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Scholastic ability vs family background in educational success: evidence from Danish sample survey data

Abstract

This research examines the role of scholastic ability and family background variables in the determination of educational attainment in Denmark. A categorical representation of the highest level of education attained by the individual is the dependent variable. It is analyzed by procedures that take account of the presence of unobservable factors. Parent’s education and occupation, along with an indicator of scholastic ability which is represented by a set of aptitude tests, explain a small but significant portion of the variation in their children’s educational success. Women are shown to respond differently to their environments than men, and including these test scores does not remove the need to deal with unmeasured attributes. On the basis of the available data, family background variables as a group contribute more to the explained variation in the data than the test scores. Finally, credit constraints do not appear to be a factor in educational attainments.

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Notes

  1. On page 1155, they write “Our theory incorporates the human capital approach to inequality because parents maximize their utility by choosing optimal investments in the human and non-human capital of children and other members.”

  2. Behrman and Rosenzweig (2002), using twin data, suggest that this result is due to omitted variables correlated with the mother’s education level.

  3. A recent contribution to this literature is an American study based on the Panel Study of Income Dynamics by Conley (2001).

  4. In a novel approach to the problem, Lillard and Willis (1994) treat unobservables in the Mare model by including a random effect. The presence of random effects requires that the higher-stage probabilities be represented by multivariate distributions rather than the product of univariate distributions. Their estimated variance coefficients are highly significant, suggesting that unobservable effects are very important.

  5. This approach is consistent with a dynamic sequential version of the Becker–Tomes model where children maximize their welfare given the parent’s investments. Parents then impose sub-game perfection by maximizing family welfare taking account of their children’s responses.

  6. We know of no studies in this area which impose rationality on the expectation formation mechanism. It is, perhaps, unreasonable even to suggest such a procedure because of the additional complexity involved.

  7. The occupational classification used for fathers is not suitable for mothers because of the small number of women in advanced occupations.

  8. In regression and simple ordered probability models, the t-statistics are identical for the coefficients of a variable x and its normalized value, so that there are no issues of inference involved by using normalized regressors. This is not true for the mixed models estimated here; however, there are no major differences between the two representations.

  9. Simultaneous equation regression models, as well as multivariate count models, were used to explain the three test score variables. Like Neal and Johnson (1996) and Peters and Mullis (1997), we find that household background variables explain a significant proportion of the variation of these variables. These results are described in a companion paper “What Do Test Scores Really Measure?”

  10. Later, we will show that a mixture of two distributions is significantly better than a single distribution function.

  11. This is not what Marks and McMillan (2003) found using an Australian cohort of students who were tested in 1995. There are several possible reasons why this could happen: The first and most important is that we are taking account of the fact that test scores depend on family background variables by adding them as regressors to a model which already contains family background variables. Marks and McMillan do the opposite! Secondly, their measure of educational attainment is “participation at university,” which should be expected to be more dependent on academic ability than our more general measure of educational attainment. They also do not control for unobservables.

  12. See, for example, Cameron and Heckman (1998, 2001), Carniero and Heckman (2001), Heckman (2000), Keane and Wolpin (2001).

  13. Of course, it should be recognized that some children dislike school because they are unhappy or disturbed by problems at home.

  14. Some Danish schools have already adopted procedures to make them more attractive. In their analysis of a sample of Danish elementary schools, Munk and Sloth (2005 p. 11) write “The high-performance schools with low SES in general give priority to social aspects by taking care of the pupils and tackling their difficulties. The schools focus on having a positive approach to and finding the strengths of each individual as well as concentrating on the pupil’s life as a whole. Their goals are to create self-confidence, joy and a unified whole for the children, and also to provide the pupils with the best qualifications possible in view of their background.”

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Acknowledgements

Financial support from the Danish Research Council is gratefully acknowledged. We thank Gøsta Esping-Andersen, Jens Bonke, Claudia Buchman, Else Christensen, Mariah D.R. Evans, Anders Holm, Stephen L. Morgan, Helene Skyt Nielsen, Torben Tranaes, Jørgen Søndergaard, Wout Ultee, Mary Beth Walker, Christopher Winship, and two anonymous referees for comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to James McIntosh.

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Responsible editor: Christian Dustmann

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McIntosh, J., Munk, M.D. Scholastic ability vs family background in educational success: evidence from Danish sample survey data. J Popul Econ 20, 101–120 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-006-0061-3

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-006-0061-3

Keywords

  • Educational mobility
  • Test scores
  • Denmark
  • Unobservable heterogeneity

JEL Classification

  • I21
  • C25