What can schools and teachers do to nurture high-achieving students?

Older male teacher wearing face mask helping high school student with his work at the student's desk

By Gabor Fulop

Statistician, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic not only caused unprecedented disruption in education, but it also acted as a stark reminder of a long-known truth about what makes a high-achieving student: that abilities and attitudes, as well as family background and support, matter for student achievement. When schools were closed, the learning losses for students with the right motivation, access to alternative learning methods and parental support were limited compared to peers who didn’t have access to digital learning resources, lacked support by their parents, or were simply less resilient and less motivated to learn on their own.

Yet, the pandemic also reminded parents and students of the important role teachers and schools play. Many parents came face-to-face with the complexity of a teacher’s job, which not only requires know-how, but also a lot of patience. At the same time, students also realised how much more effective learning is with the guidance of their teachers, as well as the importance of being in close contact with their classmates.

But what are the specific characteristics and actions of teachers and school leaders that matter most for student achievement?

By applying a machine learning technique to a dataset that combines two large international surveys, we can go some way to answering this question. The two surveys in question are the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), which asks teachers and school leaders about their working conditions and learning environments, and the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses the cognitive and social-emotional skills of 15-year-old students. We call this the TALIS-PISA link.

OECD analysis highlights three key areas that should be addressed to help nurture high-achieving students: teachers’ classroom practices, teachers’ well-being and job satisfaction, and the composition of classrooms

Notably, analysis of these data highlights three key areas that should be addressed in education systems’  quest to nurture high-achieving students: teachers’ classroom practices, in particular the time spent on learning in class, teachers’ well-being and job satisfaction, and the composition of classrooms.

Make the most of teachers’ class time

What is likely already known anecdotally is reflected in the data: that students tend to perform better on average when more class time is dedicated to actual teaching and learning. It seems evident that students benefit from spending their lessons learning, rather than, for instance, watching their teacher trying to keep order in the classroom. Disciplinary issues or administrative tasks are usually the main time sucks, and in fact, the more disruptive a classroom is, the more likely it is to have lower-achieving students, which in turn leads to more time spent on other tasks such as keeping order or administration.

In order to maximise the class time spent on teaching and learning, teachers and school leaders could find alternative ways of dealing with administrative tasks and novel ways to improve relationships with students who are more likely to disturb classes. In particular, teachers’ involvement in extracurricular activities with their students might be an effective way to improve the disciplinary climate.

Pay attention to teachers’ job satisfaction

An interesting finding that may also be felt among teachers (but perhaps forgotten by education authorities) is that the more satisfied teachers are with their work environment, the better students tend to perform in school. While it is also possible that teachers are particularly satisfied when they work in schools attended by high-achieving students, the data nevertheless point to the likelihood that teachers’ satisfaction with their work environment plays a role in their attitudes, efforts and commitment, which in turn can lead to better performance.

School leaders and educational authorities could take advantage of this by reviewing working conditions – in consultation with teachers – in order to identify the areas that need to be improved. Notably, school leaders can foster collaboration among teachers, grant teachers more autonomy over their work as well as involve them in school decision making.

Optimise class grouping

It isn’t just the teacher at the head of the class that can influence a student’s academic performance, but also the classmates surrounding them. The data we collected indicate that as the average concentration of academically gifted students in the classroom increases, students tend to perform better. This may simply signal that academically gifted students, who fulfil their potential and become high achievers, are likely to attend schools where other students also tend to be high achievers. Yet, a student’s performance can be also positively affected by classmates with higher innate ability through an increase in motivation, competition and career aspirations.

Schools could optimise the way students are grouped within classes in a way that is more profitable to the most fragile students without being detrimental to the strongest ones. Schools should strive to spread out both students with disadvantaged socio-economic background and academically gifted students as equally as possible across classes.

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Photo: Shutterstock/Halfpoint