make at around age 16 and which determines whether or not they will pursue the higher-level academic qualifications — A-levels — that are usually required for university entry. We then use a development of this method that we have earlier proposed in order to produce quantitative estimates of the relative importance of primary and secondary effects as they operate within this transition. We show that secondary effects reinforce primary effects to a substantial extent, accounting for at least one quarter, and possibly up to one-half, of class differentials as measured by odds ratios. In conclusion, we consider some theoretical and policy implications of our findings.”