Are socio-economically disadvantaged students condemned to perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of poor academic achievement, poor job prospects and poverty? Not if they attend schools that provide them with more regular classes and that nurture their personal motivation and self-confidence with positive approaches to learning.


That’s what OECD analysts found when they examined the results of the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey. Researchers focused on a group of students who displayed high levels of academic achievement despite the fact that they came from disadvantaged backgrounds. These “resilient” students essentially beat the odds stacked against them to outperform peers from the same socio-economic background.


Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School, a new book from the OECD, takes a close look at these students to try to figure out what makes them so special and how to increase their number.


PISA results show that a large proportion of disadvantaged students do not even attain the PISA baseline proficiency level in science. These students risk completing their studies without acquiring the skills and competencies needed to fully participate in society and succeed in the labour market. In contrast, most resilient students, especially in OECD countries, achieve scores that place them in PISA’s top three proficiency levels in science.


Many disadvantaged students are vulnerable because, among other reasons, they spend very little time studying science. Learning time in school is one of the strongest predictors of which disadvantaged students will outperform their peers. In practically all OECD countries, and all partner countries and economies, the average resilient student spends more time studying science at school–on average, between one and two more hours per week–than the average disadvantaged low-achiever. But it is not only the quantity of time spent in school that matters; how that time is administered matters too.


Students’ confidence in their academic abilities also strongly predicts resilience: the more self-confident students are, the greater their odds of being resilient. Across OECD countries over 50% of resilient students believe that learning advanced science topics would be easy for them, while only about 40% of disadvantaged low-achievers think so. Some 75% of resilient students believe they can give good answers to test questions on science topics, while only about 50% of disadvantaged low-achievers share this belief. Motivation, particularly motivation that arises from a personal, internal drive, rather than motivation that is prompted by an external stimulus, such as the prospect of a certain job or salary, is also associated with student resilience in many countries, but that relationship is weaker.


This suggests that schools may have an important role to play in fostering resilience. Schools could start by developing activities, classroom practices and teaching methods that nurture motivation and self-confidence among disadvantaged students. High-quality mentoring programmes, for example, have been shown to be particularly beneficial for disadvantaged students. Focusing these activities on disadvantaged students is crucial, as they are the students who are least likely to receive this support elsewhere.


And while increasing time spent at school will not, in itself, improve overall performance, PISA results suggest that learning time at school should be considered when designing policies to raise performance levels among disadvantaged students. Many of these students might have ended up in tracks or schools where there is very little choice and no opportunity to take science–or perhaps any other academic–courses. As the saying goes, they can’t win if they aren’t allowed to play.



Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School, ISBN 978-92-64-08995-2 (print), 978-92-64-08995-2 (PDF), will be available at in May 2011.