Book Review

Against the Odds: How 'At-Risk' Children Exceed Expectations

Reviewed by Brian L. Benzel
Chief Operating Officer, Seattle Public Schools, Seattle, Wash.


In Against the Odds, Janine Bempechat combines her five-year study of more than 1,000 multiethnic 5th and 6th graders with a strong dose of personal experience and values to challenge prevailing notions about student success. Bempechat, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, studied successful students to identify actions schools and families can take to help students reach their full potential.

Student beliefs about effort and ability form a fundamental foundation for academic success. While Bempechat chronicles differences about how various ethnic groups look at effort or ability, she found that "across all groups, students who were higher achievers tended to credit success with their innate ability and tended not to blame failure on lack of ability."

Her study also found that regardless of ethnicity, all children report that their parents intervene in important ways when their children’s performance is low. The key question for educators, then, is to identify strategies that will positively affect the way children think about success and failure.

Bempechat’s research examined performance results for children in both public and Catholic schools. The study found that "the overall pedagogical philosophy of Catholic schools is one that leads children to believe in their intellectual abilities and strive for academic excellence." This benefit was especially noticeable in the increased academic success of African American and Latino students in Catholic schools.

(Against the Odds: How 'At-Risk' Children Exceed Expectations, by Janine Bempechat, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, Calif., 224 pp. with index)