Scholarly article on topic 'School Equity: The Students’ Perspectives in Diverse School Contexts'

School Equity: The Students’ Perspectives in Diverse School Contexts Academic research paper on "Economics and business"

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Abstract of research paper on Economics and business, author of scientific article — Aline Seiça, Maria de Fátima Chorão Sanches

Abstract Educational reforms in Portugal reflect the influence of the Lisbon Strategy regarding a more competitive knowledge based economy and social cohesion. European directions also agree that educational systems respond to the work market tendencies in addition to the social challenges emerging in the globalized world. Accordingly, recent policies address educational inequalities concerning studentś truancy and failure, high number of students with low levels of literacy, the enlargement of compulsory secondary education, and an emphasis on adults education based on the principle of lifelong learning. Being part of a larger project, this paper focuses on perspectives of educational justice and purports to (a) identify factors that sustain or hinder educational equity; (b) understand the students’ perspectives regarding school practices of justice; and (c) how they are construed in diverse school contexts. What meanings do students attribute to school experiences? What practices are perceived either as just or unjust? The analysis combined qualitative and quantitative data from two urban schools with differential socio-economic and cultural family backgrounds. Results emphasize the following studentś perspectives of justice: (a) the equalitarian, regarding the distribution of the educational resources and forms of treatment; and (b) the redistributive, underlining matters of equity. The discussion underlines two points for interpretation: the association of critical school contexts to recent official policies; and the students’ differential concerns regarding teachers and schools practices.

Academic research paper on topic "School Equity: The Students’ Perspectives in Diverse School Contexts"

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Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 116 (2014) 2015 - 2022

5th World Conference on Educational Sciences - WCES 2013

School Equity: The Students' Perspectives in Diverse School

Contexts

Aline Sei9a*, Maria de Fatima Chorao Sanches b

* D. Pedro V High School, Laranjeiras Road, Lisbon, 1600-136, Portugal b Institute of Education\ University of Lisbon, Avenue of University, 1649-013 Portugal

Abstract

Educational reforms in Portugal reflect the influence of the Lisbon Strategy regarding a more competitive knowledge based economy and social cohesion. European directions also agree that educational systems respond to the work market tendencies in addition to the social challenges emerging in the globalized world. Accordingly, recent policies address educational inequalities concerning students' truancy and failure, high number of students with low levels of literacy, the enlargement of compulsory secondary education, and an emphasis on adults education based on the principle of lifelong learning. Being part of a larger project, this paper focuses on perspectives of educational justice and purports to (a) identify factors that sustain or hinder educational equity; (b) understand the students' perspectives regarding school practices of justice; and (c) how they are construed in diverse school contexts. What meanings do students attribute to school experiences? What practices are perceived either as just or unjust? The analysis combined qualitative and quantitative data from two urban schools with differential socio-economic and cultural family backgrounds. Results emphasize the following students' perspectives of justice: (a) the equalitarian, regarding the distribution of the educational resources and forms of treatment; and (b) the redistributive, underlining matters of equity. The discussion underlines two points for interpretation: the association of critical school contexts to recent official policies; and the students' differential concerns regarding teachers and schools practices.

© 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Academic World Education and Research Center. Key words: theories of justice; school justice; student's perspectives of justice; school contexts

1. Introduction

Recent European Council (EC) policies implicate educational systems on achieving a competitive knowledge based economy while at same time have to face social challenges in a globalized world. These heterogeneous policies raise serious questions for equity in the school contexts. Critical voices join to argue that education is a matter of just distribution across people and that equity education must effectively continue to be an imperative human right. Other convergent positions object to the subordination of educational aims to the markets as well as to the assumption that efficiency and equity outcomes are not in conflict. Yet, the relation between these educational aims as well as their definitions is neither obvious nor consensual. As Woessmann (2006) refers, "certain policies may bring education (...) closer to efficiency, without having any impact on equity. Other policies may be highly equitable without affecting efficiency" (p.2). Furthermore, efficiency and equity may develop in complementary

* Corresponding author name : Aline Sei^a Tel.: +351-966-502-210 E-mail address: aline-seica@sapo.pt

1877-0428 © 2013 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.

Selection and/or peer-review under responsibility of Academic World Education and Research Center. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.01.513

ways. Despite these polemic views, it matters to underline that EC strategic priorities involve systemic dimensions that underpin the complexity of equity issues: promoting further learning as well as active citizenship; enhancing social inclusion without restricting attainment of excellence in education; ensuring equity opportunities to all children regardless of their personal, social or economic circumstances; reducing students' school leaving; and giving additional support to schools with a higher percentage of students from deprived areas. Can school systems meet such challenges in effective ways? International reports suggest that educational reforms still assume that successful improvement depends almost entirely on school and teaching changes. To what extent and in what conditions may the schools' mission be directed for both economic prosperity and social cohesion?

In this context, actual social and educational challenges lead European countries to develop programs which Raffe (2011) classified in three main approaches: the culturalists, aiming at reducing the cultural gap between the new publics arriving at school and the characteristics of the educational system; the rationalists, focusing on the balance among opportunities, incentives and costs; and the developmentalists, addressing at risk students problems and offering new opportunities to whom abandoned the school earlier. But the relevant question concerns whether or not social policies and educational practices converge in promoting real equity. On the one hand, as Dupriez and Dumay (2007) refer in order to be truly equalitarian and avoid discrimination that reproduces or exacerbates initial inequalities, it would be mandatory to focus on individual needs, develop differential pedagogical strategies, and institutionalize inclusive classrooms. On the other hand, as the OECD PISA study already emphasized in 2000, equity will result from the optimization between school factors and policies that address specific sub-groups' needs. These students' success would then depend upon "an equal or fair distribution of inputs, processes and outcomes among participants in education with different characteristics" (p.14). However, recent evidence suggests that the distribution of inputs is still inequitable. Schools with a more advantaged intake often have better educational resources (OECD, 2012).

To what extent fighting social marginalization and school failure is contributing to integrate both equity and efficiency? Growing and compelling evidence diverges from the assumption underlying this question, particularly when equity-based efforts to improve educational outcomes are related to non-solved social problems that originate and still remain outside the educational system. In convergence with OECD reports, European studies (Rochex, 2010; 2011) focusing on social and cultural inequalities also show that educational inequity not only is improving in many countries as it may become even worse. In what regards priority education intervention programs, some countries have evolved from 'compensatory' models to 'models of excellence' concerned with ensuring equality of opportunity to the best students from underprivileged schools. Such policies aim at opening the social class of elites but they also may create a "dead-end vision" for the working-class and the priority education schools. Indeed, as Rochex (2011) stresses, although under a new definition, the negative meaning attributed to the concept of "territory" remains, either in terms of "challenging areas" or under the concept of 'multi-agency' partnership. Despite the relevant improvements already achieved (Sanches & Dias, 2013), fighting against exclusion has a long way still to be pursued. On the whole, evidence urges for social policies that reinforce and articulate priority policies against socio-economic inequalities and urban residential segregation in particular. While addressing issues that frame this complex context, the present study is part of a larger research project on school justice, focusing on the extent to which recent policies minimize educational inequalities and have a differential impact on school practices. More specifically, this paper purports to describe the students' meanings attributed to school experiences in terms of discrimination, redistributive, and equalitarian justices.

2. Approaches to equity in education

Main theoretical perspectives of justice address issues of equality and equity in education: distributive, redistributive, and recognition. In democratic liberal societies, the idea of justice in education centers on the principle of equality of opportunities referring to a plurality of dimensions: access to education, receiving educational goods, focusing on individual needs, improving learning results and level of qualifications. OECD report (2005) underlines that "equality is not just strived for in terms of opportunities, as meritocrats would define it; (...) it is equivalence in outcomes that matters" (p.48). However, in some authors' view (Crahay et al, 2003;

Dubet & Duru-Bellat, 2004), the equalitarian view represents a limited understanding of the distributive justice. A somewhat utopian perspective of equity assumes that education and society are both deeply ingrained in that process. In this sense, equity education would indeed prioritize participation and the success of those learners belonging to specific cultural and social groups. Moreover, differences in educational outcomes must not be dependent on wealth, income or power. Yet, this type of discriminatory effects still continues in some countries (OECD, 2012). Not only inequalities of educational results cannot be considered as natural, nor students be discriminated on their school performance. Assumptions underlying the pedagogical or organizational interactions as well as curricular decisions cannot be ignored. Moreover, if diversity is given relevance and recognition, school justice must emphasize equity.

Justice may also signify recognition, a view that goes beyond distributive justice. It avoids an abstract universalism, advocates diversity and inclusion, and opposes to liberal views of distributive justice that hides or eliminates differences. Recognition concerns the most vulnerable groups and appeals for politics of differentiation and cultural identity (Fraser & Honneth, 2003; Strike, 1999; Young, 1999). It values the students' social recognition in school and calls for changes that enrich multiculturalism and inclusion through both the 'hidden' and formal school curricula. In agreement with the Salamanca Declaration (1994), inclusive education must operate transformative effects on school practices and intercultural interactions. By focusing on values of school justice and participatory citizenship, education would contribute to building a democratic justice and fulfilling universal needs for recognition. The 'caring' approach to education (Noddings, 1997; Colnerud, 2006) converges with recognition while sustaining equity on the values of honest work, non-violence, loyalty, and solidarity. In line with Kohlberg's approach (1982), active citizenship in community is also a relevant concept. If schools are to become "just communities", they must preserve dignity, mutual respect and equality for all. To this extent, cultivating reciprocity and equality of treatment, listening and responding to the students' social and personal needs should inspire the schools educational project. Such educational strategies would indeed constitute the most imperative conditions for justice in schools, so that students could think of themselves as subjects of rights.

3. Research problem

According the Portuguese Constitution and the Basic Law of Education (1986) educational mandates under the umbrellas of "cultural democracy" and "social democracy", a first cycle of policies gave prominence to principles of equality and equity in education. From the 80's to the 90's onward, innovative school programs concerned universal access to education and gave priority to the following targets: fighting students' failure and supporting schools located in deprived territories, where students' truancy and failure reached "alarming" numbers when compared to the European Union. In line with European Union directives, more advanced policies have addressed school exclusion and educational inequalities. It was imperative to promote school inclusion and prevent dropout, but also to improve students' outcomes. Indeed the 2008 regulations imprinted new foundation for these policies: (a) recognizing that public school has a social mission which requires promoting education for all; (b) developing a greater social equity awareness; and (c) stating that education contributes to build a just, democratic, and solidarity society. The Educational Territories of Priority Intervention programs is now being renovated in order to respond to such mandates in terms of guaranteeing support to a larger number of schools located in disadvantage areas. What is the impact of such policies on students' views of justice such it is experienced in daily school practices? To what extent such policies potentiate the teachers' and schools dilemmas stemming from the apparent opposition between efficacy and equity?

Certain ambivalences translate into the political discourse, which might influence school practices. The present official accountability directives put stronger pressures on schools effectiveness. Schools must indeed assume a greater responsibility for reducing students' failure, enhancing the students' level of literacy, and reinforcing adults qualifications based on the principle of life long learning. Although equality and equity still echo in the official discourse, it nevertheless reinforces a culture of evaluation, merit, and competition. Despite current innovative programs, such problems still await for more effective policies that have a social impact on school communities

(Correia et al, 2008; Sanches & Dias, 2013). Moreover, social and educational dilemmas concerning equity versus quality, diversity and inclusion remain as crucial areas for further policy attention.

3.1. Research questions

In this specific context, questions of school equity justice deserve in-depth research and further analysis. A main question arises on the policies impact and implications for practices of justice in schools. To what extent and how the double challenge of efficacy versus equity is faced in practice? What types of justice predominate in the schools differential contexts? Studies on educational disadvantage in the Portuguese education system (OECD, 2012) are still scarce, particularly, on perspectives and living experiences of justice in schools across specific groups from disadvantaged families. To what extent teaching practices and curricular organizational decisions reflect equity perspectives? The study described here focuses on factors that might sustain or hinder educational equity and on how practices of justice are construed in contrasting socio-economic and culturally diverse school contexts. The scope of the present paper restricts to the following questions: (1) What are the students' perspectives regarding school practices in terms of redistributive, equalitarian and caring dimensions of school justice? (2) What school practices are oriented to deal with diversity in terms of equity? (3) Are there differences between schools?

4. Methodological options

This is a descriptive and interpretative case study developed for one year in two school settings: one urban (JFG) and other sub-urban (DAM) schools with differential socio-economic and cultural family backgrounds. JFG school population receives students from middle and high-class families and it is located in a large commercial and cultural area of the city. The analysis of the external official evaluation results ranked JFG on the high effectiveness schools group in the country. In contrast, DAM is a multicultural school implanted in a deprived area and currently integrated in the priority intervention program (TEIP). Immigrant and African (80%) children from first and second generations and 17 nationalities compose the DAM student body.

The analysis combined qualitative and quantitative data from complementary sources: school documents, faculty meetings observations in specific moments of the year, and questionnaires both to teachers and students. In addition, in-depth interviews were conducted to schools' director, teachers performing organizational roles, and students. For the purposes of the present paper, the analysis focuses on the following questionnaire dimensions: redistributive, equalitarian and caring dimensions of school justice. The questionnaire (N= 68 items) is structured in a Lickert type scale of 'reality', from 'never happens' to 'happens many times' (1 to 5 points) and is structured according the following school justice dimensions: (a) distributive justice defined in terms of equality and equity; (b) retributive justice regarded rewards, punishments and merit; (c) recognition justice pertaining to participation, inclusion and conviviality; and justice as caring was defined in terms of support and affection. Open-ended questions focus on school situations and personal experiences considered either just or unjust. All basic teaching level and secondary school students in both schools answered the questionnaire. In DAM School, 342 students devolved the questionnaires from a total of 467 students (108 secondary level students plus 245 from the basic grades). In JGF School, 890 questionnaires were filled out from a total of 1090 students. The analysis of the psychometric properties of the questionnaire were assessed by the Cronbach's ALPHA. Reliabilities were performed for each subscale, as follows: Discrimination (n=8) a = .69; pedagogical differentiation (n=6) .70; educational goods (n=3) .71; caring (n=4) .64; and forms of treatment in school (n=4) .70. A Multivariate Analysis of Variance (MANOVA) assessed the statistical significance of a school effect on these variables.

5. School practices for minimizing inequity

The content analysis of schools documents and school meetings observation identified a number of practices aiming at preventing and minimizing inequity. As Table 1 summarizes, both schools addressed similar dimensions although with differential emphases: community involvement, students' socialization into the school educational rules, curricular arrangements, and pedagogical positive differentiation. Specifically, schools decisions regarded pedagogical practices aiming at offering the students new opportunities to learn, varying teaching resources, didactic activities, and curricular alternatives for special needs and at risk students. Pedagogical differentiation and alternative curricular practices appeared to be more intense and enriching in DAM' s than in JFG School. Although a system of tracking is working at DAM school, other curricular practices suggest a particular concern with immigrant students and an orientation for their vocational options in the future. Given the cultural diversity of the surrounding community, DAM school revealed a greater diversity in supportive interactions to help families dealing with existing poverty situations. In addition, this school organized adult literacy programs open to the community. JFG School promoted curricular enrichment through multiple projects to involve and motivate students for learning other themes beyond the normal curricula. In this sense, students' improvement strategies did not discriminate students against. Moreover, pedagogical plans for particular students were important for several reasons. On the one hand, better results ensured that a high percentage of students enter the university. On the other hand, attaining these levels of effectiveness contributed to JFG School raising or maintaining a good ranking position in competition with all schools in the country.

Table 1. School Practices for Minimizing Inequity

Dimensions DAM Scholl JFG School

Pedagogical differentiation • Differentiating teaching (tasks, resources, etc). • Differential difficulty level of tests. • Reinforcing and diversifying pedagogic .support. • Help developing students' individual plans for improvement. • Alternative curricula for special students. X X X X X X X

Curricular and organizational practices • Developing multiple curricular projects. • Tracking: different levels of learning. • Special classes for immigrant students. • Promoting vocational and students' peofessionalization for future jobs. • Adapting the curricula to the students' vocational interests X X X X X X

Community involvement • Competencies certification programs. • Promoting school-community involvement. • Adult literacy programs. X X X X

Socialization and support • Supplying free meals and other types of support. • Emphasis on social rules. X X X

6. Students' perspectives regarding school justice

The study purported to identify the students' perspectives on school justice in terms of the following dimensions: discrimination, caring, equalitarian and redistributive. Equalitarian sub-dimensions was defined in terms of educational resources distribution and forms of treatment at school; redistributive justice refers to the school dealing with diversity, through sets of items: positive pedagogical differentiation, inclusion, and caring; discrimination regarded items on gender, degree of attention given to the best students and differential punishments. As Table 2 indicates, significant differences were found among schools in terms of distributive justice, recognition and discrimination. MANOVA results (Pillai' test = 0.984; F (7.853) = 7553.68, p = 0.000) suggest a school effect on

distributive justice, recognition, and discrimination. Indeed, DAM school presents higher means than JFG School in distributive and recognition justice variables as well as in discrimination.

6.1 Equalitarian justice

Results show that DAM School appears to be more equalitarian than JFG' School. Such difference may be interpreted either in terms of the students' composition or the nature of the educational aims and strategies addressed by the schools' educational project. It matters to note that DAM School is under an intervention program (TEIP), structured according to special directives contracted with the Ministry of Education. Indeed, the TEIP program allows for both additional financial support and hiring specialized school staff. Given its high cultural and ethnic diversity of students, DAM School appear to be less concerned with 'forms of treatment' (mean = 3.47) than with the 'distribution of educational goods' (mean=3.92). This result suggests a greater students' sensibility to teachers' distribution of rewards and punishments. In contrast, JFG School' students may not feel so great a difference in terms of the equalitarian treatment by teachers.

Table 2. Schools Means Relative to Equalitarian, Redistributive Justice and Discrimination

Justice dimensions DAM School JFG School

Equalitarian Justice • Educational goods • Forms of treatment 3.92 (sd. 0.97) 3.47 (sd. 1.17) 3.53 (sd. 0.97) 3.45 (sd. 1.01)

Global 3.70 (sd. 1.07) 3.49 (sd. 0.99)

Redistributive Justice • Caring • Positive pedagogical differentiation 3.57 (sd. 1.16) 3.44 (sd. 1.13) 3.25 (sd. 1.00) 3.01 (sd. 0.99)

Global 3.50 (sd. 1.14) 3.13 (sd.0.99)

Discrimination 3.10 (sd. 1.30) 2.90 (sd. 1.14)

6.2 Redistributive justice and discrimination

This dimension regarded both forms of positive pedagogical differentiation and teachers' caring orientation. As Table 2 indicates, DAM School rated higher than JFG in both dimensions of justice. Pedagogical differentiation results indicate that DAM School is more concerned than JFG School with (a) the students' learning needs, (b) paying more attention to students with learning problems, (c) changing teaching strategies for a better students' understanding, (d) changing forms of evaluation, and (d) giving the students more learning time. A caring orientation was also more recognized by DAM' students than in JFG school. Indeed, students at DAM perceived teachers as (a) valuing the students' wellbeing, (b) being diligent to helping students solve both personal and at school problems; and (c) affirming that teachers liked their students.

The dimension of discrimination differentiated between the two schools. Although it was not expected, results showed a higher level of discrimination at DAM School than at JFG. The students' experiences indicate that teachers tend to (a) treating the best students better, (b) giving worse grades to students with discipline problems, (c) being more lenient with the best students, (d) giving positive feedback to the same students, and (e) always punishing the same students. Yet, discrimination by gender did not differentiate the two schools. This type of discrimination was low both at DAM (mean = 2.43) and JFG (mean =2.06) schools.

7. Final remarks

This study addressed students' perspectives on school justice according their personal experiences in two types of schools: an urban middle-high socio-economic family background and a multicultural school, located in a deprived

sub-urban area under a priority intervention program (TEIP). In general, the study results portrayed two different contextual images of school. DAM School revealed a social orientation in conjunction with pedagogical practices that might induce students toward precocious professional vocational choices. In contrast, the JFG School curricular programs tend to leading students to a more academic orientation and pursuing further studies at the university level.

The analysis also showed differences between the two schools regarding two main justice dimensions: equalitarian justice and redistributive justice. Yet, on the whole, students tended to consider their own schools to be a just one. Moreover, despite their differential contexts, both schools appeared to be more sensitive to equalitarian justice than to redistributed justice. They appear to value equality more than differences, a result that might indicate a line of thought that is central to the idea of human dignity. While attentive to individual needs and identities, redistributive justice corresponds to a contextualized justice. In this regard, both DAM and JFG schools adjusted curricular options and teaching practices not only to the characteristics of their student populations as well as to the educational project aims of school. Yet, it matters to note that, in both schools, teachers' practices were directed more to caring than to pedagogical differentiation. It is possible though that this emphasis on a caring orientation might have been source of some signs of discrimination, as results suggest. In contrast with JFG, DAM School appeared to be a more redistributive one, as it is also there that students felt more discriminated against. To what extent do teachers accentuate differences that students themselves wish to be attenuated or simply ignored? In this regard, further research would address students' cultures and the extent to which the students might consider some forms of positive differentiation as discriminatory. In addition, more extensive and deeper analysis is needed to capture and understand possible differences among schools regarding their specific forms of appropriation of priority education policies.

Acknowledgements

This research was developed under the financial support granted by the Portuguese National Foundation for Science and Technology.

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