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American principals think their students are underprivileged
OECD's survey results show that American principals are more likely than any other nationality to believe that a majority of their students are disadvantaged. - photo by Nicole Shepard, OECD

American principals believe their student populations are more economically disadvantaged than they actually are, according to a new study released by the OECD.

“More so than any of the other 29 countries in the study, principals in American schools believe that many of their students come from socio-economically disadvantaged homes,” David Leonhardt of The New York Times wrote.

More American principals see their students as socio-economically disadvantaged than those in Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico and Romania.

OECD conducted the survey because, “Compensating for students’ socio-economic disadvantage is one of the greatest challenges facing teachers, school leaders and education systems as a whole,” the research said.

The survey found that over 60 percent of American principals believe that over 30 percent of their student body lives below the poverty line, when in reality the number is closer to 13 percent.

The U.S. is not the only well-off country to assume its student population is set up for failure due to poverty. France and Israel both have relatively low levels of poverty in their schools at 11 and 7 percent respectively. France and Israel both assumed that around 45 percent of their students were socio-economically disadvantaged.

When compared to Brazil’s 58 percent and Mexico’s 56 percent living in poverty, the U.S. and Israel look well-off.
“A child considered poor in the United States or Israel may be regarded as relatively wealthy in another country,” Andreas Schleicher, head of OECD’s PISA testing, said. “But the fact that the perceived problem of socio-economic disadvantage among students is so much greater in the United States — and in France too — than the actual backgrounds of students also suggests that what school principals in some countries consider to be social disadvantage would not be considered such in others.”

The fact that poverty functions differently in America than it does in Malaysia or Brazil isn’t lost on OECD. Schleicher’s concern is in line with what former President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

“The problem may not be the poverty itself,” Schleicher said, “but the perception of it. The expectation of students living in poverty is that they aren’t likely to succeed. When this is the assumption, educators try less. This attitude toward students erodes the effectiveness of education.”

EMAIL: TWITTER: @NicoleEShepard