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Poor educational performance – the challenge for teachers and nations

Poor educational performance – the challenge for teachers and nations

Teacher is delighted to welcome Andreas Schleicher, Director of the OECD's Directorate for Education and Skills, as a quarterly columnist. In his first article he explores the long-term consequences of students' poor performance and how this could lead to further disengagement from school.

Far too many students around the world are trapped in a vicious cycle of poor performance and demotivation that leads only to more bad marks and further disengagement from school.

Results from Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2012 show that more than one in four 15-year-old students in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries did not attain a baseline level of proficiency in at least one of the three core subjects PISA assesses: Reading, Mathematics and Science.

In absolute numbers, this means that about 13 million 15-year-old students in the 65 countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012 were low performers in at least one subject, and in some countries it is the majority of students. Even though Australian schools generally do well when compared internationally, the share of students not reaching the baseline level of performance is still one in five.

Poor performance at school has long-term consequences that are hard to compensate, both for individuals and nations. Students who perform poorly at age 15 face a high risk of dropping out of school altogether. And when a large share of the population lacks basic skills, a country's long-term economic growth is severely compromised.

In fact, the economic output that is lost because of poor education policies and practices leaves many countries in what amounts to a permanent state of economic recession – and one that can be larger and deeper than the one that resulted from the financial crisis at the beginning of the millennium, out of which many countries are still struggling to climb. Put the other way round, for lower-middle income countries, the discounted present value of economic future gains from ensuring that all 15-year-olds would at least reach the PISA baseline level of performance would be 13 times current GDP and would average out to a 28 per cent higher GDP over the next 80 years.

For upper-middle income countries, which generally show higher levels of learning outcomes, it would average out to a 16 per cent higher GDP. For Australia, the money lost because of one in five students not reaching the PISA baseline level of performance is about AUD $2000 billion over the working life of today's 15-year-olds. Imagine if teachers had those amounts at their disposal to improve learning outcomes.

Reducing the number of low-performing students is not only a goal in its own right but also an effective way to improve an education system's overall performance – and equity, since low performers are disproportionately from socio-economically disadvantaged families. Brazil, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Tunisia and Turkey, for example, improved their performance in mathematics between 2003 and 2012 by reducing the share of low performers in this subject.

Multiple risk factors acting in concert

Analyses show that poor performance at age 15 is not the result of any single risk factor, but rather of a combination and accumulation of various barriers and disadvantages that affect students throughout their lives. Who is most likely to be a low performer in Mathematics? On average across OECD countries, a socio-economically disadvantaged girl who lives in a single-parent family in a rural area, has an immigrant background, speaks a different language at home from the language of instruction, had not attended pre-primary school, had repeated a grade, and is enrolled in a vocational track has a 83 per cent probability of being a low performer.

While these background factors can affect all students, among low performers the combination of risk factors is much more detrimental to disadvantaged than to advantaged students. Indeed, all of the demographic characteristics considered in our report, as well as the lack of pre-primary education, increase the probability of low performance by a larger margin among disadvantaged than among advantaged students, on average across OECD countries. In contrast, only repeating a grade or enrolment in a vocational track have greater penalties for advantaged students. In other words, disadvantaged students tend not only to be encumbered with more risk factors, but those risk factors have a stronger impact on these students' performance.

Less positive attitudes towards school and learning

Low performers also tend to have less perseverance, motivation and self-confidence in Mathematics than better-performing students, and they skip classes or days of school more. Students who have skipped school at least once in the two weeks prior to the PISA test are almost three times more likely to be low performers in Mathematics than students who did not skip school.

Less supportive teachers and schools

Importantly, students attending schools where teachers are more supportive and have better morale are less likely to be low performers, while students whose teachers have low expectations for them and are absent more often are more likely to be low performers in mathematics, even after accounting for the socio-economic status of students and schools.

In addition, in schools with larger concentrations of low performers, the quality of educational resources is lower, and the incidence of teacher shortage is higher, on average across OECD countries, even after accounting for students' and schools' socio-economic status. In countries and economies where educational resources are distributed more equitably across schools, there is less incidence of low performance in Mathematics, and a larger share of top performers, even when comparing school systems whose educational resources are of similar quality.

The degree to which advantaged and disadvantaged students attend the same school (social inclusion) is more strongly related to smaller proportions of low performers in a school system than to larger proportions of top performers. These findings suggest that systems that distribute both educational resources and students more equitably across schools might benefit low performers without undermining better-performing students.

Policies that can help to break the cycle of disengagement and low performance

Given the extent to which the profile of low performers varies across countries, tackling low performance requires a multi-pronged approach, tailored to local circumstances[VR1] . An agenda to reduce the incidence of low performance should include several dimensions:

  • Dismantle the multiple barriers to learning.
  • Create demanding and supportive learning environments at school.
  • Provide remedial support as early as possible.
  • Encourage the involvement of parents and local communities.
  • Inspire students to make the most of available education opportunities.
  • Identify low performers and design a tailored policy strategy.
  • Provide targeted support to disadvantaged schools and/or families.
  • Offer special programmes for immigrant, minority-language and rural students.
  • Tackle gender stereotypes and assist single-parent families.
  • Reduce inequalities in access to early education and limit the use of student sorting.

Consider how your school identifies low performers. Do you have a tailored policy in place to assist these students?

In what ways does your school provide targeted support for disadvantaged families?

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