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Rolf Becker

In this chapter, the modern sociology of education is defined as an interdisciplinary field investigating educational processes on different analytical levels as well as the interrelations between educational systems and the social order. Leading questions and research topics for an innovative research programme are discussed. Furthermore, different tasks of sociology of education are described briefly. Finally, key challenges for sociology of education in the future are presented in order to improve the empirical research on education in social contexts.

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Gwendolin Josephine Blossfeld, Pia Nicoletta Blossfeld and Hans-Peter Blossfeld

This chapter highlights several macro-changes in modern societies that suggest that education has become a lifelong process. Following Glen Elder, we conceptualize five principles which determine how education unfolds over the life course, and show that educational decisions, learning environments, and competence development constitute a complex and time-related interdependence over the life course. Finally, we present some new insights based on recent research that considers education as a lifelong process.

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Robert Erikson

Education has a major role in life in the modern world and the question of identifying how educational attainment is determined by social origin is central for the understanding of how people are situated in the social structure. To reduce how people’s educational achievement depends on their social origin is an important political goal. Inequality of educational opportunity (IEO), considered as the association between parents’ education, social class, status or income, and children’s educational attainment at adult age has been extensively studied during the last half-century. The social origin of men and women seems to account for no more than 25 per cent of the variation in their educational attainment in any advanced society and in most countries it accounts for clearly less. In most countries, the association between origin and education seems to have decreased in the period after World War II, a decrease that, in many countries, appears to have stalled with the cohorts born between 1950 and 1960. Given the other factors, parents’ education, social class, social status and income all have separate effects on children’s education. The role of educational performance in the transition to the next educational level – primary effects – and the role of choice given performance – secondary effects – appear to differ among children of different social origins, in all countries. In most countries, primary effects account for a greater part of the variation in transition rates at the first hurdle, from mandatory education to academic upper secondary school, than at the second, from academic upper secondary to tertiary education. The association between social origin and educational attainment is slightly smaller among women than among men, while the patterns are rather similar. The proportion of women who have attained higher education has increased greatly and considerably more so than for men. However, the expansion seems not to have had any substantial influence on IEO among women or men. Children of immigrants generally obtain less education than children from the majority population, but social origin factors have similar overall effects in the two groups. Immigrant children tend to perform less well in school, but given their performance, they tend to be more likely to choose to continue to the next educational level. Inequality of educational opportunity tends to be greater in stratified educational systems where children are divided into separate tracks in school at a relatively early age. In standardized systems where the curriculum is similar across schools and where students have to pass central examinations, IEO may be weaker.

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Volker Stocké

In the sociology of education, the rational choice paradigm may be considered the dominant model used to explain educational choices and inequalities in education. The two main versions of this theoretical perspective come from the field of psychology (the theory of planned behaviour) and the field of sociology (rational choice theory). Both theories congruently hold that educational choices and inequalities in education are the result of instrumentally rational choices that take different levels of resource scarcity into account. Apart from this consensus, the two versions of the theory differ in their theoretical determination of the explanatory factors deemed relevant and in the level of rationality attributed to the actors. A growing number of empirical studies explore the empirical adequacy of the assumptions drawn by each of these two theoretical versions and check the validity of the resulting prognoses. This chapter compares the basic assumptions drawn by the theoretical versions of the rational choice paradigm and presents an overview of the current state of the empirical examination. The results show that both the theory of planned behaviour and rational choice theory cover important aspects of educational choices and can explain a relevant part of the effects of social origin. Empirical evidence, however, reveals certain limitations of these two versions of rational choice theory. Possible solutions to this problem are discussed in the conclusions at the end of this contribution.

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Steffen Hillmert

Analyses of social contexts are almost universal in social research. In many cases, however, they are not explicitly labelled or even recognized as such. The conceptual aspect of ‘context’ then remains implicit in the substantive research question – such as when investigating the effects of ‘social background’ as a characteristic of an individual’s parental or family context. Systematic commonalities can be found among various analyses that either implicitly or explicitly deal with social contexts and their relevance for education. This chapter presents a formal classification of relevant contexts and their effects on education, discusses common methodological issues of contextual analyses and gives a brief survey of important findings in relevant research areas – in particular, family effects, peer effects, school effects and effects that can be associated with larger socio-economic contexts and institutional systems.

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David B. Bills

Meritocracies are social systems in which individuals are rewarded strictly on the basis of their performance. Meritocracies accept wide inequalities in educational or socioeconomic outcomes, but require rigorous equality of opportunity to be effective. Meritocratic systems operate in sharp contrast to systems based on kinship, nepotism or any form of inherited privilege. Modern societies are increasingly education-based meritocracies in which schools identify and cultivate skills and effort. This chapter examines the role of meritocracy throughout the socioeconomic life cycle, paying particular attention to variations in meritocratic processes between and within nations.

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Sabine Weinert and Cordula Artelt

Measuring achievement and skills is fundamental in educational research and practice. The usefulness and interpretation of different measures depend on the goals of the assessment, the underlying theoretical account and its methodological implications, and the quality of the assessment itself. Preceded by an introduction, the present chapter first discusses general conceptual and terminological issues and challenges with a focus on the structure of cognitive and academic abilities and the implications for the measurement of skills and achievement. In the next section, we present three different views on competencies as major achievements due to learning and instruction (competencies conceptualized from a functional literacy perspective; modelled with reference to cognitive structures and processes and with reference to subcomponents or qualifications) and draw some general conclusions with respect to the assessment and interpretation of these measures. In the last section, we describe standards and modes of assessment, thereby differentiating between purposes of assessment, standards of test construction and modes of assessment. Implications for (sociological) research are indicated.

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Thorsten Schneider

In the sociology of education, surveys collecting longitudinal data are on the rise. This chapter gives an overview of survey designs and instruments that produce either episode data or panel data. Episode data is characterized by origin and destination states with a starting and ending point. Panel data is a collection of information from the same individuals repeatedly at different points in time. The two data types are distinct and require different techniques of data analysis. For episode data, survivor functions and transition rate models are generally the first choice. As non-parametric survivor functions may create problems when there are competing destination states, I also discuss cumulative incidence functions, an ideal but rarely used alternative. With respect to parametric transition rate models, the chapter focuses on time-varying covariates. Panel data analysis is discussed in the framework of multilevel analysis, which entails repeated measurements of the same individuals on the same variables at the lowest level, followed by individual-specific information at the next level and in some cases also context information on higher levels. A common model for analysing hierarchical data is the growth curve model, which focuses on gains or losses over time, using indicators such as socioeconomic background. Most studies using this type of model fall short, however, in capturing changes at the lowest level as a source of potential effects. I therefore address an increasingly popular model type in the social sciences but one that is still used rarely in the sociology of education: fixed effects panel regression. It focuses solely on changes at the individual level and eliminates all time-constant, observed or unobserved higher-level characteristics. The final section discusses comparative advantages and disadvantages of methods for analysing episode and panel data, and comments on whether current longitudinal surveys provide suitable data for these methods.

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Christoph Zangger and Rolf Becker

We critically examine how experimental designs are used to address causal questions in the sociology of education. Starting with some general thoughts about causality, causal inference and the underlying counterfactual approach, we review different applications of experimental testing in the lab and field as well as survey and natural experiments throughout sociological and economic research on education. In the discussion of these applications, we highlight both the advantages and the limits of experiments in giving causal explanations of social phenomena, stressing the need to integrate the empirical framework within a coherent theoretical background that links cause and effect.

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Andreas Hadjar

This chapter conceptually and empirically considers how educational inequalities by social origin and gender, as well as those at the intersection of both, changed during the educational expansion that had its major boost in the 1960s. The process of educational expansion has been initiated by educational reforms and is characterized by an enhancement and an increase in the size of educational systems, an increase in educational opportunities and a rising demand for education. While in some parts of the political sphere, reducing educational inequalities was one of the major aims of educational reforms intended to increase the size of the education system, the empirical reality of the changing educational inequalities is rather ambiguous. While gender differences in educational attainment decreased strongly and were even reversed, particularly in secondary education, educational inequalities related to social origin, namely disadvantages for working class students, did not decrease to the desired extent.