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How School Leaders Perceive Poverty

By Melanie Holland, CEI Intern.

A study released last week by Andres Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that compared the perception of poverty in the classroom by principals in 30 countries, to the actual level of poverty. Schleicher is the Director of Education and Skills Research, and heads up of the PISA.

According to the study, United States principals’”more so than any of the other 29 countries in the study’”believe that many of their students come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. U.S. principals believe that almost 65% of classrooms consist of classrooms with at least 30% of its students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. In comparison, principals in Mexico estimate it to be 44% of classrooms; principals in Brazil estimate 40%; principals in Australia estimate 26%; principals in Sweden estimate 10%; and principals in Japan estimate 6%.

These estimations are telling when compared to the actual share of disadvantaged students, according to an index based on income, parents’ education and other factors. As visible in Graph 1, only 13% of United States classrooms have with 30% of students that come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. This is smaller than most of the other 30 countries.

Brazil, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico and Portugal are found in the upper right corner of the chart, indicating that their schools have a large share of disadvantaged students, which aligns with the reports of the principals. The Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Japan, Korea and Norway, in the lower left corner, disadvantage in schools is limited and fewer than one in ten principals reports significant disadvantage of their students. Principals from the United States and France least accurately estimate the disadvantage of their students.

Schleicher stipulates that this data is especially critical because low-income student perform particularly poorly on the mathematics tests in countries where a large number of principals describe their students as disadvantaged. He seems to point blame at school leadership’”if they had a more accurate perception of their students’ socioeconomic disadvantages, they would treat their students differently, leading to better test results.

Though I think the data presented by the OECD could be instrumental in developing and implementing thoughtful school leadership training and reform, I struggle to make the same connections between the data and the ‘blame’ for the United State’s continual poor scores on international tests like the PISA. Schleicher too closely links the principals’ estimation of student disadvantage with low expectations for their students’ ability to succeed. He also discredits many other aspects of our educational system that play into our students’ performance on international tests.

Regardless of the connections made, this set of data gives us insight into the need for increased consciousness and awareness in our school leaders. It seems that it is just as easy to ignore the socioeconomic disadvantages of students, as it is to ignore the details of those disadvantages’…either way, students are being lumped into one group to make it easy to process the job(s) at hand.


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