The news that the math performance of Canadian 15-year-olds is continuing its steady decline, dropping to 13th spot in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, has sparked a flurry of comment. The results are "on the scale of a national emergency," according to John Manley, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.
Concerns were no doubt deepened by the results of Canada's most formidable economic competitors: 30 per cent of Asian students performed at the "high achieving" level in math, compared with 16 per cent of Canadian students.
This PISA study, which tracks students in 65 countries, focused on math, but Canadian students are also showing a drop in science. In 2006 PISA testing, Canada ranked third in science; now it sits in eighth, according to the latest report. This isn't surprising, given that math skills are fundamental to understanding science.
How do we reverse this downward spiral? Fundamentally, education consists of what is taught (curriculum), how it's taught (methodology) and who teaches it (teacher competence). Each component is crucial to learning. Curriculum and methodology are closely linked, so it's no coincidence that the decline in PISA rankings follows the introduction of various forms of "discovery learning" in most of Canada.
Tellingly, the poor math scores of students in those provinces increased by an average of 46 per cent from the 2003 PISA tests, while the high-achieving group shrank by 30 per cent. Quebec is the only province where PISA results have held steady since 2003, and like the top-performing Asians, it's also the province that has shunned discovery learning in favour of basic math drills and scientific facts.
Rather than requiring students to memorize multiplication tables and scientific formulas, discovery learning promotes "investigating ideas" through problem solving and open-ended investigations. Taken to its full extent, under this philosophy, math and science questions that require numerical answers become essays on how the student "thought" about the question.
The B.C. Ministry of Education released a discussion paper last year criticizing the current curriculum for focusing on "what [students] learn over how they learn, which is exactly the opposite of what modern education should strive to do."
If you suspect this destructive teaching fad was designed by math- and science-phobic humanities graduates, your suspicions are well founded, considering that only a small portion of Canadian teachers and school administrators have significant postsecondary math and science training.
University of Winnipeg mathematics professor Anna Stokke has summed up the folly of discovery learning: "If they don't know their math facts, they won't be able to do algebra, which means calculus is out, which means they can't be engineers, doctors, pharmacists, economists, programmers or any other discipline that requires math, including skilled trades work. But the one thing they can become? Teachers."
This leads to the other key factor in education: teaching quality. Harvard economics professor Raj Chetty co-authored a study, "The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers," which U.S. President Barack Obama cited in his 2012 State of the Union address. The study found that when a "high value-added" teacher (an assessment based on student test scores) entered a school, test scores in his or her classes rose almost immediately. Students assigned to high value-added teachers are more likely to go to university and earn higher incomes, the study found. It also found that replacing a low value-added teacher with one of average quality increased future earnings by more than $1.4-million (U.S.) per class taught. Those findings have spurred U.S. efforts to better evaluate teachers. Twelve states, for example, now assess teachers based on their students' standardized test scores.
Canadian parents, educators and employers must insist that math and science teaching return to fact-based learning. But that won't help much unless skilled and effective teachers replace those whose qualifications are measured only by years of seniority. Failure to take decisive action will see the future of Canadian students and the prosperity of the country continue to slide on the same uncompetitive course as these PISA rankings.