The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedent challenge that caught unprepared the health systems of all countries of the world and, at the same time, is exerting devastating consequences on social, economic and educational systems. It is still too early to measure the extent of this negative impact in increasing inequalities and more generally in worsening the living conditions of a large share of the world population. Some data from pre-COVID periods, however, can help in setting expectations.
Focusing on the education systems, the forced closure of schools and the use, sometimes without adequate training, of online teaching likely led to both a decline in students’ mental health and physical fitness and to a significant reduction in knowledge and skills of students (the so-called “learning loss”). As it is easy to suppose, learning loss has affected disadvantaged students to a greater extent, precisely those students for whom the school was, and still is, a lifeline and an instrument of integration and social mobility.
A recent McKinsey survey has highlighted that learning loss is global and significant and, at same time, the report has showed that “teachers in schools where more than 80 percent of students live in households under the poverty line reported an average of 2.5 months of learning loss, compared with a reported loss of 1.6 months in schools where more than 80 percent of students live in households above the poverty line.” If the advent of the pandemic causes the worsening of the educational gap between rich and poor students, it is particularly timely to identify the tools and policies that can help school systems to bridge the gap between students from different social backgrounds.
A thriving stream of research emerged in the last years that analyses the educational resilience, i.e., the ability of students to “beat the odds”. In details, resilient students are the ones who achieve good education outcomes despite their disadvantaged socio-economic background.
The concept of resilience has a double value. On one hand, it allows to investigate the student and school-level factors that allow to reduce the academic gap related to the differences of social background. On the other hand, resilience can be considered a synthetic measure that expresses the quality of a school system both in terms of performance, the ability to achieve high levels of skills and knowledge, and in terms of equity, i.e. the reduction of disparities in academic achievement between students of the same class, school, region or country.
In a recent OECD study (OECD, 2018), students are considered as resilient if they are among the 25% most socio-economically disadvantaged students in their country and, at the same time, achieve the (baseline) PISA proficiency level 3 or above in all three PISA domains – reading, mathematics and science.
By applying the definition of resilience to the data of the latest edition of PISA (2018) and focusing the analysis on the 27 countries of the European Union, it is observed that the top performer European countries such as Estonia, Finland, Ireland are also countries with a share of disadvantaged students who can be considered resilient above 30% (figure 1).
Similarly, figure 2 shows the by country variation in the share of resilient students with respect to the effect of socio-economic background on academic achievement, it is noted that the same countries with high shares of resilient students are those where the effect of social background (expressed from the slope of the PISA index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status – ESCS- index) on performance is lower.
But what are the factors that support the resilience? Is it possible to explore significant relationships between school characteristics and the likelihood of being resilient? In other words, are there educational factors that play the role of catalysts of academic resilience?
The considerable amount of information collected by PISA allows to explore these potential associations and, as underlined by some studies conducted on the data of the last editions, it is possible to positively answer these questions. A recent study analyses the academic resilience in 18 OECD countries (Agasisti et al., 2021) and the main findings show that school policies and practices can influence the probability of disadvantaged students to obtain good academic results, meaning that student resilience is not only determined by the background of individual students, but also by the schools they attend.
The strongest relationship is observed between resilience and the PISA index of school disciplinary climate. In schools where the index differs by one unit the odds of resilience differs by a factor of 3 (figure 3). In addition, the share of students who did not skip any days of schools over the two weeks prior to the PISA test is associated with very significant increases in the likelihood of disadvantaged students being resilient. The strong influence of disciplinary climate and truancy is worth of specific attention. School principals and teachers should devote more attention to these aspects, which must be considered as essential moderators of individual chances of academic success. One possible action could be to include topics related to self-control, self-awareness, respect and collaborative work in curricula – eventually, within the broader spectrum of competences related with citizenship, which are gradually inserted as part of ordinary curricula in many countries. Another (potentially complementary) avenue is to provide more frequent feedback about students’ behaviour to students and their families. Another association with the likelihood of schools promoting student resilience is found with the amount of instructional time, an aspect of the school resources. In particular, the amount of instruction time in reading, mathematics and science has a positive association with the likelihood of resilience; the same association is with the number of extracurricular activities offered in the school. In contrast, the ratio of computers to students, intended as a proxy for the amount of facilities and non-human resources, has no relationship with student resiliency.
Straightforward policies follow from here, namely the allocation of financial, structural and human resources to expand the educational opportunities offered to the disadvantaged students. More hours dedicated to learning key subjects, and/or to engage with other educationally-related activities (play an instrument, chess, reading clubs, theatre etc.) are likely to produce direct and indirect benefits to the academic abilities of disadvantaged students. Governments could create targeted funds for these initiatives, and schools could creatively propose specific interventions for implementing targeted initiatives in their schools. Moreover, school principals could also try to engage local partners (foundations, associations and clubs) for expanding the volume and variety of initiatives and experiences that can be offered in addition to the ordinary instructional time to the most disadvantaged students, who rarely have access to such opportunities outside of school.
Overall, the message that can be derived from the findings is encouraging. Disadvantaged students, with the right support, can succeed academically and schools can play a key role in mitigating the risk of low achievement for disadvantaged students. This means that although resilience is a property of individuals, education policies and school practices can greatly reduce the vulnerability of disadvantaged students and enable resilience as a result.
Agasisti, T., Avvisati, F., Borgonovi, F., & Longobardi, S. (2021). What School Factors are Associated with the Success of Socio-Economically Disadvantaged Students? An Empirical Investigation Using PISA Data. Social Indicators Research, 1-33.
OECD. 2018. Equity in Education: Breaking Down Barriers to Social Mobility. PISA, Paris: OECD Publishing.