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“Unequal” competition in education

Ryoji Matsuoka
Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda University

It is widely known that there are disparities in final educational attainments, with family background playing a role in this phenomenon. In fact, scholarly studies show that individuals with college-educated parents tend to complete college education in Japan. However, this intergenerational association of academic success is not automatic. Many of my studies are attempts to reveal how this reproduction of educational credentials across generations emerges by using empirical data. In this short article, I will summarize the empirical findings from my 14 peer-reviewed journal articles that show some pathways or mechanisms that explain the unequal educational attainment observed between generations (You can find bibliographic information for each article at the end of this page).

Does “everyone” participate in extracurricular activities?

The starting line of the competition for higher educational attainment is not equal. Some children have more advantageous familial conditions than others, leading to higher evaluation and grades in school. For example, some differences in parenting styles are partly based on socioeconomic status, including household income (economic capital) and parental education background (cultural capital). Specifically, as many elementary school children participate in after-school activities in Japan, one may think that “everybody” gets to be involved in his/her favorite extracurricular activities (EAs). However, as Figure 1 shows, there are disparities in terms of whether or not children participate in after-school extracurricular activities, depending on their parents’ educational attainments1). This disparity in educational experience is observed even before children enter the compulsory elementary education system. While participation in at least one activity diminishes as children grow older, the gap in terms of the number of extracurricular activities that they engage in widens, as indicated in Figure 2.

“Who” exerts learning effort?

In addition to the choices of obtaining additional learning opportunities, there are differences in terms of parents’ and their children’s practices and behaviors that lead to differences in how children are evaluated in school. For example, the reading habits of parents affect that of their children as well2). Moreover, parents’ frequency of involvement in school activities differs partly depending on socioeconomic status (e.g., educational backgrounds and household income), and this involvement differentiates their child’s emotional engagement in school3). Furthermore, as Figure 3 illustrates, differences in children’s learning time outside school hours widen between the three groups (“Neither parent college educated,” “One college-educated parent,” and “Both parents college educated”) as they grow older4). Parenting strategies that vary with the parents’ educational attainments partly explain these growing disparities in children’s learning time (i.e., effort in learning).

In essence, home environments characterized by the family’s socioeconomic status are “transformed” into educational disparities in children’s experiences of after-school extracurricular activities, reading habits, emotional engagement in school, and learning time throughout elementary school years; this leads to differences in how children are evaluated in school. The same applies for junior high school education; there are differentials in students’ academic performance5) and behavior6), partly because of their family backgrounds. Not only students but also teachers are under the influence of socioeconomic environments; teachers have higher expectations for their students’ academic achievements at schools where a larger percentage of students are from higher socioeconomic status families, even when students’ current academic performance level is considered7). Since Japanese compulsory education, especially elementary education, is considered as “egalitarian” when compared with other countries’ education systems, as partly indicated by fewer disparities between schools with the nationally standardized curriculum, public schooling is thought to weaken the intergenerational transmission of educational advantages and disadvantages in Japan. However, once compulsory education ends, this situation changes drastically.

“Who” attends top schools?

In Japan, approximately one in every four high school students does not study mathematics at all outside school hours when in the freshman year (about three months after entering high school)8). This percentage is much higher than that in numerous other countries studied9). This internationally high percentage of students not exerting any learning effort outside school hours is likely derived from the highly stratified tracking system of upper secondary education, which sorts students into different high schools on the basis of the results of their entrance examinations.

As Figure 4 describes, “elite” schools with high standard deviation scores are attended by not only academically competitive but also privileged students10). This is because when 15-year-old students take high school entrance exams, there are already great achievement gaps based on family socioeconomic status. Because of a high correlation between students’ academic performance and their family origins, sorting students into different high schools according to their academic performance results in the socioeconomic segregation of schools.

This highly stratified high school system, with its socioeconomic segregation of schools, differentiates students’ attitudes and behaviors since each school develops a norm based on its students’ relatively homogeneous socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, attending academically competitive schools facilitates students’ decisions to obtain additional lessons inside and outside their schools at an early stage of upper secondary education. It is because students in these schools, partly due to their family backgrounds, highly value receiving good school grades and have educational expectations for higher education. This phenomenon, that students attending competitive schools choose to have more learning opportunities, is observed even when students’ academic performance and school academic level are controlled for11). Likewise, the socioeconomic status of schools influences students’ learning time outside regular school lesson hours, even when school academic level (rank) is considered12). This persists in the last year of high school education; 12th graders at top schools with higher-SES peers tend to have educational expectations for higher education, and partly because of that, they exert learning efforts for university entrance examinations13). In short, students’ learning behaviors and educational expectations are affected by their high schools’ socioeconomic status, which is defined by “who” attends.

Need to understand the “reality” of the influence of family socioeconomic status

Disparities in socioeconomic home environments in the early stages of life lead to differences in students’ academic performance, behaviors, attitudes, and educational expectations14). There are various processes by which socioeconomic family environments are transformed into outcomes that are highly regarded in school. Therefore, it should be difficult for people to determine as to who holds the advantages or disadvantages, derived from socioeconomic family backgrounds, with respect to competition in education. Is it possible to alleviate the effect of family background and make the “unequal” competition fair? Educational policies have direct impacts on school education, but we must first face the reality that people’s attitudes toward education vary among communities, partly given residents’ educational backgrounds15) and the fact that school teachers have to deal with difficulties according to the socioeconomic level of schools, even in compulsory education16). A physician examining a patient starts checking for where the pain comes from and when it started; similarly, it is necessary to collect appropriate data to identify the schools and communities that face difficulties attributable to socioeconomic factors. Further, much like a physician following up on a patient after administering drugs or performing an operation, it is crucial to conduct follow-up surveys with the same students and schools to determine the educational policies and practices that would be effective in reducing the socioeconomic inequalities and then to modify the policies and practices appropriately. Such processes require steady, continuous efforts. Unfortunately, Japan has no such comprehensive longitudinal data to provide the basis for specific measures that could narrow the achievement gap and alleviate the inequality in educational attainments; the “unequal” educational competition continues today while its reality is not fully captured. As a researcher, I hope that the day will come when public education helps maximize the potential of as many children as possible through the analysis of appropriately collected data.


^ 1)Figures 1 and 2 are based on the Longitudinal Survey of Newborns in the 21st Century, conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. College education includes two-year institutions. See the following journal article for details: Matsuoka, Ryoji. (2016) Gakkogai kyoiku katsudo sanka ni okeru setai shunyu no yakuwari: Judan teki keizai shihon kenkyu [The impact of household income on extracurricular activity participation: A longitudinal study of the role of economic capital in Japan]. Kyoiku Shakaigaku Kenkyu [The Journal of Educational Sociology], 98, pp. 155-175.
^ 2)Matsuoka, R., Nakamuro, M., & Inui, T. (2014) Judan deta o mochiita bunka shihon sozoku katei no jisshoteki kento [An empirical investigation of the intergenerational transmission of cultural capital in Japan using longitudinal data in Japan]. Kyoiku Shakaigaku Kenkyu [The Journal of Educational Sociology], 95, pp. 89-110
^ 3)Matsuoka, R. (2015) Fubo no gakko katsudo kanyo to sho gakko jido no gakko tekio: judan deta ni yoru shakai kankei shihon kenkyu [Parental school involvement and elementary school children’s orientation to school: An empirical study of social capital in Japan using longitudinal data]. Kyoiku Shakaigaku Kenkyu [The Journal of Educational Sociology], 96, pp. 241-262.
^ 4)Figure 3 is based on the Longitudinal Survey of Newborns in the 21st Century administrated by the Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare. College education includes 2 year-institutions. See the following journal article for details: Matsuoka, R., Nakamuro, M., & Inui, T. (2015) Emerging inequality in effort: A longitudinal investigation of parental involvement and early elementary school-aged children’s learning time in Japan. Social Science Research, 54, pp. 159-176.
^ 5)Matsuoka, R. (2014) An empirical investigation of relationships between junior high school students’ family socioeconomic status, parental involvement and academic performance in Japan. Riron to Hoho [Sociological Theory and Methods], 29 (1), pp. 147-165.
^ 6)Matsuoka, R. (2013) Socioeconomic inequality between schools and junior high school students' non-academic behavior: a comparative investigation of compulsory education systems using TIMSS 2007. Hikakukyoikugaku Kenkyu [Comparative Education], 47, pp. 140-159.
^ 7)Matsuoka, R. (2014) Disparities between schools in Japanese compulsory education: Analyses of a cohort using TIMSS 2007 and 2011. Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook,, 8, pp. 77-92.
^ 8)Matsuoka, R. (2013) Learning competencies in action: Tenth grade students' investment in accumulating human capital under the influence of the upper secondary education system in Japan. Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook, 7, pp. 65-79.
^ 9)Matsuoka, R. (2013) Comparative analysis of institutional arrangements between the United States and Japan: Effects of socioeconomic disparity on students' learning habits. Hikakukyoikugaku Kenkyu [Comparative Education], 46, pp. 3-20.
^ 10) Figure 4 is based on the Japanese data of PISA 2012. Mathematical skills of students were averaged at each school to obtain its standard deviation score, showing its school academic level (mean = 50, standard deviation = 10). In the same way, variables indicating the socioeconomic status of students (index of economic, social, and cultural status) were averaged at each school to obtain the socioeconomic status of the school (converted to standard deviation scores).
^ 11)Matsuoka, R. (2015) School socioeconomic compositional effect on shadow education participation: Evidence from Japan. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 36 (2), pp. 270-290.
^ 12)Matsuoka, R. (2013) Tracking effect on tenth grade students' self-learning hours in Japan. Riron to Hoho [Sociological Theory and Methods], 28 (1), pp. 87-106.
^ 13)Matsuoka, R. (2015) Gearing up for university entrance examination: Untangling relationships between school tracking and high school seniors' educational expectations and efforts. Waseda Institute for Advanced Study Research Bulletin, 7, pp. 29-40.
^ 14) See, for example, Kariya, T (2001) Kaisoka nihon to kyouiku kiki: fubyodo saiseisan kara iyoku kakusa shakai e [Education in Crisis and Stratified Japan: from the Reproduction of Inequality to an 'Incentive Divide' Society]. Yushindo Kobunsha. Also, Kariya, T (2012) Gakuryoku to kaiso [Academic achievement and social class]. Tokyo, Asahi Shimbun Publications Inc.
^ 15)Matsuoka, R. & Maeda, T. (2015) Attitudes toward Education as Influenced by Neighborhood Socioeconomic Characteristics: An Application of Multilevel Structural Equation Modeling. Behaviormetrika, 42(1), pp. 19-35.
^ 16) Matsuoka, R. (2015) School socioeconomic context and teacher job satisfaction in Japanese compulsory education. Educational Studies in Japan: International Yearbook, 9, pp. 41-54.

Ryoji Matsuoka
Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda University

Ph.D. in Education with a specialization in Educational Policy Studies, College of Education, University of Hawaii at Manoa
2014–present: Assistant Professor, Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, Waseda University
2013–2014: Project Researcher, Survey Science Center, The Institute of Statistical Mathematics, Research Organization of Information and Systems
2012–2013: COE Fellow (Postdoctoral fellow), Center for the Study of Social Stratification and Inequality (CSSI), Tohoku University.

2015: The Japan Society of Educational Sociology (JSES) International Award
2015: Waseda University Teaching Award (2015 Spring Semester, “School and Society”)