Here's some bad news from the world of education: Math scores are in decline across Canada. Just as kids in Poland and Portugal and other formerly disadvantaged countries are taking great leaps forward, ours are going backward. Our high schools are graduating kids who have failed to grasp the fundamentals, and our universities are full of students who are struggling to master material they should have learned in high school.
What's gone wrong isn't a mystery. For the past decade and more, school systems across the country have been performing a vast experiment on your children. They have discarded "rote" learning in favour of "discovery," a process by which students are supposed to come up with their own solutions to the mysteries of arithmetic. There's ample evidence that this approach leaves millions of kids (to say nothing of their parents) baffled and confused, and it is being abandoned in large parts of the United States. This has not deterred legions of Canadian education theorists and consultants from pressing on. Perhaps they're secretly in league with Kumon and Sylvan to drum up business.
Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals thinks she knows why scores are slipping. Most elementary school teachers have backgrounds in the liberal arts. Their acquaintance with math is sketchy at best. (Ms. Sandals, no slouch with numbers, has a masters degree in math.) And teachers' college doesn't give them enough grounding. "We need to deal with math so that the teachers have the same comfort level with teaching math that they do with reading and writing," she said last week.
Actually, the problem is much deeper than that. The teachers may be clueless, but the methods they're supposed to use are bound to fail. The curriculum has downgraded arithmetic to near-invisibility. The "progressive" approach to instruction guarantees that many students will not master basic skills, will not understand fractions, will not learn to multiply or divide two-digit numbers on their own. After all, that's what calculators are for!
"Provincial curriculum guides and math textbooks have been systematically expunged of the standard algorithms," Manitoba teacher Michael Zwaagstra, a leading education critic, told me. An algorithm is simply a rule that tells you how to do stuff. For example, how do you add 2,368 and 9,417? If you learned the standard way, you'll stack the numbers and start adding from the right: 8+7=15, carry the 1 and so on.
That may be efficient, but it's hopelessly uncreative. With "discovery" math, kids are encouraged to reinvent the wheel by, say, starting on the left, adding the thousands, then the hundreds, then the tens and ones, and adding them all up at the end. Then they have to write a story about how they got the answer. Needless to say, this takes a whole lot longer.
The trouble is that math is built on fundamentals. If you miss a building block, you're likely to become progressively confused. To make things worse, the current practice of social promotion – moving kids from grade to grade even if they're hopelessly at sea – guarantees that armies of youngsters whose parents can't afford Kumon will be left in the dark. So much for equality in education.
For years, math professors at our leading universities have been telling elementary and high-school educators that their methods don't work. But the educators and the teachers' colleges have refused to listen. After all, what do the professors know? They're just math geeks. They have no idea how to teach children. As a consequence, there is now an almost total disconnect between the math that's taught in most schools and the math that students need in university or the real world in order to succeed. It's notable that educators in Eastern Europe and Asia, in particular, are astounded by what they've seen happening in North America.
So maybe those sinking test scores are a good thing. The education establishment may be immune to public pressure, but politicians are not. In Manitoba, where math professors and parents have been up in arms, the government has announced a bold new policy – it's bringing back arithmetic! "Let's face it," Education Minister Nancy Allan told the Winnipeg Free Press, "doing math in your head is important."
As for parents who don't live in Manitoba, not all is lost. You can lobby, too. You can look up the Khan Academy on YouTube, which offers very good instructional videos for free. Or there's Kumon and its ilk. Wouldn't it be nice if our schools could put them out of business?