The latest decline in math test scores for Ontario schoolchildren should be taken as a wake-up call that new approaches to teaching a fundamental subject are failing and need retooling. Like many jurisdictions around the world, Ontario has been shifting its math curriculum to place more emphasis on problem-solving techniques, real-world applications and greater creativity. Countries doing it well have developed students who are more engaged with math and better prepared for the modern workplace.
The concern is the execution – getting the curriculum right so that there is a good balance between teaching creativity and core math basics, and getting the instruction right to ensure teachers are capable of handling a more difficult teaching method. Many parents worry the pendulum has landed too far in one direction, with students so focused on creativity that they are not getting a firm grasp of math basics. Parents complain about spending frustrating hours overseeing math homework that requires the writing of flowery paragraphs on contrived ways to solve basic math functions, while their children can’t multiply one-digit numbers.
Their concerns will not be assuaged by scores unveiled this week in Ontario on standardized testing conducted on students in grades three, six and nine. Encouragingly, literacy skills – reading and writing – improved, with 68 per cent of Grade 3 students and 77 per cent of Grade 6 students meeting the provincial reading standards. The concern is the math scores, which have fallen sharply for students in grades three and six for five years running, while improving for those in Grade 9. Only 57 per cent of Ontario’s Grade 6 students met the provincial standard in testing this year, a decline from 63 per cent in 2009.
Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals said Wednesday the problem is that teachers need stronger backgrounds in math, arguing most typically having arts degrees and are not comfortable with math and science. But teacher demographics haven’t changed dramatically in five years, and test scores have. A more obvious culprit is the provincial curriculum and the way teachers are trained to use it.
There is room in the education system for more teaching of basic skills – including rote learning of times tables – and for limits on calculators in early grade classrooms. Educators can offer strong justifications for the new math philosophy, but they must not become so defensive that they ignore concrete signs that the current curriculum is not achieving its goals. The subject is too critical to individual and national success to allow a worrying trend to continue unchecked.