I Am Poor. What Would Help Me Succeed in School?

Poverty crushes education. However, it is also true that there are poor children who succeed in school. For instance, I am an anecdote. I am one hundred percent sure that there are other examples. Citing several anecdotes, however, is not the same as data for one simple reason. We already know that these are exceptions. Nonetheless, examining these exceptions with an appropriate objective can be meaningful. A paper published in Comparative Education Review: "Against All Odds: Outstanding Reading Performance among Chilean Youth in Vulnerable Conditions" by Gabriela Gomez Vera, Juan Pablo Valenzuela, and Carmen Sotomayor, looks at characteristics in households, students and schools that correlate with scores of poor children in an international standardized reading exam.

The educational system in Chile represents one of the most socio-economic segregated schools in the world. Paying attention to scores of students from Chile therefore provides a good set of data to explore what characterizes poor children who manage to beat the odds in school. In the PISA Reading exam of 2009, about a third (384 students) of children in the lowest socioeconomic quartile (1096 students) who took the exam, managed to score at or above the national average. These students are considered "resilient". Several characteristics for these "resilient" and "nonresilient" children are then examined to reveal what factors correlate with higher reading scores. These are some of the characteristics found to correlate with "resilient" students:

  • There are more girls
  • They often belong to a family where the mother stays at home
  • They tend to have parents who are more educated
  • They are less likely to live in a single-parent household
  • They prefer to read nonfiction over fiction
  • They enjoy reading
School factors, like class size, positive climate, and teacher's encouragement are also considered but these turn out to be not strongly correlated with student performance. The following lists the factors examined. The green ones positively correlate with resiliency while the red ones negatively correlate. The font size roughly indicates how strong the odds are for a student to be resilient (green) or nonresilient (red).

One must keep in mind that these are mere correlations. However, by reflecting on the above factors that correlate strongly with student performance, it is likewise reasonable to infer that these are beyond correlations.