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WINNIPEG, MANITOBA - February 27, 2014 - Anna Stokke, a math professor at the University of Winnipeg, with three degrees, including a PhD in the subject, a husband who is also a mathematician, is photographed at the University in Winnipeg Thursday, February 27, 2014. After seeing first hand that the basic math needs of students were not being met in the current elementary curriculum she co-founded the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education. (John Woods for the Globe and Mail)JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail

Canada's falling math scores rank as one of the most alarming trends in our education system today. Results from the OECD's 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment revealed that students' grasp of mathematics in most provinces of the country is in steady decline. The findings have direct implications for Canadian students – success in math is a fairly good predictor of a student's future income – and also for Canada's future economic growth.

While Canadian student outcomes remain well above the OECD average, they could be better. The question is, how can Canadian students achieve higher results? Some of the most compelling clues lie in Quebec, which avoided the decline in mathematics scores experienced by the other provinces. Quebec students not only outperform their rest-of-Canada peers in math, they also outperform most of their peers around the world. Globally, students in Quebec ranked sixth, tied with Japan and Macao, and ahead of the Netherlands.

A recent report by the C.D. Howe Institute suggests one compelling reason for that: Quebec has the highest percentage of subsidized private schools in Canada, netting 20 per cent of the province's student enrolment. The report says the prevalence of private schools encourages competition among them and also forces public schools to raise their game. That competition lifts the academic performance of students in both school systems, the report finds.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that the rest of Canada should encourage private schools to emulate Quebec's results. As the C.D. Howe Institute rightly points out: "Were large numbers of socially advantaged families to abandon the public system, there would be a loss of parental oversight" and "greater disparity between more and less advantaged students. The United States arguably suffers from this dynamic."

While private schools have a role to play, strengthening provincial public schools holds much more promise. Maintaining generous teacher pay, requiring schools to post academic results to nurture accountability, and retooling provincial math curriculum away from discovery learning are good starting points. The reversal of Canada's sinking test scores won't happen overnight. But if nothing is done, it won't happen at all.