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Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No.WP18/2018

Publication date: November 2018

Poverty is considered a risk factor that jeopardizes children’s academic performance. However, even in high-poverty contexts there are students who manage to achieve consistently good academic results. This paper uses a resilience framework to identify and describe the characteristics of students from South African rural and township primary schools who perform above demographic expectations in reading comprehension. We use a rich longitudinal dataset of over 2600 Grade 6 students that contains information on institutional and individual protective factors, including students’ socio-emotional skills (perseverance, aspirations, and attitudes toward school). The longitudinal dimension of the data provides a unique opportunity to not only identify consistently higher achievers, but also students whose literacy skills improved significantly more than their peers during a school year. After accounting for differences in socio-economic status and other home background factors such as English language exposure, we find that resilient students differ significantly from their lower-achieving peers along various dimensions. Students’ socio-emotional skills emerge as particularly strong correlates of academic resilience. Although individual-level protective factors appear to be the strongest determinants of academic resilience, classroom factors such time-on-task and the availability of texts also play an important role. These findings add to our understanding of factors associated with academic success in challenging contexts.

JEL Classification:
J20; J24; J25

Student achievement, Exceptional performance, Literacy, South Africa