Troubled schools in troubled times: How COVID-19 affects educational inequalities and what measures can be taken

Author(s) Julia Frohn
Institution(s) Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Maybe further partner(s)
Theoretical framework/approach The data were categorized with reference to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of capital to analyze and systematize the empirical results. It differentiates between three main forms of capital that define a person’s socio-economic status: economic capital, cultural capital, and social capital. Cultural capital is further divided into three dimensions that reciprocally influence one another: the objectified, the embodied and the institutionalized state.
Research questions

The study aims at answering the question of whether and how educational disadvantages in socially deprived settings are exacerbated through the pandemic and what counter measures can be taken.

Themes / topics

Educational inequality, COVID-19, distance learning, educational disparities, pandemic, Pierre Bourdieu, digital teaching and learning

Main findings of study / highlights

According to the teachers in socially deprived settings, their students lack resources in all three forms of Bourdieu’s capital. While these shortcomings are already problematic in regular times, they obstruct learning in times of distance teaching even more, worsening learning conditions and thereby adding to already existing disadvantages.

  • economic capital: lack of financial resources and problematic living situations (lack of space and privacy)
  • cultural capital:
    • objectified: lack of technical and non-technical learning equipment
    • embodied: shortcomings in subject-specific skills, motivation, self-sufficiency, digital and media competence, language skills, emotional-social skills
    • institutionalized: link to schools in socially deprived settings
  • social capital: while family as social capital often seems to lead to disadvantaging conditions, relationships between students and teachers as social capital are thought to be one of the most important variables in students’ learning.
Methods Qualitative study
Analytic Appraoch Explorative
Desig of data collection

Carried out via video call, the interviews lasted 47 minutes. The data were transcribed following the guidelines by Dresing et al. (2015), aiming at literal yet legible transcripts. They were categorized through qualitative data analysis (Strauss, 1987) using the software MAXQDA (Kuckartz, 2018). After inductively encoding and identifying the significant similarities to and overlaps with the theoretical framework by Bourdieu, categories were formulated following Bourdieu’s theory of different forms of capitals. Coding was carried out at two different points in time (t1/t2) with eight weeks between the iterations. The comparison of the categories from four exemplary interviews resulted in an intracoder-consistency of 0.93 (k). The individual coding steps and the resulting categories were further validated through expert discussions with four colleagues who work in educational research. In addition, the categories were discussed with two teachers interviewed (T1 and T13).

Time(s) of data collection April 2020
Kind of sampling, kind and number of sample

The sample was selected based on the neighbourhoods where the teachers work – 12 work in socially deprived settings, and 4 in privileged settings – and on their level of expertise. In contacting schools to compose the sample, extraordinary competencies in the field of teaching and learning were requested, for example, emphasized through special positions and tasks among the faculty.
The common denominator of the teachers in socially deprived settings is that their schools all take part in the Berlin-Bonus-Program, a program that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Each of the 12 teachers works at a school categorized as ‘A’, meaning more than 75% of the students rely on funding by the state of Berlin and face the greatest socio-economic hardship in Germany’s capital. In addition, teachers in privileged settings
(henceforth T13–T16) who work at exceptionally successful secondary schools (Gymnasium; criterion: graduation average higher than 2.0 in the German grading system) were interviewed. The overall group of teachers was composed of 9 women and 7 men who have taught for an average of 12.5 years, the majority of whom teach grades 7 to 10.

Geographical area Germany/Berlin

Frohn, J. (2021). Troubled schools in troubled times: How COVID-19 affects educational inequalities and what measures can be taken. European Educational Research Journal.

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