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Unexpected Pathways Through Education: Why Do Some Students Not Succeed in School and What Helps Others Beat the Odds?


  • This work has been supported by Center for the Analysis of Pathways from Childhood to Adulthood (CAPCA), funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant 0322356), by the W. T. Grant Foundation, and by NICHD Grant R01-HD33437.

*Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Leon Feinstein, University of London, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London, WC1H 0AL, UK [e-mail:].


In this overview of Volume 64, Issue 1, of theJournal of Social Issues, we describe why it is important to consider the diversity of student pathways through time and in context and why it is important to focus particularly on youth who defy predictions. We describe the ways in which expectations are formed in statistical analysis and also in real-world education systems and how the structural rigidity inherent in such systems can lead to poor person–environment fit for young people in education or training and to misleading statistical analysis. Our intention is to move beyond analytic approaches that assume “one size fits all” while recognizing both that policy cannot provide fully individualized environments for everyone and that research cannot focus only on the unique characteristics of each individual. By focusing on individuals for whom our models typically do not apply, we highlight the value of research on complex but meaningful patterns of commonality among people, not in terms of the average person or effects, but in terms of coherent, distinct, and relatively homogenous subgroups of people experiencing systematic and consequential differences in their lives and lifepaths.