School & District Management

U.S. Principals More Likely to View Their Students as Disadvantaged

By Denisa R. Superville — July 23, 2014 2 min read
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Principals in the United States are more likely than their peers in other countries to perceive their students as coming from disadvantaged homes, and that perception may have some impact on how well those students perform in school.

Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, released on Tuesday, showed that 65 percent of United States’ principals said that 30 percent of their students came from disadvantaged homes.

The actual number of disadvantaged students was closer to 13 percent, according to Andreas Schleicher, the deputy director in the directorate for education at the OECD—the man who heads the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA tests.

The number of impoverished students in the U.S. is about the same as Japan’s and Korea’s. However, nearly six times more U.S. principals saw their students as socio-economically disadvantaged when compared to those two countries. Only 6 percent of principals in Japan and 9 percent in Korea saw their students as disadvantaged, according to Schleicher.

In poorer countries, such as Brazil, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico and Portugal, the perception of students’ poverty generally lined up with the actual prevalence in those societies.

The perception of students’ disadvantaged backgrounds correlated with student achievement, more so than actual disadvantage, according to Schleicher. For example, in Singapore, which has a high percentage of disadvantaged students, the effect on learning outcomes were moderate, he wrote.

But the results were different in France and the United States, where principals perceived a higher percentage of their student population to be disadvantaged.

In South Korea and Singapore, more than one in two of the students from the bottom quarter of the socio-economic rung scored among the highest in the world on PISA tests, he wrote.

But only around 20 percent of poor students in France and the United States were “resilient” on those tests, meaning that they were among the top performers of students from similar backgrounds across the globe.

“Socio-economic disadvantage is a challenge to educators everywhere, but in countries like France and the United States, perceived disadvantage is far greater than real disadvantage and it makes a significant difference for student performance,” he concludes. " In countries like Singapore, real disadvantage is far greater than school principals’ perception of it, but Singapore’s schools seem to be able to help their students overcome that disadvantage.”

The survey looked at 30 countries, including Estonia, The Netherlands, Serbia, Spain, Latvia and Malaysia.

The OECD will explore the link between educational inequality and social mobility in the upcoming issue of Education at a Glance, which is expected to be released on Sept. 9.

You can read the entire blog post here.

Chart: Survey data from the OECD show that U.S. principals are more likely to see their students as coming from disadvantaged homes. Source: OECD.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.