Doug Ford's simplistic solution to declining math scores won't work
Last month, when Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government was being lambasted over its return to an outdated sex education curriculum, Premier Doug Ford tried to pivot to another issue in education: declining math scores.
When asked in the legislature about human rights lawyers launching legal action against the government over sex education, Ford responded: “More important are the math tests.”
“When half our students are failing math,” he continued, “we have an issue.”
He’s actually not wrong, about that last bit anyway. Ontario schools do have a problem with math.
The percentage of students in Grades 3 and 6 who meet the provincial math standard has declined over the past five years. Now, only 49 per cent of Grade 6 students are meeting the standard, down from 54 per cent. Grade 3 results weren’t as bad, with 61 per cent of students meeting the standard. But even that is down from 67 per cent.
Fluency in math is a prerequisite for careers in the sciences, technology, engineering and many other fields. Indeed, math has been identified as important to more than half of Ontario’s future job openings.
And we know that when students struggle with math at a young age they don’t catch up later on. In fact, they fall farther behind. That means declining math scores are bad news, not just for the future of Ontario students but for the future of the province in a competitive global economy. This needs to be turned around.
But Ford’s simplistic solution — essentially going back to teaching basic math by memorization — isn’t a magic fix for all that ails elementary school math classes.
A report released this week by the Institute for Competitiveness & Prosperity points to a problem that starts even before teachers arrive in an elementary school.
Only about 20 per cent of the teachers standing at the head of those Grade 3 and 6 classes have taken a math course themselves since high school, according to the report. And, it notes, Ontario has far fewer teachers with a math major than other comparable North American jurisdictions.
It can’t be good to have so many teachers, especially in the younger grades where they often teach the entire curriculum, to have so little grounding (and therefore so little comfort) in math.
Identifying math phobia among teachers as one of the factors in student’s poor math scores, the previous Liberal government provided funding for teachers to voluntarily upgrade their math skills. But that had limited effect, for the simple reason that those who aren’t comfortable with math generally handle that by avoiding it. Ontario needs to do more to ensure this cycle doesn’t continue.
That’s why the institute’s call for a basic math course to be a mandatory requirement for all elementary student teachers during their university training is a sensible one.
The amount of university training time spent on math for elementary school teachers varies widely, but the bulk of it is focused on learning how to teach the subject — not necessarily ensuring they have a solid grasp of math itself. And evidence from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto is that many do not. That’s why OISE has decided to include a mandatory course this fall focusing on math basics for first-year teacher candidates.
Regardless of what changes the Ford government makes to the math curriculum, students are destined to struggle if their teachers aren’t confident with the subject.
It’s unfortunate that the Ford PCs have already set this up as a simplistic battle — like sex education — between new and old. In that view, the new math curriculum introduced by the Liberals is bad and the old-fashioned way of doing things was good.
The idea that simply returning to an early era of teaching math though rote learning — memorizing and repeated practising — will suddenly turn Ontario students into math leaders is hogwash. If math education used to be so great, why do so many parents feel they don’t understand math well enough to help their elementary-school kids with their homework?
Ontario’s current curriculum tries to strike a balance by emphasizing both practice and memorization along with inquiry-based math, which involves problem-solving and investigation. The education ministry has said that if students aren’t asked to apply the math they’ve learned by rote through problem-solving, the facts fade from memory. And then they have a hard time when math gets more complicated.
We’ve long known through standardized testing that math is a perennial problem in Ontario elementary schools and the Wynne government made several changes to address the problem. Those moves have not resulted in the necessary improvements. So it seems more change is needed, possibly to the curriculum itself and certainly to the way teachers are trained and prepared to deliver math classes.
But given that the PCs have already made such a mess of sex education and started a war with teachers by setting up a so-called snitch line, it seems too much to hope the Ford government can approach this important issue in a way that puts kids, not politics, first.
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