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How Social Class is Tied to Citizen Satisfaction with Schools: What Can Be Learned from Korea

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American University School of Public Affairs Assistant Professor Nathan Favero says equity and how it influences citizen perceptions of public service delivery has not received the attention it should. Favero partnered with two graduate students to examine equity, a key pillar of public administration, and its impact on school evaluation in South Korea. 

Their resulting article, “Social Class, Ingroup-Outgroup Comparison, and Citizen Evaluations: Is User Satisfaction Linked to Outcome Disparities?” was recently published in the American Review of Public Administration. The researchers originally shared the findings at a Public Management Research Conference hosted by SPA in June 2017.

“There have been a lot of calls to integrate equity concerns into public administration,” said Favero. “This is the first citizen satisfaction paper to really look at equity issues and whether or not that factors into how people think about service quality of a government entity they interact with – in this case schools.”

Because of the availability of individual-level survey data from Korea, and the subject-matter expertise of his co-authors, Favero began the research in 2016 with SPA doctoral student Minjung Kim and visiting research scholar Miyeon Song, who both attended schools in Korea. 

“This is a great illustration of why co-authorship is so helpful. They had deep substantive knowledge of the content,” said Favero. “This is my first article with a Ph.D. student at SPA. I hope it’s the beginning of more collaboration with students in this apprenticeship approach.”

The researchers looked at high schools in Seoul, South Korea, and how citizens with different socioeconomic (SES) status viewed outcome disparities. They discovered parents and students appear to recognize and care about a performance gap among social strata -- even when a student’s individual outcome is held constant.

Social categories play a powerful role in shaping perceptions. Students rate schools higher when academic performance for lower- and upper-income students is about the same. Those from low socioeconomic backgrounds are happier in schools where the performance gap is smaller and less satisfied in schools where the achievement gap is wider; among high SES students, satisfaction may still be affected – but not as much – when there is a gap or disparity in achievement by SES. 

“It makes sense because if you are the one getting the short end of the stick, the issue is relevant to you," said Favero. "If you are getting the better end, you don’t really care whether there is a disparity."

However, the researchers did not find the same difference in perceptions among parents surveyed, perhaps suggesting that students are more attuned to equity issues than their parents.

These findings underscore the importance of considering the role of equity in an evaluation process to catch nuanced reactions in segments of the population. 

“Every area of public administration should ask: How does equity matter in this context? I hope this study can be viewed as a model of how to do that,” said Favero.