How Socioeconomic Inequality Affects STEM Education

Study shows that schools fail to teach critical math skills to economically-disadvantaged students.

Science, technology and engineering rely on math so heavily that you could call mathematics the foundation of STEM education. It’s therefore safe to say that without fundamental math skills, a student interested in pursuing a career in engineering will be significantly disadvantaged.

A recent study from the Educational Researcher “The Role of Schooling in Perpetuating Educational Inequality shows that schools are partially to blame for the divide in mathematic performance between high-income and low-income students.

The study shows that because schools give “unequal access to rigorous mathematics content” between low- and high-income students, the performance gap between these groups is exacerbated. This performance gap was found to be the case in the U.S. and in countries around the world.

Graph shows how much unequal access to rigorous math content affected the socioeconomic gap in math performance.

Graph shows how much unequal access to rigorous math content affected the socioeconomic gap in math performance.

According to the graph below, over 50 percent of the socioeconomic performance gap in mathematics is rooted in unequal access to rigorous math content in countries like the Netherlands, Korea and Australia.

“Our findings support previous research by showing that affluent students are consistently provided with greater opportunity to learn more rigorous content, and that students who are exposed to higher-level math have a better ability to apply it to addressing real-world situations of contemporary adult life, such as calculating interest [and] discounts, and estimating the required amount of carpeting for a room,” said William H. Schmidt, distinguished professor of statistics and education at Michigan State University. “But now we know just how important content inequality is in contributing to performance gaps between privileged and underprivileged students.”

Curriculums in the U.S. Need to Align: School-to-School and Class-to-Class

The U.S. wasn’t the worst performing country in the study, but that isn’t something to celebrate. More than one third of the socioeconomic performance gap in math literacy is caused by unequal content access in the U.S. The study showed that the remaining cause of the gap is traced to the involvement of the student’s family and community background in the student’s life.

The study explains that the inequality in the U.S., in particular, is traced back not only to differing school curriculums between districts but also between classrooms. In other words, the study suggests that in the U.S. there are inequalities within schools. By comparison, in other countries such as France, Germany and Japan, the inequality is typically between schools.

“In the United States, public school curricular and tracking policies are contributing to the growing performance gap between poor and rich students,” said Schmidt. “Because of differences in content exposure for low- and high-income students in this country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The belief that schools are the great equalizer, helping students overcome the inequalities of poverty, is a myth.”

The study suggest that, school officials around the world and in the United States should take note of these findings. Content exposure is traditionally dictated more by school policy than a student’s socioeconomic background. The onus is therefore on the schools and our educators to bridge this gap.

The data for this study was collected from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). To perform the study, data from more than 300,000 students between the ages of 15 years and three months to 16 years and two months were collected. Researchers from Michigan State University and the OECD then worked together to present the results.

Do you think this divide is related to other gaps in STEM education? What are your experiences with inequalities in your child’s STEM education? Comment below.

Written by

Shawn Wasserman

For over 10 years, Shawn Wasserman has informed, inspired and engaged the engineering community through online content. As a senior writer at WTWH media, he produces branded content to help engineers streamline their operations via new tools, technologies and software. While a senior editor at, Shawn wrote stories about CAE, simulation, PLM, CAD, IoT, AI and more. During his time as the blog manager at Ansys, Shawn produced content featuring stories, tips, tricks and interesting use cases for CAE technologies. Shawn holds a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Guelph and an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.