Mapping School Performance and Inequality With GIS

Mark Altaweel


Analyzing the quality of schools is a major concern for many governments around the world. Traditionally, these measurements look at standardized tests and other measures to rate the quality of schools.

With spatial analysis, researchers can look at how effective schools are relative to spatial measures.

Location appears to matter more than the type of schools in places, where regardless if schools are private or public, the neighborhood in which schools service has a strong relationship to school performance.

This is the case in a study done in Australia, where spatial inequality appears to be the strongest indicator as to how a school would perform.

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Schools in affluent areas consistently did better, whereas schools in disadvantaged areas did not.[1]

In the United States, similar results have been shown. In Salt Lake County, an analysis using spatial filtering regression has shown over 60% of the factors affecting quality of education are affected by spatial relevant properties, which incorporate school resource, student background and neighborhood, which all are affect or relate to where schools are located.

Overall, in the United States, educational inequality is on the rise as local taxes are affected by income inequalities in different neighborhoods.[2] Even in cases where neighorhoods appear to be mixed in income levels and impoverished backgrounds in the St. Louis area, which often includes racial differences, clear patterns within these neighborhoods emerge, where within neighborhood isolation is evident and not all areas in a larger neighborhood have equal access.

This means that pockets of education and social inequality are evident in places that at a more macro level appear more diverse.[3]

Mapping schools based on rank above/below average in Sydney, Grade 5 reading, 2016. Map: Smith, Parr, and Muhidin, 2018
Mapping schools based on rank above/below average in Sydney, Grade 5 reading, 2016. Map: Smith, Parr, and Muhidin, 2018

Part of the problem could be legislation and how funding has been appropriated for schooling. As housing and local taxes often fund schools, this means that rich neighborhoods tend to aggregate resources needed for schools.

Federal funding over decades has also tended to favor suburban regions away from city centers in the United States. This has meant that even after desegregation policies have been implemented, historical segregation patterns persist in schooling and schooling inequalities have not changed as substantially as planned in some areas.[4]

One possible solution might be is for schools to redraw their boundaries so less affluent places have access to better schools. Federal resources could also be more directly allocated at local levels that emphasise under-performing schools.[5]

While race and social class are a factor in inequality in education, rural and urban differences are also evident. Starting from early year education years, rural regions appear to have less access to not only resources that supports parents access to education and childcare, but distances between where schools and childcare are aggregated limits options for families.

Overall, however, differences between communities in rural regions are more minimal. Thus, wealth and neighborhood differences do not discriminate as much in rural regions as they do in more urban or suburban areas.[6]

Since the 20th century, education has been seen as an opportunity for those in lower socio-economic classes as a means to better their state in society.

While this has been true in places, it is also evident from recent research that policies and resources are not equal. Better schools are generally, at least in the United States and Australia, found in more affluent areas.

Using different metrics for measuring school performance and school resources, consistently regions that are wealthy, often in suburban areas, tend to have better schools. There is a clear spatial factor in this.

When accounting for private and public schools, negligible results are found, indicating that location often matters more than other factors such as types of schools.


[1]    For more on a recent study and how spatial factors, including wealth and inequality, affect school performance, see: Smith, C., Parr, N., & Muhidin, S. (2018). Mapping schools’ NAPLAN results: a spatial inequality of school outcomes in Australia: Mapping schools’ NAPLAN results. Geographical Research.

[2]    For more on inequalities in Salt Lake County schools, see:  Wei, Y. D., Xiao, W., Simon, C. A., Liu, B., & Ni, Y. (2018). Neighborhood, race and educational inequality. Cities, 73, 1–13.

[3]    For more on racial inequalities and segregation within diverse neighborhoods in St. Louis, see:  Hogrebe, M. C., & Tate, W. F. (2019). Residential Segregation Across Metro St. Louis School Districts: Examining the Intersection of Two Spatial Dimensions. AERA Open, 5(1), 233285841983724.

[4]    For more on how desegregation policies have reinforced segregation in schooling and school access, see:  Erickson, A. T. (2012). Building Inequality: The Spatial Organization of Schooling in Nashville, Tennessee, after Brown. Journal of Urban History, 38(2), 247–270.

[5]    For some example policy implications on spatial variations in school quality, see:  Green, T. L. (2015). Places of Inequality, Places of Possibility: Mapping “Opportunity in Geography” Across Urban School-Communities. The Urban Review,47(4), 717–741.

[6]    For more on childcare and education difference in rural and urban areas, see:  Yin, P. (2018). Urban–rural inequalities in spatial accessibility to prenatal care: a GIS analysis of Georgia, USA, 2000–2010. GeoJournal.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.