Between institutions and social mechanisms: education and inequality in comparative perspective

Herman van de Werfhorst’s NWO Vici project studies the relation between three dimensions of a society’s educational institutional structure (tracking, standardization of examinations/tests, and the vocational specificity) and educational outcomes (student performance, educational attainment, and socioeconomic and ethnic inequalities).

Research aim

Unlike previous studies this study explicitly focuses on the social mechanisms in families and schools that are ‘ignited’ by educational institutions, and on how institutions change in response to changing political, economic and societal contexts. Using longitudinal institutional data from the 1950s-2010s, combined with international student assessments, surveys on educational attainment and data on political parties also from many years and countries, both the effects of institutions for educational outcomes and the formation and adaptation of institutions are studied.

Research structure

Bringing together perspectives from sociology, political science/political economy, and educational science, the project studies (1) whether educational institutions are related to student performance, educational attainment, and inequalities; (2) through which mechanisms institutions influence behaviours, intentions and beliefs of parents, teachers and children, (3) how institutional change with respect to tracking, standardized tests and vocational specificity is related to political, economic and societal forces, and (4) how existing structures and inequalities in a society are legitimized by the daily practices and beliefs of teachers, parents and school principals?

Novel research designs on changing institutions on changing educational outcomes will be developed and applied. The strength of the project is that it tells us why institutions matter (i.e. through which micro-level processes), and how it can be that institutions persist even if they do not ‘function well’ according to central tasks society imposes on educational systems. Societal norms and common beliefs and practices are essential to understand why institutions change (or why not) and why they affect educational outcomes.