School systems trump family background

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD's Secretary General

There has been much discussion on the extent to which the performance of nations on tests like PISA is shaped by the socio-economic context of families, schools and nations. Surely, economic, social and cultural capital are always an advantage. Owing to advantaged families’ greater capacity to reinforce and enhance the effects of schools, as students from these families attend higher-quality schools and schools are simply better-equipped to nurture and develop children from advantaged backgrounds, school systems tend to reproduce social disadvantage. And that is what the data from PISA have shown.

But there is more to this. There are huge differences across countries in the extent to which individual factors (such as family structure, parents’ job status and immigrant background), school factors (such as how resources are allocated across schools) and the broader economic context of education systems shape learning outcomes.

New analyses from PISA shed light on this. The chart above shows the performance of 15-year-old students in each country by decile of their social background. For example, the highest dots show how the 10% of students from the most privileged socio-economic backgrounds in the OECD area perform in each country. In turn, the lowest dots show how those students perform who belong to the 10% most disadvantaged students in the OECD area.

These data suggest several things. First, poverty isn’t destiny. For example, the poorest 15-year-olds in Shanghai – and there are lots of them, about 20% of the 15-year-old population in Shanghai compared to an OECD average of 12% comes from very poor families – do as well as the 10% most privileged students in the United States. Second, to foster excellence, you don't need to tolerate social disparities. For example, while students from the most privileged families in France and the Netherlands perform similarly, the bottom decile in the Netherlands still match the performance of the 3rd decile of French 15-year-olds. Last but not least, the data clearly show that, for many countries, the issue is not just with poor kids in poor neighbourhoods, but with many kids in many neighbourhoods: The top 10% of students from advantaged backgrounds in the United States do just about as well as their peers in Italy and Spain.

The bottom line is that the country where you go to school seems to have a much greater impact on your learning outcomes than the social background of your family or even your country.

PISA 2012 Results
Shanghai (China) – PISA
Strong performers and Succesful Reformer: Shanghai
Related blog posts by Andreas Schleicher:
Are the Chinese cheating in PISA or are we cheating ourselves?
What we learn from the PISA 2012 results
Learning in rural China: The challenges for teachers
Chart source: OECD, PISA 2012 Database.


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