Effort and dynamics of educational inequality: Evidence from a laboratory study among primary school children

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If opportunities were equal, effort would be the main driver of individual success. However, in real life, people do not start the “race of life” with the same endowments. Thus, the study of Inequality of Opportunity in the tradition of John Roemer is dedicated to measuring the share of achievements that is determined by effort – viewed as the only “legitimate” source that is under individual control – versus by circumstances – that is, the “illegitimate” sources of achievement beyond by the individual’s influence. However, effort is often measured either merely as the residual that is left after controlling for a vector of circumstances (such as socioeconomic background, race or gender) or with imperfect proxies such as self-reported psychological traits or attitudes towards learning. The aim of the paper is twofold: First, it intends to assess the importance of “real effort” for determining academic performance in contrast to circumstances. Using an accurate measure of cognitive effort, measured in the lab, we can compare its impact on school grades in Math and Spanish with the effect of having highly educated parents or high IQ. Second, the paper explores the role of teachers’ perception of student effort in their academic grades. We expect that the perception of the teachers will be very relevant for academic performance. Furthermore, we argue that although teachers’ perception of student effort is not the most accurate measure of effort, it might be an important mediator between cognitive effort and academic grades. Data stems from a lab experiment carried out with 380 5th grade students from primary schools in the metropolitan area of Madrid, Spain, during the school year 2019/2020. The schools were randomly selected from a sample stratified by neighborhood income quartile and type of school. All the students carried out three real-effort tasks adopted from economics and psychology (i.e. the Simon, AX and Slider tasks), covering different executive functions. This multidimensional measure of cognitive effort ensures a comprehensive approach to effort that minimizes the influence of ability. We also gathered information on various “circumstances” of the students – such as parental education, gender and IQ (Raven’s Progressive Matrices). Provisional results indicate that effort exerts a sizeable influence on student grades, similar to IQ in the magnitude of its predictive power. Nevertheless, the association between teachers’ perception of student effort and school grades is significantly larger, comparable with the effect of having parents with tertiary education. Furthermore, we find evidence that teachers’ perception of student effort is an important mediator between cognitive effort and school grades, although, interestingly, the magnitude varies depending on the subject.
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