Canadian students could be forgiven if after last week, they'd like a break from math class. No longer top of the charts internationally and with fewer high achievers, they – and their teachers – are under intense national scrutiny. Will they work harder or buckle under the pressure?
Well, the OECD has an answer to that: Eight per cent of them will work harder. That's the percentage of Canadian students it defines as "resilient," able to show grit in tough circumstances. The OECD's technical definition of resilience is being in the bottom quarter on a national socio-economic index but performing in the top quarter in achievement.
Across OECD countries, over six per cent of students fall in this category. In the top scoring Asian countries (and Vietnam and Switzerland) between 15 and almost 20 per cent of students are resilient; in Latin America, many countries have fewer than 2 per cent. Among Canadian students, resilience is highest among students in Quebec and lowest in P.E.I., findings which match the top and bottom provincial scores.
(Compare this to Brazil, where many regions have under 1 per cent of students managing to overcome their background.)
Is resilience a byproduct of statistics? The OECD has long lauded Canada for being better than most countries at narrowing achievement differences between poor and rich students. Our low achievers are not concentrated among disadvantaged students, they're found in all economic groups. Focusing on resilience is another way to talk about equity – one that turns the lens to the students themselves rather than the impact of the system. After all, investing in measures that encourage resilience by definition means that each dollar up front is targeted at narrowing the gap.
How is resilience measured in individual students? The OECD has an answer to that too. A resilient student behaves the same way as an "advantaged high-achiever:" They have high levels of perseverance and intrinsic motivation. They show up for class and don't like to be late. In Canada, half of disadvantaged low-achievers (students who perform as well as could be expected given bad circumstances) report being late or skipping school – only about a third of resilient students do the same. Indeed, the resilient among our students are about 1 per cent more conscientious than their privileged classmates. In the top scoring countries? Only a fifth of resilient students report occasionally sleeping in.
Among positive attitudes demonstrated by resilient students, students who do well in math believe they are able to achieve. There is no evidence in the OECD commentary that confidence has anything but a good effect on test scores. In fact, math anxiety is slightly higher among disadvantaged high achievers – but they persist. If our kids' self-esteem needs a boost in one area, this is a pretty good one in which to practise positive feedback.
When the initial wave of results came out, skeptics pointed out that Shanghai, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei are not China. As one widely invoked Brookings Institute study found earlier this year, parents in Shanghai invest as much in their kids' weekend tutoring and activities as the annual average wages of a Chinese worker. That may be so, but the findings on resilience reveal something else.
Even when parents cannot spend a lot on their children's education, some countries' students are better than others at not allowing their destiny to be set at birth. Focusing efforts to increase learning among students of little means but huge promise is likely to pay outsized dividends.
Simona Chiose is the The Globe and Mail's education editor. You can follow her on Twitter.