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Socio-economic status and mathematics achievement in China: a review

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Mathematics education is a cultural-specific social activity. China, as a developing country with a long history and a unique culture, has the largest number of teachers and students in the world. Hence, it is of significance to explore the issue of the impact of socio-economic status (SES) on mathematics education within the Chinese context. However, investigations aiming to address this issue are relatively rare. This study was designed to examine the relationship between Chinese students’ SES and their mathematics achievements. Results reveal that Chinese students’ SES exerts significant influence on their mathematics achievements, and several important constituents of SES, such as parents’ education and family income, stand out among others. In this paper, the cultural causes of the influence are discussed, together with a general introduction to the social and educational context. These could partly explain the empirical results, along with factors such as the values of education in traditional Chinese culture and the current important status of mathematics in modern society as well as Chinese school curriculum materials’ effect on students’ mathematics achievements. The economic and social situation in China, especially the imbalanced distribution of educational resources between and within the urban and rural areas, could magnify the role of SES in mathematics achievements. Finally, the future direction of measuring and interpreting the SES’s influence on mathematics achievement in the Chinese context is also discussed.
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ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Socio-economic status and mathematics achievement in China:
a review
Lidong Wang ·Xiaoqing Li ·Na Li
Accepted: 23 July 2014
©FIZ Karlsruhe 2014
Abstract Mathematics education is a cultural-specific
social activity. China, as a developing country with a long
history and a unique culture, has the largest number of
teachers and students in the world. Hence, it is of signifi-
cance to explore the issue of the impact of socio-economic
status (SES) on mathematics education within the Chinese
context. However, investigations aiming to address this
issue are relatively rare. This study was designed to
examine the relationship between Chinese students’ SES
and their mathematics achievements. Results reveal that
Chinese students’ SES exerts significant influence on their
mathematics achievements, and several important constit-
uents of SES, such as parents’ education and family
income, stand out among others. In this paper, the cultural
causes of the influence are discussed, together with a
general introduction to the social and educational context.
These could partly explain the empirical results, along with
factors such as the values of education in traditional Chi-
nese culture and the current important status of
mathematics in modern society as well as Chinese school
curriculum materials’ effect on students’ mathematics
achievements. The economic and social situation in China,
especially the imbalanced distribution of educational
resources between and within the urban and rural areas,
could magnify the role of SES in mathematics achieve-
ments. Finally, the future direction of measuring and
interpreting the SES’s influence on mathematics achieve-
ment in the Chinese context is also discussed.
Keywords Socio-economic status · Mathematics
achievement · Chinese culture
1 Introduction
It is commonly acknowledged that socio-economic status
(SES) factors affect students’ school mathematics
achievement. However, the process by which these factors
are interwoven to produce their effects is complex. In order
to enact educational policy or guide instructional practice,
more investigations are needed, such as which SES indi-
cator, for example parents’ education or family income, is
the most dominant, whether the results are consistent
across different cultural settings (i.e., West and East), how
the mechanisms of these influences operate, and why the
influences exist.
Why culture issues are central in this paper: Culturally
based values might well be significant variables that
complement cognitive and affective variables in regulating
the extent to which students learn and perform in school
mathematics, as well as in education more generally (Seah
and Wong 2012); thus results from one cultural context
should not be directly applied to another, especially when
talking about transferring results between Western and
Eastern cultures (Clarke et al. 2006). Different cultural
settings provide somewhat different contexts for exploring
the relationship between SES and achievement. The cul-
tures of China and other East Asian countries are deeply
L. Wang (&)
The High School Affiliated to Renmin University of China,
Beijing, China
e-mail: wldyaoyuan@163.com
L. Wang
Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China
X. Li
Shenzhen University, Shenzhen, China
N. Li
The University of Hong Kong, Pokfulam, Hong Kong
123
ZDM Mathematics Education
DOI 10.1007/s11858-014-0617-8
rooted in Chinese culture, which is commonly referred to
as the Confucian Heritage Culture Learning Phenomenon
(Law et al. 2012; Wong 2004). Generally speaking, this
includes China, Japan, Korea, and some other regions in
Southeastern Asia that are believed to have been influenced
by Confucianism (see Wong 2004). The international
mathematics education community has a research tradition
of connecting mathematics education with culture and this
was illuminated in Bishop’s (1988) work on analyzing
mathematical visualization and cognition in Papua New
Guinean culture. Culture as well as other background
information could have great and direct effects on the
quantitative results in empirical research and tracing the
cultural cause of certain phenomena.
Why China is a country attracting attention: China is at a
particular stage of development. In 2013, its gross domestic
product (GDP) reached about 56.88 trillion Chinese yuan
(9.17 trillion US dollars) with annual growth rate of 7.7 %.
1
However, some social problems have emerged alongside
such a fast growth of GDP, to be explored later.
In recent decades, the academic success of Asian stu-
dents, especially in mathematics, has attracted the interests
of sociologists, educationalists, and psychologists (Wong
2008). Scholars have investigated the relationship between
their success and cultural factors (Leung 2008). Despite the
impression that CHC (Confucian Heritage Culture) learners
are brought up in an environment seemingly not conducive
to learning, their academic performances have excelled in
comparison to their Western counterparts (Fan and Zhu
2004). Considering the special cultural and social settings,
it is worth discussing the relationship between SES and
school mathematics achievement within the context of
China.
What will be included in the paper: In the following
sections, some research methodologies and statistical
results for measuring the relationship between SES and
mathematics achievement will be reviewed. In order to
help the readers to make better sense of these studies, the
Chinese cultural, social, and educational settings will first
be introduced.
2 Chinese cultural, social, and (mathematics)
educational settings
Several dilemmas need to be addressed when different
cultural settings are selected to be considered in certain
research (Clarke et al. 2012). As stated above, the context
of China is essential in cross-cultural research. Therefore,
in the following sections, culture, society, and mathematics
education in China will be outlined.
2.1 Chinese culture
China is a country with an ancient history and continuous
civilization (from about 2000 BC), and is very different
from most other cultures in the world, especially from
Western cultures.
Most social values in China can be derived from Con-
fucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, etc. (Wong 2004).
Confucianism valued the element of Ren (Humaneness), Yi
(Righteousness or Justice), Li (Propriety or Etiquette), Zhi
(Knowledge), and Xin (Honest integrity), as well as Zhong
(Loyalty), Xiao (Filial piety), and Jie (Moral integrity)
(Runes 1983), which also influenced other East Asian
countries, such as Japan and Korea. Moreover, it was the
official philosophy for about 2,000 years throughout most
of imperial China’s history. Meanwhile, a complete mas-
tery of Confucian texts (the four books, the five classics,
etc.) was required to succeed in Imperial Examinations
(Keju). The national examination system dating back to the
seventh century in Imperial China was designed to select
the best potential candidates (especially important for the
populace) to serve as administrative officials in the impe-
rial bureaucracy (Liu 2007).
Chinese education has been traditionally influenced by
Confucian values, which contribute to a specific belief sys-
tem (Li 2004), hold education and learning in high regard,
and value parental involvement in and commitment to the
education of children (Wong et al. 2012). As a result, the
traditional career system values education as appropriate
preparation for promising jobs and happy lives, which also
work as an external motivation for education (Leung 2001;
Wong et al. 2012). The notion of “the examination culture”
(Wong et al. 2012) reflects the important status of high-
stakes examinations in China, such as the role of Keju policy
in the change of social status, which implies a practical and
even utilitarian purpose of education.
Chinese parents and students tend to attribute high
achievement to hard work, rather than talent; they typically
think that study is a serious endeavor and expect children to
put in hard work and perseverance in their study (Leung
2001). Chinese students are likely to agree with their parents’
high expectations. From a Confucian perspective, the major
reason for the learner not achieving a desired learning out-
come is his/her lack of effort (Wong 2004). Thus, for
example, in the US context, American children might view
mathematics as a relatively easy subject and believe that they
have already met their parents’ expectations, while Chinese
American parents might respond by providing more formal
learning support (Wang and Lin 2005).
Furthermore, Crystal and Stevenson (1991) found that
Chinese parents tend to be more critical of and dissatisfied
with their children’s mathematics performance than
American parents.
1
http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/zxfb/201401/t20140121_502731.html.
L. Wang et al.
123
However, some scholars have mentioned that one should
not ‘over-Confucianize’ (i.e., over-focus on Confucianism)
the Chinese educational background, which turned to the
identification of good practices (or even just practices) in
other cultural origins (e.g., Daoism, Buddhism) (Wong
2004).
The research undertaken by Wang and Zhu (2009) indi-
cated that Chinese urban families spend a high proportion of
family income on their children’s education. However, in
rural areas this has become a social problem as Chinese
parents try their best to support their children in pursuing
school study. For example, some poor families spend the
majority of their income, or even get in debt, to make sure
their children receive good education. Many families,
especially those from a low socio-economic background,
believe that “school education” is the only way to improve
their current living conditions. They believe that if their
children have education which leads to qualifications or
professional status, they will have many more chances of
getting good jobs and will have a high social status. Middle-
and upper-class families share the same belief, while they
enjoy the benefits from this education.
However, an alternative perspective, that of uselessness of
study, has appeared recently, especially in rural areas (Hao
2009). Sincethe policy of increasing university enrolment was
enacted in 1999, more and more students have had chance to
enter university with the result that, in 2013, more than 7
million graduates swarmed into the job market. However, the
number of jobs available is far from that needed to meet the
employment needs. Consequently, the competition is very
fierce and some graduates cannot even find a job, which means
that for poor families their huge “investment” in education is
lost (Hao 2009). As a result, more and more rural families do
not support their children to continue their study, because of
low family income and possible low economic return after
their children’s graduation. This view does not conflict with
traditional Chinese culture, because of the “practical and even
utilitarian purpose of education.” It is obvious that Chinese
people tend to choose to learn what will help them to get
success in the society.
In terms of mathematics teaching and learning in China,
there are differences between the past and the present. In
ancient China, mathematics (even sciences) officially was
not considered important and mathematicians (scientists)
did not have a high social status. Chinese learners were
engaged in Imperial Examinations (Keju) to become offi-
cials, which greatly influenced the East Asian world (Liu
2007). Though mathematics was not included in this
examination system, there were numerous mathematical
products contributed by folk mathematicians, such as The
Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art. Some achieve-
ments shown in that book were hundreds of years ahead of
mathematical development elsewhere in the world. The
characteristics of Chinese mathematics valued the con-
struction of knowledge of application (Liu 1997) and did
not care about axioms, logic, and induction (Leung 2001).
The role of mathematics in present Chinese school edu-
cation will be introduced in the following subsection.
2.2 Chinese society, education, and mathematics
education
The traditional cultural background shows that Chinese
families would like to be involved in the education of their
children, which implies a close relationship between SES
and students’ achievement (including mathematics).
Mainland China is at a particular stage of development as
the data indicated at the beginning of the paper showed.
China is the world’s fastest growing economy. In 2013, its
urban per capita disposable income and rural per capita
disposable income reached 26,955 Chinese yuan and 8,896
Chinese yuan
2
respectively (six Chinese yuan roughly equal
to one US dollar). This indicates that a large gap between
urban and rural economic development still remains.
With unbalanced economic development of different
areas of China (eastern versus western), some areas,
especially rural areas, can only provide very poor educa-
tional possibilities for students (Ma 2006). Rural schools
tend to lose their good teachers,
3
and even do not have
enough teachers to facilitate the teaching tasks. The two
pictures taken by the first author in a western Chinese
province are illustrative of the poor environment experi-
enced by students when they go to school (Figs. 1,2).
As is seen in Fig. 1, some students have to walk on a
country road to school every day. In such a harsh envi-
ronment, students need to get up as early as 4:00 a.m. to
ensure that they arrive at school on time. Figure 2shows
the harsh living conditions of the students in Fig. 1.
Moreover, there are usually insufficient qualified teachers
in these schools. For example, some teachers have weak
subject knowledge in mathematics and cannot use infor-
mation technology, let alone gain access to the latest
teaching materials and methods.
It should be noted that the unbalanced development of the
economy might magnify the role of SES in educational
activity. The unbalanced distribution of educational resour-
ces exists not only between the rural and the urban areas, but
also within them. The issue of equity has been recently dis-
cussed frequently not only in academia but also in the media.
In spring admissions, the problem of “school-selection” has
been a headline of most mainstream media in recent years.
The distribution of schools is not equivalent, even in well-
2
http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/zxfb/201401/t20140120_502082.html.
3
http://paper.jyb.cn/zgjyb/html/2013-09/08/content_172658.htm?
div=-1.
Socio-economic status and mathematics achievement in China
123
developed big cities. It can be seen that students and parents
choose a primary school and middle school not following the
national educational policy stating that children should put
the school located near their home as the first choice. Espe-
cially those parents who are rich or have a high social status
prefer to spend extra money in order to choose schools for
their children which have a good reputation (Wen 2005).
Many schools (at compulsory education level, especially the
middle schools) recruit students based on the results of some
special examinations such as the Mathematical Olympiad,
the content of which is usually not included in the public
school curriculum. Since the children of more well-off par-
ents receive much more tutoring or outside-school education
(including private tutors), their chances of having a high
social status are much greater than those of poor children.
Social authority and class should not be ignored in consid-
ering the factors of SES (Wen 2005). Here we have a
mechanism which explains the relation between SES and
mathematics achievement (at compulsory education level):
“powerful parents” help children receive better education
(primary education and outside-school education), get
higher scores (especially better Mathematical Olympiad
results), and receive public middle school education resource
of high quality. All these help students to get a good math-
ematics achievement, which in turn helps them to get
enrolled in high quality middle schools and then get a better
mathematics achievement there.
Thus this unbalanced distribution of educational
resource means that SES plays an important role in
obtaining high quality education and then in high students’
learning achievement (including in mathematics).
Mathematics is in a different situation currently compared
with its situation in ancient China (Leung 2001), with the
modernization of society impacted by Western culture. It is
now one of the most important subjects in school (a com-
pulsory subject for grades 1–12), which is typical in Western
mathematics education systems. This situation can be traced
back to the importation of the former Soviet Union educa-
tional system when the People’s Republic of China was
founded in the 1950s. Mathematics teachers often have a
high status compared with their colleagues.
4
Nowadays, the
academic selection function of mathematics (in school
recruitment) plays a very important role in high-stakes
examinations. The mathematics curriculum was the first to
be reformed at the beginning of the twenty-first century in
mainland China (Liu et al. 2014). Under pressure, Chinese
families spend large human and economic resources on
children’s mathematics learning, such as buying learning
materials, hiring private tutors, and supporting outside-
school learning. Thus the important status of mathematics
and the families’ attention on mathematics contributes to a
close link between SES and mathematics achievement.
However, the significant change compared with the situation
of mathematics in ancient China may not come from the view
of mathematics in Chinese parents and teachers, but rather
from the Keju policy to present school recruitment policies
(in which mathematics is essential for nearly all the different
schools’ recruitment) which follow the “practical and even
utilitarian purpose of education” mentioned above.
2.3 Summary
This overview of Chinese culture and social situation
shows how different these are from other cultures. Edu-
cation has been emphasized by society and individuals (for
its “practical and even utilitarian purpose”), both in ancient
and current times, and mathematics has become one of the
most important subjects valued by families and schools. An
unbalanced distribution of educational resource usually
Fig. 2 The students’ dormitory
Fig. 1 A long way to school
4
Teachers teach a single subject in mainland China.
L. Wang et al.
123
appears at a certain stage of development in a country, with
the family factor significantly influencing the possession of
educational resource for learning mathematics in both rural
and urban areas. Families have both internal and external
motivation to “win” the education resource of learning
mathematics for their children, and help their children to
reach a high achievement in mathematics.
It can be concluded that SES plays an important and
special role in students’ mathematics learning. Meanwhile,
the cultural background helps to explain the empirical
research results. The following paragraphs will review the
existing studies on the issues of socio-economic back-
ground and mathematics achievement and then discuss
these results within Chinese culture.
3 Review of results from empirical research
The aim of this review is to answer the question: What are
the characteristics of socio-economic status and students’
mathematics achievement in China? The review draws on
data from key journals published both in China and over-
seas. The intention was to analyze a number of
measurements that derived from the research aiming to
examine what, why, how, and under what conditions socio-
economic status has affected students’ mathematical
achievements. Surprisingly little research has been pub-
lished in the field of mathematical education specifically,
though much relevant work has been published in the area
of psychology and some in general education areas (edu-
cational and economic policies).
Why these papers were included: To be included in this
review, a study had to satisfy the following criteria: (i)
applying a measure of SES and mathematics achievement;
(ii) reporting quantitative data based on sufficient statistical
details for calculation of correlations between SES and
mathematics achievement; (iii) choosing articles from pro-
fessional journals or reports; (iv) including sample students
in mainland China. Papers explaining the statistical results
within Chinese culture were also valued. Based on these
criteria, 19 studies were selected. These show that, although
the number of the published papers on this issue in China is
not abundant, there is an increasing amount of empirical
research in education and psychology that suggests that SES
plays a key role in students’ academic development in gen-
eral and mathematics achievement in particular (e.g., Hu and
Du 2009; Shi and Shen 2007; Sun et al. 2009; Xue and Min
2008). The effect of this relationship can be seen on students
from infancy to adolescence, and on different constituents of
SES. More details can be seen in Table 1.
Table 1 Summary of the independent samples
References Grade/school level SES measure Findings
Xiao et al. (2009) Grade 1 Mother’s educational level, father’s occupation, family
income
High SES [low
SES
Huang and Cheng
(2011)
Kindergarten (age 4–6 years) Parental education Significant
Zhang et al. (2005) Age 4 years Mother’s education level, and family income Significant
Li et al. (2011) Grade 5 Parental education, occupation, and family income Significant
Li (2011) Grade 5 Parental education, occupation, and family income Significant
Ren and Xin (2013) Grades 4–6 Family resources Significant
Pang et al. (2013) Grade 9 Parental education, learning materials, book storage Significant
Ren (2010) Grade 4 Parental education, occupation, family income Significant
Cheng et al. (2012) Grades 4 and 8 Mother’s educational level Significant
Sun et al. (2009) Age 9–12 years, primary
school
Parental education, family income Significant
Xue and Min (2008) Junior high school Parental education, family income Significant
Xie and Du (2009) Junior high school Parental education, family income Significant
Hu and Du (2009) Grade 6 Parental education, family income Significant
Yu and Wen (2005) NA Parental education Significant
Wen (2005) Undergraduate Father’s occupation and educational level Significant
Wu (2007) Age 6–18 years Father’s education and occupation Significant
Ding and Xue (2009) Grade 12 Father’s education, family income, reading materials Not significant
Tao and Yang (2007) Grade 11 Father’s occupation and educational level, family income Not significant
Pan and Du (2008) Grade 9 Parental education and occupation Not significant
NA information not available
Socio-economic status and mathematics achievement in China
123
It can be seen that although SES has been the research
topic of these reviewed papers, there still is an inconsis-
tency concerning its empirical measurement. Many
researchers defined SES using three main indicators:
parental income, parental education, and parental occupa-
tion (e.g., Li et al. 2011). Family resources, as another
indicator, were also used in some of the studies (e.g., Ren
and Xin 2013). These variables were so important that they
also attracted attention from the international community
(Valero et al. 2012), indicating that these researchers tend
to use internationally universal structures of SES to analyze
Chinese data, meaning that some important variables in
Chinese culture are not included, such as parents’ social
authority (whether the father was an official or not).
Generalization: Family SES is significant in determining
students’ academic development. According to Li (2003)
and Wu (2007), over the last decades the effect of family SES
on students’ school enrolment has increased. This is not a
surprising finding in the Chinese context as discussed in
Sect. 2. Children of rural household registration (hukou
5
)
status become more disadvantaged compared with their
urban counterparts. Moreover, SES also appears to affect the
quality of students’ schools. It is possible that children with
high socio-economic status could receive high quality edu-
cation through entering into a better kindergarten, primary
school, even high school (Pang et al. 2013; Xiao et al. 2009).
For the concrete constituents of SES: Based on a
national survey, Wen (2005) also found a positive corre-
lation between fathers’ SES (including education, career,
etc.) and their children’s results in the national college
entrance exam as well as the levels and types of higher
education institution in which they finally studied. It can be
explained that fathers’ SES determines the family’s SES to
a great extent, not only because fathers earn more money
for the family, but also because fathers’ social relationships
(e.g. friend, kindred) or social authority determine the
whole family’s status in a community. These factors are
vital in benefiting from the unbalanced distributed educa-
tional resource in China. Also, Cheng et al. (2012) reported
that students had higher participation in and more positive
attitudes towards private mathematics tutoring if their
mothers had a better educational background, which was
considered to further positively affect students’ mathe-
matics achievement. In some (rural) families, grandparents
might take the responsibility to care for children’s educa-
tion, while parents tend to undertake tasks (called peasant-
worker) in major cities to earn more money.
For students of different ages: The influence of SES in
these studies affected achievement at different ages, but
especially for primary school students. The impact of SES
seemed to affect even preschool children’s achievement. The
studies showed that family SES affects children’s mathe-
matics learning, through variables such as home experience
of learning mathematics, mathematics for school readiness,
and cognitive development in mathematics. Specifically,
parents of high income and educational background engage
more in mathematics activities with their children, and they
are more inclined to use scaffolding dialogue, demonstra-
tion, and games to support their children’s mathematics
learning (Huang and Cheng 2011). Xiao and her colleagues
investigated 143 children (mean age =6.63 years) and found
that the performance of children from a high-SES family was
much better on the concepts of category, number and oper-
ation, time and space, as well as statistics, than their peers
from low-SES families (Xiao et al. 2009). Likewise,
employing “The Child Math Assessment” (Klein et al.
1998), Zhang et al. (2005) reported significant correlation
between children’s SES and mathematical development in
terms of number and operation, geometry, measurement, and
algebra. A longitudinal study, by Ni et al. (2009), investi-
gated 3,415 fifth grade students of two districts in a central
city in mainland China. The results showed that family SES
measured through the family’s income, parental education,
and occupational status had a positive correlation with not
only the development of students’ cognitive ability, such as
skills in mathematics calculation, mathematical explanation,
and communication, but also the development of the stu-
dents’ affect and interest in and dispositions towards learning
mathematics (Li 2011). Students from high socio-economic
status families showed more interest in learning mathemat-
ics, and they were more likely to participate in classroom
discourse. These results support the findings that students’
attitude towards learning mathematics was associated posi-
tively with parental occupation and family income in Ren’s
(2010) study. Another longitudinal study was carried out by
Ren and Xin (2013). In their study, 1,234 grade 4 students
were involved and the measurement of students’ mathe-
matics achievement was conducted on six occasions from
grade 4 to grade 6, over a period of 3 years. They found that
SES, measured by the index of family capital such as
learning and living facilities, significantly predicted stu-
dents’ mathematics performance in their final examination at
the end of the semester. What is more, with an increase in
age, the association between SES and students’ academic
achievement demonstrated a stable pattern. Besides, it was
found that the variance of the performance was the greatest in
the group of students who came from low socio-economic
families from the beginning to the end. Variance was rela-
tively smaller among moderate and high-SES students. As
discussed in Sect. 2, one partial explanation could be that
family SES could help students to enter into high quality
primary schools in China. Based on a sample of 5,066 stu-
dents of grade 9 (middle school level) from 5 cities across
China, Ren and his colleagues examined the impact of family
5
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hukou_system.
L. Wang et al.
123
SES on students’ mathematics achievement using PISA
testing tool and found that mothers’ education was more
important than fathers’ education (Pang et al. 2013; Ren et al.
2012).
For the mechanism of the impact: There has been rela-
tively little research on the mechanism that produces this
kind of link between SES and mathematics achievement.
Huang and Cheng (2011) and Zhang et al. (2005) found
that parents’ education level, as the index of SES, influ-
enced the home cultural/ecological environment and led to
positive outcomes for children. Therefore, the home cul-
tural/ecological environment not only refers to stimulating
materials and experience such as toys, games, reading
materials, and parent–child interaction, but also to parental
cognition (e.g., belief, expectation, and judgment) of chil-
dren’s development and mathematics learning and
teaching.
High-SES parents held beliefs and evaluations that
were closer than their low-SES counterparts to the actual
performance of their children. Low-SES families instead
had over-high or over-low expectations and evaluations
that did not correlate well with their children’s actual
performance. According to Alexander et al. (1994), par-
ents’ abilities to form accurate beliefs and expectations
regarding their children’s performance are essential in
structuring the home and educational environment so that
they can excel in post-schooling endeavors. Parental
involvement and commitment to the education of children
in Chinese traditional culture discussed above might partly
explain why parents’ belief correlates with students’
achievement. Because parents tended to get involved in
their children’s education, their belief could make a
difference.
Additionally, the use of a specific curriculum was
observed to be a moderator of the impact of socio-eco-
nomic status and the development of different aspects of
students’ mathematics achievement (Li et al. 2011). Spe-
cifically, results demonstrated that the gap between low-
and high-SES students in terms of the measure of calcu-
lations and routine mathematics problem solving narrowed,
especially for students who used the conventional curric-
ulum. At the same time, the trend of narrowing
achievement gap on the measurement of complex problem
solving, which required students to show their solution
processes and to provide justifications for their answers,
was only found in the group of the students who used the
reform-based curriculum (Li et al. 2011). Researchers
explained that different emphases of the two curricula
presumably account for the results. Specifically, the
emphasis in the conventional curriculum is more on com-
putation and connections within mathematical strands
while the reformed curriculum attached more importance
to problem solving and multiple solutions, leaving more
space for students to manipulate, discuss, and cooperate
with peers in practice (Shi 2009). Through these results, the
impact of SES was complex within different curriculum
backgrounds and different kinds of learning tasks. There-
fore, more qualitative studies are needed to explore the
mechanism behind SES and students’ achievement.
4 Discussion and future directions
The literature discussed above contributes to understanding
the link between SES and student mathematics achieve-
ment in the context of China.
Generally speaking, as shown in Table 1, the existing
empirical research reflects that SES significantly affects
Chinese students’ mathematics achievement. The influence
was found in different school levels, with more evidence
being found in primary schools and middle schools. Sev-
eral internationally utilized indexes of SES were examined,
such as parents’ education, family income, etc. Some
research discussed the mechanism of the influence, such as
the role of curriculum as a mediator to reduce the impact of
SES.
It is not surprising to find these significant statistical
results, since similar findings are found in international
research, such as research using TIMSS data (Lamb and
Fullarton 2002). However, the mechanism behind quanti-
tative results could be quite different in various cultural
contexts. As discussed in Sects. 2and 3, the cultural and
social roots of these influences were traced. The tradition
of valuing education in Chinese culture, and the current
important status of mathematics in modern society, as well
as the Chinese school curriculum, constitute the potential
of the effect of SES on students’ mathematics achievement.
Chinese parents are eager to be involved with students’
learning of mathematics. Their expectation and belief, as
well as their mathematical knowledge, could act on stu-
dents’ mathematical learning and in turn act on students’
achievement. The Chinese economic and social situation,
especially the unbalanced distribution of educational
resources between and within the urban and rural areas, and
SES-related opportunities to gain access to these resources,
could magnify the potential of the effect of SES on
mathematics achievement. The families with high SES
(including the rich families as well as the families with
social authority) are eager to use their energy to get better
educational resources for their children. The following
situation is very popular in China. Some students get the
“First Cause
6
” with the help of their families’ power
6
First Cause is term introduced by Aristotle and used in philosophy
and theology. Aristotle noted that things in nature are caused and that
these causes in nature exist in a chain, stretching backward.
Socio-economic status and mathematics achievement in China
123
through studying in a better primary or secondary school.
At the same time, these students usually spend weekends
attending private tutorials to learn some advanced mathe-
matics knowledge (such as for the Mathematical
Olympiad). The majority of the students who attend private
tutoring come from relatively rich families. Thus, it
appears to be common that those who have a better chance
of getting better mathematics achievement are those from
parents holding high social and economic power. Since
they are able to spend much more time and money on
studying, they have greater chance to obtain better math-
ematics achievement. Therefore, their chance to win in the
competitiveness to enter high quality schools or universi-
ties is also greater. It can be concluded that parents’ social
and economic power as well as academic ability could
work in favor of their children throughout the education
cycle.
For the future, more research is still needed with regard
to the following aspects. Firstly, it can be seen that most of
the studies focused on students’ cognitive learning out-
comes, and the affective outcomes such as interest and
dispositions towards learning are not considered. This is
problematic because it is clear that both cognitive and
motivational factors are relevant to successful learning and,
thus, further research on SES needs to look into its effect
on affective outcomes of learning as well (Brown 1992).
Also, the indicator of student achievement is typically a
unidimensional testing score (usually a natural number
from 1 to 100), which is not enough to represent students’
true achievement (especially the acquisition of powerful
mathematical ideas). Shavelson et al. (1986) argued that
the standard achievement data used in process–product
research may have a quality problem, and they called for
the application of cognitive psychology and psychometrics.
Secondly, the existing research typically explored dif-
ferent aspects of SES separately. Thus they used family
income, parents’ education, etc. as independent variables
and did not identify the relationships among these aspects.
These variables are likely to intersect (Valero et al. 2012);
for example, there is likely to be interaction between
family income and father’s education or occupation.
Additionally, a variety of mechanisms linking SES to
student achievement have been proposed, such as social
causation and social selection (Bradley and Corwyn 2002;
Conger and Donnellan 2007). Social causation arguments
suggest that SES affects families and the development of
children in terms of both family stress processes (a
framework that links socio-economic disadvantage to a
family stress process that increases parents’ emotional
distress and jeopardizes the development of children) and
family investments in children (an explanatory framework
that links parents’ socio-economic advantage to children’s
physical, emotional, cognitive, and social well-being). The
social selection perspective proposes that the traits and
dispositions of parents influence their social status and the
development of their children (e.g., Mayer 1997). Cur-
rently, most of the studies, such as the ones included in this
review, have been conducted from the social causation
perspective. More such empirical studies of various per-
spectives are needed to understand the process of the
impact of SES on student learning, especially in China.
More attention should be paid to cultural-specific research
design in future studies, for example including some Chi-
nese-cultural-specific indicator of SES: Wen (2005) argued
that since the social relationship was valued in China, the
SES of families’ social relations (kinsfolk or friend) should
be included in relative researches. As discussed in Sect. 3,
a specific SES variable schema with a Chinese background
is needed, such as social authority of families for example.
Finally, it is generally acknowledged that SES operates
at multiple levels to affect student learning (e.g., Caldas
and Bankston 1999; Leventhal and Brooks-Gunn 2000).
According to Sirin (2005), the impact of family SES varies
among individuals depending on where they live and the
cohort with whom they go to school. Hence, it is also
important to consider the other levels of SES such as
school SES in the future.
Acknowledgments The authors wish to thank Prof. Ngai-Ying
Wong from The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Prof. Tamsin
Meaney from Malmo
¨University for providing valuable comments on
an earlier version of this paper. Also thanks to Dr. King Woon Yau
from The University of Hong Kong, Lingling Xu from University of
Cambridge, Lianchun Dong from Monash University, Penny Alison
from University of London who gave some help in English writing.
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... Over the years, much research has been conducted focusing on the relationship between educational achievement and students' home background in terms of SES. Students with high SES background tend to have higher academic achievements than students from low SES background internationally (Erberber et al., 2015;Jurdak, 2014;Sirin, 2005;Wang et al., 2014) as well as in a Swedish context (see, e.g., . In recent years there have been indications of an increase in the achievement gap in relation to SES, and there has been a search for explanatory factors of this gap and a search to find strategies to prevent inequity in education (see, e.g., Broer et al., 2019b;OECD, 2018). ...
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... Chinese mathematics education system has a distinctive feature of compatibility and practicality, which differs greatly from those of western countries [43,51,66]. In General High School Mathematics Curriculum Standard (2017 edition), the requirement is clarified that mathematics education in high schools should be committed to the development of students' core quality in mathematics disciplines [78]. ...
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