The child who rises from a background of poverty to become a highly successful adult has been inextricably woven into the fabric of the American story. A new study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development gives a glimpse into what factors contribute to the success of that bootstrap approach, but also shows that disadvantaged children in the United States may be less likely to rise above those early troubles than children in some other countries.
The study finds that across 66 OECD and partner countries who participate in the Program for International Student Assessment, just under one in three students in poverty still performs in the top quarter of all students of their demographics internationally in reading, math, and science. These students, identified as "resilient," tend to devote more time to class, and they tend to report feeling more motivated and confident in their ability to succeed than less-resilient students.
For example, resilient students were 10 to 20 percent more likely than less resilient students to say they understood science concepts easily and quickly and were confident of their ability to answer correctly on tests.
Moreover, OECD's findings back up a flurry of recent reports on the importance of time in school, particularly for disadvantaged students. OECD found that for students in poverty, time in school was among the strongest predictors of whether a student would outperform peers. In nearly all the countries studied, resilient students spent more hours per week studying science than comparable less resilient students, even though poor students overall spent less time in class than wealthier students.
In the United States in particular, requiring a science class is associated with a 15-point improvement in the PISA science score for students overall, but a more than 40-point jump—the equivalent of a year of academic progress—for poor students.
However, as the chart below shows, the United States ranks uncomfortably below the OECD average in the percentage of poor children who are resilient to their situation. While more than 70 percent of children born in poverty in Shanghai and Hong Kong are winning upward academic mobility, fewer than 30 percent of American children are on track to achieve that traditionally American dream.
To dig into this data, check out the OECD resilience data table.xls