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Students work on math problems on Aug 27, 2012. Canada placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, in the latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. (MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Students work on math problems on Aug 27, 2012. Canada placed 13th overall in mathematics, down three spots from 2009 and six spots from 2006, in the latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. (MOE DOIRON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Globe editorial

Quebec adds, Canada subtracts on its math scores Add to ...

For the latest proof of how Canada is failing to effectively teach our students math, look no further than the results from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Nine countries outperformed Canada in the triennial survey, which measures how half a million 15-year-olds in 65 countries are doing in math, reading and science. In other words, Canadian students are near the top of the class, which is not bad at all. But the performance of this country’s students is getting worse, not better, particularly in math. Canada’s international math ranking has fallen since 2006.

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A “national emergency” is what John Manley, the CEO and president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, called the results. That may be a bit of an exaggeration – but only just. The OECD average math score is 494. Canadian students, with an average score of 518. are still ahead of most of the rest of the world. The American score, for example, is 481. Every Canadian province save for Prince Edward Island scores above the U.S. average.

But Canadian scores are falling. The needle is moving in the wrong direction. Canadian students are weaker in math, compared with their peers of a decade ago. And the PISA results echo the findings of other credible studies. This is a problem, and it’s growing. Mr. Manley and others are right to raise the red flag. Canada’s human capital – people – is this country’s most important resource, by far. Success in math is a fairly good predictor of a student’s future income. And the steady decline in Canada’s educational results, if left unchecked, will hinder Canada’s ability to create good jobs, increase labour productivity and raise living standards.

But there’s also good news. Canada’s declining performance in math isn’t equally distributed across the country. When results are broken down by province, there are shocking differences. And at the top of the class is Quebec.

While the math scores in most provinces were sliding over the past decade, Quebec’s already strong results held steady. Students in Quebec outperform their rest-of-Canada peers in every mathematical category. Quebec students ranked sixth in the world, tied with Japan and Macao, and ahead of the Netherlands.

There is no single, silver-bullet solution to solving the problem of declining math scores in the rest of the country, but Quebec is clearly doing something right. Exactly what is more than a matter of opinion. The OECD’s assessment teases out what appears to be working in those countries that perform best in the PISA survey. Quebec’s education system has a lot in common with them.

For example, students in the highest-performing East Asian countries – Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan top the charts – have more instruction in formal mathematics than elsewhere. Quebec schools, when compared with those in the rest of Canada, use more memorization and rote-learning, which has fallen out of fashion in other provinces, such as Ontario. There, the curriculum is more heavily tilted towards “discovery math,” in which students use their own learning styles to explore mathematics. Quebec has largely ignored the fad. The results suggest that was a wise decision.

Another finding suggests that high-performing countries tend to focus on increasing teacher quality, rather than decreasing class sizes. In Quebec, most teachers undergo four years of professional training – and they must demonstrate proficiency in math if they want to teach it. Other provinces have instead obsessed more over class sizes. (Quebec also caps classes, but does so at higher levels than other provinces.)

Quebec is also aggressively experimenting with technology in the classrooms. Using tablet computers, for example, to teach children spatial mathematics. Ten years ago, the Eastern Townships School Board had a 42-per-cent student dropout rate, and ranked 67th out of 69 boards in the province for academics. They bought 4,500 laptops and gave one to each student, from grades 3 to 10. Today its dropout rate has been cut in half, and it ranks 23rd.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that student achievement is a product of teaching and effort, rather than inherited intelligence or income. Quebec, remember, is a have-not province. The survey results show that the choices made by schools and teachers matter to learning outcomes. Canadian students can do better if Canadian schools do a better job of teaching them. And if the next generation of Canadians are to enjoy higher living standards, they must.

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