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Defense of math curriculum doesn’t add up

Only the worst of new-math calculations would fail to reveal Ontario’s continuing downward spiral in mathematical skills.

A report released this week by Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) is the most recent study to document the trend.

The study tracked students as they advanced through Ontario’s four provincial tests from 2004 to 2012. This cohort tracking shows that the majority of students are developing solid reading, writing and math skills by the time they are in high school. However, the majority of those who aren’t have a trait in common: they also struggled in elementary school. That was most apparent with math.

Overall, slightly more than half of the students enrolled in the Grade 9 applied mathematics course did not meet the provincial standard (52 per cent, or 15,530 students). The majority of these students (60 per cent, or 9,331 students) had not met the provincial standard in mathematics in Grade 3 and also had not in Grade 6.

Increasingly, those with a real understanding of math and science are pointing the finger at how math is taught to young children. Terms like “self-actualized,” “inquiry-based” and “self-discovery” are being debunked. Studies show that math grades have dropped in Ontario since the government placed “problem solving” at the heart of its math curriculum in 2005, another reform that’s been the norm rather than the exception for more than three decades.

There’s nothing wrong with encouraging creativity, as much of the current curriculum does, but when scores continue to fall, those responsible for the new math must be prepared to alter course.

Given all the attention the subject has received in recent months, there’s every reason to point the finger at the curriculum. University professors have been critical of the skills – or lack thereof – exhibited by students who’ve come through the public system. Even basic literacy has been questioned. But nowhere has the gap been more noticeable than in math and sciences. It’s they who’ve stressed the need for a return to basics, including rote learning of things like multiplication tables.

Aside from doing wrong by the kids subjected to the new teaching methods, there’s a wider issue at play. We’re all aware of the shift to a knowledge-based economy that values scientific skills above all else, particularly as they apply to computers and engineering. Canada has been falling behind in this regard, as a recent study from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that found performance of the country’s 15-year-olds in math has been in a decline, with a 14-point dip in the past nine years.

Some other provinces have been moving away from so-called “inquiry-based” curriculum, returning to some of the basic skills that have been taken out of the curriculum previously. (Quebec, which has the most traditional method of teaching, has the highest scores in the country.)

Because math is a cumulative skill, with concepts building on each other, a poor foundation means trouble as a child is moved along through the system without understanding of the basics, which happens far too often.

The Ontario government has finally acknowledged there are problems, including with the fact that many teachers have little if any grounding in mathematics, even those who teach the subject.

There are plenty of people invested in the current model. They will have to be persuaded the system does not work. On that, the facts speak for themselves, and no amount of fuzzy logic will change them.

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