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Kids from poor families resilient and doing better

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While it looks like coming from a low socio-economic background remains a barrier to academic success the number of students from less well-off backgrounds who did meet standards increased according to the latest PISA data.

The PISA test in 2015 shows that, on average across OECD countries, as many as three out of four students from the poorest 25% of households in their country reach, at best, only the baseline level of proficiency (Level 2) in reading, mathematics or science.

PISA data collected over a decade between 2006 and 2015 show that several countries have been able to increase the share of students among those in the bottom quarter of socio-economic status who perform at Level 3 or above – so called, academically resilient students. Of the 51 education systems for which the share of resilient students can be compared between 2006 and 2015, 19 saw increases in the proportion of resilient disadvantaged students while nine saw the share of these students shrink.

Among OECD countries, the increase was particularly pronounced in Germany, Israel, Japan, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. For example, in 2006, only around one in four disadvantaged students in Germany reached Level 3 proficiency or higher in all three academic subjects tested in PISA. By 2015, as many as one in three did. Australia, however, was among the countries seeing a significant decline, with the percentage of resilient students falling by 0.8 percentage point per year.

The likelihood that disadvantaged students are academically resilient varies across countries, and also within each education system, depending on the school these students attend. The paper identified some traits common to school environments in which disadvantaged students succeed.

Across the vast majority of education systems examined, the likelihood that disadvantaged students are resilient is higher in schools where students reported a good disciplinary climate, compared to schools with more disruptive environments, even after accounting for differences in students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile and other individual characteristics associated with resilience. Attending orderly classes, in which students can focus and teachers provide well-paced instruction, is beneficial for all students, but particularly so for the most vulnerable. A similar relationship is found with the share of students who did not skip days of schools during the two weeks prior to the PISA test, another indicator of a (positive) school climate.

The analysis also reveals two key factors that contribute to a positive school climate: schools where the turnover of teachers is low, and where principals adopt a transformational leadership style (i.e. where they motivate colleagues to pursue the strategic goals of the school).

The paper “Academic Resilience: What Schools and Countries Do to Help Disadvantaged Students Succeed in PISA” (OECD Education Working Paper No. 167) is available at;jsessionid=5k5oacmhskcju.x-oecd-live-02.

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