01/04/2013 05:50 pm ET Updated Mar 06, 2013

What Do Students Think About School?

Everyone knows what parents and the general public think about school. The media talk about it every day. But what do the ones who are at the receiving end think, namely students? PISA tried to find out. Specifically, PISA sought to find out whether 15-year-olds feel that what they have learned in school is useful for them, both in the immediate and for their futures. The assessment asked students, for example, whether school has prepared them for adult life when they leave school or whether they think that school has been a waste of time; and whether school has helped to give them confidence to make decisions.

Across OECD countries, less than one in ten students reported that they think school has been a waste of time (9 percent). The great majority of students think that school has taught them things that could be useful in a job (88 percent). Still three out of four students reported that school helped to give them confidence to make decisions (74 percent). Spanish students are not different from this general trend.

In Spain and most other countries, students who think school is useful are more likely to have high PISA scores in reading, and students who have high scores in reading tend to report that they think school is useful.

In all participating countries, students' positive attitudes towards schooling are also related to positive attitudes towards their teachers. Students who reported that they get along well with their teachers, that most of their teachers are interested in their well-being, that most of their teachers listen to what they have to say, that, if they need extra help, they will receive it from their teachers, and that most of their teachers treat them fairly also tended to report that what they learn in school is useful. Even after accounting for various student and school characteristics, this positive relationship is observed in all participating countries.

Students' views on whether their classes are conducive for learning or not are also related to their attitudes towards school. Students who reported that, during their lessons, students don't listen to what the teacher says, there is noise and disorder, the teacher has to wait a long time for students to quieten down, students cannot work well, and students don't start working for a long time after the lesson begins tend to think that school is not useful for them or for their future. Such associations are most likely to be mutually reinforcing: Students who have good relationships with their teachers and who study in classes that are conducive to learning will think that school is useful -- and their positive attitudes makes the climate at school even better.

In 21 out of 65 participating countries, socio-economically advantaged students tended to report more positive attitudes towards school, while the opposite is observed in 9 countries. In 18 of 49 countries with comparable data, students with immigrant backgrounds tended to report more positive attitudes towards school than native students. The opposite is reported only in Brazil, Israel, Lithuania, Mexico and Panama.

Across OECD countries, when various background characteristics of students (gender, socio-economic and immigrant background) and schools (school type, size, programme orientation and location) are considered all together, only 2 percent of the overall variation in students' attitudes towards school is accounted for. But when school climate (student-teacher relations and disciplinary climate) are considered in addition, 20 percent of the variation in students' attitudes is accounted for. This means that student and school characteristics have only a very weak relationship with students' attitudes towards school, while school climate has a strong relationship.

All in all, students' attitudes towards schooling and their reading performance are mutually reinforcing, as are their attitudes towards schooling and the atmosphere in the classroom. This means that, to some extent, students' own attitudes can shape their individual learning experiences.