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Resilience and the Disadvantaged Student

One of the most interesting special analyses done in connection with the 2009 OECD PISA survey was a study called Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School, done by the Urban Institute for OECD's Education Directorate.

The idea was to look at those disadvantaged students in the countries participating in the PISA survey program to identify those countries in which disadvantaged students have a disproportionate chance of achieving at high levels on PISA and then tease out the variables associated with their success.

The first thing that jumps off the page is the position of the United States on the tables showing the proportion of each country's student population who are disadvantaged but perform at high levels on the PISA assessments.

I know that long lists of countries don't make for very exciting copy, but I am going to test your patience here, because the lists are so telling.

Recall that, of the 55 countries in the survey, some are OECD members and the rest are "partner" countries that participate in the survey even though they are not members of the OECD.  Among the latter are a number of developing nations.  Of the students in the socioeconomic bottom third in the US, about 40 percent are low achievers.  It is quite stunning to see that, on this list of 55, only Uruguay, Israel, Colombia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Argentina, Romania, Montenegro, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan have a higher proportion of low achieving students among their disadvantaged students than the United States.  In all of the other 55 countries, the disadvantaged students are more likely to perform at high levels; indeed, in Hong Kong, Finland, Estonia, Korea, Japan and Canada, more than 50 percent of disadvantaged students perform at high levels.

The second thing that leaps off this chart is that 35 of the 55 countries surveyed are able to get a higher proportion of their disadvantaged students to high achievement levels on the OECD PISA survey of student achievement than the United States.

So it turns out that we have a much higher proportion of low achieving disadvantaged students in our student population than virtually all of the industrialized countries, and we do a poorer job of getting those who are disadvantaged to higher performance than our competitors.

American teachers are understandably angry at what they see as the eagerness of the American public and policy makers to hold them accountable for what is really a failure of the society as a whole, that is, for sending them children whose poverty greatly handicaps the ability of their teachers to bring them up to global standards of achievement.  These data support their view.  But, at the same time, these data show that American schools are less effective at helping students overcome their disadvantages than other countries.

The Urban Institute researchers did their best to tease out of the PISA background data some information about the factors that had enabled some countries to be more successful than others at producing resilient students or those students who succeed at school despite a disadvantaged background.  The 2009 PISA survey was focused on science achievement in the participating countries.  So the question on the table was what contributed to resilience in the study of science.  The two most important factors they were able to identify were students' interest in science and the amount of time they spent studying required courses in science.

Trying to parse this finding in the American context, and having spent a lot of time in the best-performing countries over the years, I think that what is likely to explain our country's position in these league tables is the very low expectations we have of disadvantaged students relative to the expectations I have observed for these students in the top-performing countries.  Most teachers - and indeed most adults - in the United States expect very little of low-income, minority children.  Because of this, we typically give them a very unchallenging curriculum from the earlier grades on.  Their vocabulary suffers, and soon thereafter, so does their reading comprehension. Problems with reading comprehension make it very hard for these students to succeed in almost all of their classes as they proceed through the grades.  When they get to high school, these students are steered away from what most people perceive as the tough subjects, and science is one of them.  So, whereas students bound for selective colleges will take three or four years of science in high school, in some districts, students thought of as behind or "below standard" will be lucky to get two science courses in high school and the amount of real science in those courses is likely to be minimal.  So it is hardly surprising that the OECD data show that most disadvantaged students in the United States are not confident in their ability to study science and are not eager to study that subject.

In Asia, differences in student achievement are generally attributed to differences in the effort that students put into learning, whereas in the United States, these differences are attributed to natural ability.  This leads to much lower expectations for students who come from low-income families.  

But this difference in expectations for disadvantaged students does not explain the superior performance of European disadvantaged students as compared to Americans.  My experience of the Europeans is that they lie somewhere between the Asians and the Americans with respect to the question as to whether effort or genetic material is the most important explainer of achievement in school.

Which leads me to two other data sets, having to do with the distribution of income within countries.  It turns out that it is not just that there are more low achieving disadvantaged children in the United States as a proportion of the population of all children, it is also true that those children are on balance, much poorer than their counterparts in the other industrialized countries.  This table (page 67) shows that the United States ranks fourth among all the listed countries in income inequality, surpassed only by Chile, Mexico and Turkey, and, also, that income inequality in the United States has been steadily growing since the 1980s.  And this chart (page 32) shows the relationship between socio-economic background and student performance (just in case there is anyone out there who still doubts whether poverty has any bearing on academic performance).  But the problem does not end there.  Not only do the parents of disadvantaged children in the United States have less income than their peers in other countries, but it is also true that the safety net for low-income parents and children is much thinner in the United States than in most other industrialized countries.  These two factors combine to make the disadvantages faced by poor children in the United States much more difficult to remedy in school than is the case for disadvantaged students in other industrialized countries.

It may be that the social safety nets and more equitable incomes in the European and Australasian countries offset the challenges faced by their disadvantaged young people to about the same extent that the Asian disposition to expect just as much from their disadvantaged students as their more advantaged students offsets the challenges faced by their disadvantaged students.  That would leave the United States with neither offsetting advantage, in an environment defined by the very unequal incomes in the United States.

Does this reasoning get our teachers off the hook?  Is it true, in other words, that the very poor performance of the United States relative to other countries in OECD's study of resilience is entirely due to factors beyond their control?  We don't have enough hard data to say, one way or the other.  My take is that American students still suffer relative to students in both Europe and Asia as a result of the propensity of the American education system to sort students out by ability and assign different students work at different challenge levels, based on their estimates of student's inherited intelligence.  That is something we can do something about.  And when we do that, we can begin to take advantage of a myriad of techniques that teachers in both Europe and Asia use to turn disadvantaged students into resilient students.

The Urban Institute team were handicapped in their analysis of the reasons for the relatively low proportion of resilient students in the United States by the limitations of the data they were working with.  But these issues are of great importance not just in the United States, but to countries all over the world.  This was a good first effort.  I hope that the OECD will strongly consider the steps it can take to gather data in the next survey that could make for a more robust analysis of the factors that might greatly increase the proportion of disadvantaged students who succeed in school against the odds.
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