Educational Achievement

A lot of us go through our school years striving to perform well and get the best outcomes that we possibly can. But what if it's not just about hitting the books and joining all the extracurricular activities? 

Educational Achievement Educational Achievement

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Table of contents
    • In this explanation, we'll explore the concept of educational achievement as it is studied in sociology.
    • We'll start off by defining differential educational achievement, followed by key debates in the conversation about differential educational achievement - the issue of intelligence and labelling theory.
    • After this, we'll take a close look at differential educational achievement by social groups. This includes discussions about:
      • social class differences in educational achievement,
      • gender differences in educational achievement, and
      • ethnic differences in educational achievement.

    Define differential educational achievement

    Differential educational achievement is a sociological term used to discuss social and structural factors and their relationship to educational achievement.

    Educational achievement gaps are usually associated with class (socioeconomic status), race and ethnicity, and gender. Sociologists research how educational systems and processes influence pupils' levels of attainment. Levels of attainment refer to ratings of the ability of school pupils. This is usually based on class assessments and national exam results.

    The issue of intelligence

    Educational achievement or attainment is also used to measure intelligence. From an epistemological perspective, intelligence is a socio-cultural construction that changes over time and is dependent on culture.

    • Epistemology is the philosophical study of the limits and conditions of knowledge. Epistemologists study how knowledge is constructed, whether we know anything, and what is seen as legitimate knowledge.

    • The topics included and excluded from national curriculums tell us which histories and which sorts of knowledge are prioritised, and considered legitimate.

    From an ontological perspective, the concept of intelligence serves many purposes for different people. The idea of intelligence itself; how and who it is constructed by; is inherently political. Intelligence is a way of organising and differentiating people.

    • Ontology refers to the existence of nature. Ontologists try to understand how the world exists by defining the ideas and concepts that serve as foundations of systems and their relationships.

    • Marxist psychologist Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) pointed out that the construction of intelligence is tied to people's material conditions and their relationship to the means of production.


    American sociologist Howard Becker developed the labelling theory. Though it is mainly associated with the sociology of deviance, sociologists have applied it to education to explain how teacher labelling impacts pupils' behaviour, abilities, and attainment.

    Some sociologists see school assessments and national exams as formal Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests. Sardinia-born French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) developed the first IQ test to identify pupils who were struggling academically. Binet calculated the differences between pupils' mental and physical ages to determine if they needed extra educational support. Testing for intelligence has had varied outcomes.

    • Since their creation, IQ tests have been used to label children. Ideas around intelligence influence teacher bias; this also affects how teachers mark assessments. Some schools have adopted blind marking, where personal, identifiable information is not visible to the marker, to avoid bias.

    • North American eugenicists adopted IQ tests to support their arguments for restricting and stripping the reproductive rights of those they deemed unintelligent. American psychologist Lewis Terman (1877–1956) developed the Binet-Simon Scale, which became the basis of modern IQ testing, to determine who in society should be sterilised.

    • Canadian medical historian Erika Dyck found that IQ tests have played an important role in determining approval for sterilisation, and that it was mainly women who were targeted.

    Educational Achievement, An image illustrating claims about intelligence from Mental defectives in Virginia, StudySmarterFig. 1 - 'Mental Defects in Virginia' (1915) - an image illustrating claims about intelligence.

    Postmodernists point out that today's society is a lot more diverse. We have people of different academic abilities coexisting in the same spaces. Testing for intelligence limits the human imagination. We should have a learner-centred approach to education and focus on meeting the learning needs of every child.

    Labelling is an interactionist concept, meaning it is used to attach meaning or definition to someone or a group. Labelling involves representing a person or group in a simplified way by ignoring their complexities. People are labelled based on others' expectations, perceptions, and preconceptions. For example, boys from working-class backgrounds are perceived as troublesome.

    Teachers are either willing or unwilling to take part in this kind of discrimination by attaching negative labels to pupils. Teachers may be aware of societal and systemic factors that affect pupils' behaviour, achievement, and attainment, but they are rarely considered or addressed when entering the labelling process.

    Both internal (in-school factors) and external (out-of-school factors) affect the achievement of pupils. Let's now take a look at the interaction between educational achievement and various social groups.

    Social class differences in educational achievement

    Teachers attach negative labels to working-class pupils and positive labels to middle-class pupils. This is an internal factor that affects educational achievement. Some of these labels include:

    • Working-class pupils do not do well at school because their parents do not care about their education. Working-class parents are stereotyped as valuing education less, and being less ambitious than middle-class parents.

    • Working-class subcultures are distinct from middle-class subcultures. Working-class norms and values do not prioritise or encourage success, leading to poor grades.

    Labels are based on general stereotypes of working-class and middle-class people. They also perpetuate these stereotypes. Teacher expectations influence how much support and attention pupils receive.

    Labelling can lead to a 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a socio-psychological phenomenon used to describe a prediction that causes itself to become true. This is often a label or stereotype that positively or negatively defines all group members in the same way.

    • Pupils internalise teacher expectations; it then becomes part of their self-image, and they behave in a way that makes those predictions come true.

    • If working-class pupils are labelled as unintelligent and anti-school, many of them will start to believe that labelling. It will impact their levels of attainment.

    Anti-school subcultures (sometimes a reaction to 'streaming'), criminalise working-class pupils. Pupils who are part of these subcultures influence each other to avoid work, disrupt classes, and perform poorly in assessments and exams. This is not always done deliberately; sociologists argue it can be because of a lack of self-esteem.

    Some sociologists argue these differences in educational achievement and levels of attainment are because of cultural and material deprivation.

    • Cultural deprivation refers to the belief that those from lower social classes have inferior norms, values, skills, and knowledge.

    • Material deprivation refers to the inability to afford and/or access resources and services. Pupils from materially deprived areas and households are less likely to afford revision books and computers compared to those in affluent areas.

    Gender differences in educational achievement

    External factors such as the feminist movement have impacted educational achievement immensely. They have influenced laws and legislations, which has led to girls exercising more rights.

    • The feminist movement challenged the traditional stereotype of women's housewife role. Careers and independence have become more important to women, which has led to girls prioritising education.

    • The increase in divorce rates and decrease in the number of first marriages have made girls aware that they must learn to become independent of boys to succeed, as marriage is no longer guaranteed. They can no longer depend on marriage as a way of survival.

    • The feminist movement and the feminisation of the curriculum have had a negative impact on the achievement of boys. For example, there is a decreasing perception of STEM subjects as masculine or 'boy' subjects.

    The correlation between gender and educational achievement has a lot to do with how society, families, schools, and teachers respond to pupils.

    • The introduction of league tables has improved the achievements of girls. They are more likely to be recruited by good schools and more likely to do well academically.

    • Teachers have lower expectations for boys, so are likely to give them less support.

    • There are now more female teachers in senior positions to act as role models to girls.

    • There are fewer male teachers than before, meaning there are fewer male role models for boys.

    Ethnic differences in educational achievement

    Pupils from certain ethnic backgrounds perform better in school than others. There have been a wide range of internal and external explanations as to why pupils from certain ethnic and racial backgrounds have high levels of attainment. These range from parental attitudes to education, eugenic explanations of intelligence (an external factor), to teacher bias (an internal factor).

    Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aims to 'improve' humanity by breeding specific desirable hereditary traits. Eugenicists believe intelligence is a genetic, psychological trait, and those deemed unintelligent should be bred out for the good of the human race.

    Some theories criticise society for being Eurocentric and purposely excluding non-European knowledge. Other theories pit Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups against each other.

    • Speaking slang or your mother tongue as opposed to standard English has been said to affect the achievement of Black British and African American pupils. Researchers have argued that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is inadequate for success.

    • Sociologists have suggested that East and South Asian cultures promote self-worth and value education, whilst Afro-Caribbean culture does not instil the same values in children.

    • This has created the myth of the 'model minority'. The perception of universal success among all Asian groups is used to downplay racism faced by Asian pupils. It also ignores their struggles in the education system.

    • The model minority myth does not consider the socioeconomic and historical reasons why Southeast Asian pupils do not do as well academically as East and South Asians.

    • White Traveller and Roma (Romani) pupils have the lowest levels of attainment out of every racial and ethnic group. Many travellers and Roma pupils are bullied in schools and experience discrimination from the system, other pupils, and teachers.

    You can find more information about each of these topics (Educational Achievement and Gender, Educational Achievement and Social Class, Educational Achievement and Ethnicity) in dedicated explanations on StudySmarter!

    Educational Achievement - Key Takeaways

    • Intelligence is subjective and socially constructed. Epistemologists view intelligence as a socio-cultural construct, while ontologists believe the concept of intelligence serves a purpose to different people.
    • Much of what we understand about Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, in the western world is based on eugenic theories. Some academics wanted to use IQ tests to figure out which groups in society were not worthy of reproducing.
    • Gender, racial, ethnic, and class stereotypes affect the achievement of pupils.
    • Material and cultural deprivation are defining factors of achievement.
    • Teacher labelling and bias contribute to how well pupils do in school.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Educational Achievement

    How does social class affect educational achievement?

    Pupils are assigned labels based on their class position. Underachievement is sometimes a result of teacher labelling and bias. Working-class pupils form anti-school subcultures as a response to the class discrimination they face in schools. 

    Does gender affect educational achievement?

    There are many stereotypes and labels attached to pupils of different genders; this affects how they are seen in society and the kind of support they receive inside and outside of school. 

    What Is differential educational achievement? 

    'Differential Educational Achievement' is a sociological term used to discuss social and structural factors and their relationship to educational achievement.

    What is an example of educational achievement?

    Educational achievement is usually measured in the form of class grades or test scores.

    How does material deprivation affect educational achievement?

    Material deprivation is the inability to afford resources and services. Pupils from materially deprived areas and households are less likely to do well in school if they cannot afford assets such as revision books, computers or fees for educational field trips. They may also live in more crowded households with poorer living conditions, which may prevent them from being able to concentrate on their studies. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Historically, girls have had higher academic achievement than boys. 

    The feminisation of the curriculum has had a positive impact on girls' and boys' achievement. True or false?

    Which theory is labelling related to?

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    Team Educational Achievement Teachers

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