YEAR 2020

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LIfBi lectures: "The Democratization of Education, Its Apparent Paradox, a Plausible Explanation, and Its Empirical Proof"


To what extent is social origin related to educational achievement? And does this link become stronger or weaker over time? Previous studies have shown seemingly contradictory results. Prof. Dr. Louis-André Vallet investigated this paradox as part of the LIfBi lectures series.

Prof. Dr. Louis-André Vallet during his lecture as part of the LIfBi lectures series.  

Prof. Dr. Louis-André Vallet, Research Director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, CNRS), explained an apparent paradox in his presentation as part of the LIfBi lectures series on May 14, 2019:

Many studies from different countries show that the connection between social origin and the highest educational attainment achieved has decreased over time. This is also confirmed by data from over half a million people taken from seven labor force surveys in France for people born between 1920 and 1922 and between 1974 and 1976, respectively. However, if only those people within one generation who obtained the baccalauréat (A-level or equivalent) are considered, the connection between social origin and obtaining a university degree in the same period has steadily increased.

This paradox, as leading sociologists had already predicted in the 1970s and 1980s, can be attributed to the fact that in the course of educational expansion the sorting processes in educational careers were “defused”. In the past, children were sorted early and vigorously, so that only very few highly talented working-class children graduated with an A-level. For these few, studying was as easy as it was for children of academics. Today’s high school graduates, on the other hand, are much more heterogenous, because more and more children graduate from high school. The advantage for individual working-class children at this threshold has been lost as a result. Vallet then proved the conclusiveness of this explanation with data taken from two longitudinal educational data sets from France, which are more than 30 years apart. This shows that within one cohort the school performance of children coming from different social backgrounds converges more and more after each transition in the educational system. Looking at the same transitions in a cohort comparison, it is indeed the case that school performance at the same transition differs significantly more in younger cohorts than in older cohorts.

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