Lessons in resilience from PISA

Some children are more resilient than others

It won’t be news to anyone at this stage that – on average – students from poorer families don’t do as well in school as kids from middle class families.

As the OECD’s PISA education research has shown, social background is consistently one of the major factors that determines average student performance. 

But it’s important to emphasise the word “average”.

In just about every place that takes part in PISA, a proportion of kids from poorer families buck the trend – they do much better in school than might be predicted based on their family circumstances.

Such kids even have a name – “resilient students”. Across OECD countries, about three out of ten kids from poorer families are resilient, according to results from the latest round of PISA.

But the findings also show big variations between countries: In effect, in some places social background has a much smaller impact than in others. In Korea, for instance, well over 50% of kids from poorer backgrounds are resilient, and among some non-OECD members the proportion is even higher: Over 70% in the Chinese city of Shanghai. Finland – a traditional PISA high-flyer – also does well, with close to 50% of students beating the odds. The results are less encouraging at the other end of the scale: Only 20% of students are resilient in Austria and, as the BBC reports, only around 24% in the United Kingdom.

The research offers some insights into the factors that can help to encourage resilience. Spending more time in class is one: “In France, Germany and the Netherlands, resilient students spend at least one hour and 45 minutes more in science classes per week than disadvantaged low-achievers do,” the latest edition of PISA In Focus notes. Self-confidence and motivation also matter.

Incidentally, if you want to find out more about the man behind OECD PISA – our colleague Andreas Schleicher – he’s profiled in the latest edition of The Atlantic. Andreas tells journalist Amanda Ripley about the state of  education research before PISA: “I remember everyone telling you, ‘We have the best education system in the world,’” he says. “To his data-driven mind,” she comments, “this was madness. How can everyone be the best?”

Useful Links

OECD educationtoday blog

Andreas Schleicher on Twitter

PISA … headlines and more

Boys and girls scored equally badly on hairstyle

Lots of reaction – and a certain amount of handwringing – following the publication yesterday of results from the latest round of the OECD’s PISA student assessments.

The very strong showing by students in the Chinese city of Shanghai got a lot of attention: “I’m kind of stunned, I’m thinking Sputnik,” one former US educational official told The New York Times.

On the Atlantic’s website, former China resident James Fallows admitted to some reservations about the Shanghai results, but hoped they would spur a renewed focus on educational reform in the US: “I’m happy for people to be as startled as possible by these results. Anything that will direct attention to American fundamentals – education, infrastructure, research, that sort of tedious thing – is fine with me.”

Incidentally, the lessons for the US from PISA are dealt with in this report.

A few other stories from PISA 2009:

Trends: For the first time ever, PISA includes a separate report this year on trends in student performance since its first round in 2000. Some countries have much to celebrate, with new OECD member Chile seeing a very large fall in the number of students scoring at the low end. The news was less good for Ireland, where The Irish Times’ Seán Flynn noted that “on literacy, Ireland has fallen from fifth place to 17th, the most dramatic drop of any OECD state”. He hoped the results would have a “transformative effect” on Ireland’s schools.

The impact of social background: One of the key findings from PISA is that students’ social background is one of the main determinants in educational success. But as the programme also shows, some countries – for example Canada, Finland, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong-China and Shanghai, do a very good job of minimising this impact.

In Wales, there was concern that the latest PISA results showed social background remained a high obstacle to success: “In essence if we want to explain the PISA outcomes, a large part of that will lie in the insidious effect which poverty continues to have on our nation and its people, particularly our children,” wrote Professor David Egan.

Girls and boys: One of the issues PISA examines is the difference between how well boys and girls do. In reading literacy – the focus subject in PISA 2009 – girls did better than boys in every place that took part. Among the OECD countries, girls were about a year ahead of boys in reading. By contrast, boys did better than girls in mathematics, but the difference was not as great.

In Finland – which lost its top spot in PISA this year, although it remains an extremely very strong performer – boys’ relative lack of interest in reading was a concern for Education Minister Henna Virkkunen, AFP reported. “Ten years ago, one in five youths said they did not read for pleasure. Now that figure is one in three, and 50% for boys,” the minister said.

In Australia, education research leader Geoff Masters was worried that girls are slipping behind in mathematics. “The gender gap in mathematics, which appeared to have closed in recent decades, has re-emerged, with boys again significantly outperforming girls,” he wrote in The Australian.

Useful Links  

 OECD PISA – the Programme for International Student Assessment

 OECD educationtoday blog   – Spotlight on PISA 

OECD work on education

OECD Insights: Human Capital

PISA at the OECD iLibrary

 PISA video – What do students know and what can they do?

Video series: Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education