What do your parents do for a living? (and should it matter?)

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Does where you come from really tell you anything about where you’re going? When it comes to parents’ occupations and students’ performance, the answer is a qualified ‘yes’ – but it also depends on where, geographically, you go to school.

Intrigued? PISA is unveiling a web-based, interactive tool (occupations@pisa2012) that allows anyone to explore and compare the relationship between student performance in reading, mathematics and science and parents’ occupations in PISA-participating countries and economies.

The tool is based on results from PISA 2012. Among many other questions concerning students’ backgrounds, PISA asked participating students what their parents did for a living. Their responses were then coded into an internationally comparable classification that allows for identifying individuals working in similar industries, on similar tasks, with the same types of responsibilities. As this month’s PISA in Focus reveals, students whose parents work in professional occupations generally outperform other students in mathematics, while students whose parents work in elementary occupations tend to underachieve compared to their peers.

PISA shows that in the United States and the United Kingdom, where professionals are among the highest-paid in the world, students whose parents work as professionals do not perform as well in mathematics as children of professionals in other countries – nor do they perform as well as the children in Shanghai-China and Singapore whose parents work in manual occupations.

Results also show that, while France and New Zealand perform around the OECD average in mathematics, the performance gap between the children of skilled workers and those of unskilled workers is among the largest observed in participating countries and economies. By contrast, the relative high performance of Finland, Hong-Kong and Korea stems from the fact that the difference in mathematics performance between children of skilled and unskilled workers is relatively small. You’ll also see that Germany is not among PISA’s strongest performers overall because, while the children of professionals in Germany are among the world’s best performers in mathematics, students whose parents work in manual occupations perform very poorly, and these families make up a large share of the country’s total population.

This all boils down to a relatively simple message: if school systems want all of their students to succeed in school, they should give the children of factory workers and cleaners the same education opportunities that the children of doctors and lawyers enjoy.

PISA 2012 Results
PISA in Focus No. 36: Do parents’ occupations have an impact on student performance?

Photo Credit: Small Boy with Businessman Looking at Board with Mathematics Formulas / @Shutterstock


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