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Canada’s fall in math-education ranking sets off alarm bells

Grade 6 students work on math exercises as John Mighton teaches their class at the Mabin school - a private school in Toronto in this December 16, 2009 file photo.

Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

Canada has dropped out of the top 10 in international math education standings, a decline that is raising alarms about the country's future prosperity.

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, the highly anticipated survey conducted every three years and which measures how 15-year-olds around the world are doing in math, reading and science. Canada ranked behind many Asian economies, including Singapore, Korea and Japan, as well as countries such as Switzerland, Estonia and Finland.

The education assessment of 65 countries, released Tuesday morning, comes on the heels of declining math scores nationally and a surprisingly poor showing from youth on a recent OECD literacy and numeracy test. Critics contend that the math curriculum, ushered in over the past decade, is to blame for lower scores because it places more emphasis on real-world concepts rather than abstract thinking and practice. The OECD report noted that the top performers had more exposure to formal mathematics than word problems.

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"This is on the scale of a national emergency," said John Manley, CEO and president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, which has sounded the alarm on the shortfalls in our education system. "We've got the natural resource sector to pay the rent, but that just keeps us in the house. We need skills, we need knowledge-workers to really improve our prosperity and build our society … Having the skills becomes a very important element to attracting investment and creating jobs."

Canada's poor international math performance has business leaders and some educators increasingly concerned about the country's ability to innovate and produce in a global economy, even as politicians tried to minimize the rankings. A lack of math knowledge early in school can deter students from taking it in university even as employers say they face a shortage of qualified applicants with math and engineering backgrounds.

Ministers of education in several provinces, including British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, are currently re-examining the curriculum for all subjects, including math.

Math scores, the focus of 2012 PISA tests whose results have just been released, declined 14 points in nine years in Canada. And the country produced fewer students who were high achievers – 16 per cent were at Level 5 or above – than the top Asian countries, where over 30 per cent scored at that high achievement level.

Provincially, Quebec emerged as a Canadian leader in math, well above Canada's average, coming in at No. 8 when provincial scores are put into the international table. Educators say the high scores are likely the result of teachers in the province having studied math during their training so they can teach the subject with more confidence. Ontario's Education Minister Liz Sandals has indicated that the province needs to improve teacher training in math.

The largest declines in student performance were in Manitoba, Alberta, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Scores in Alberta, once a Canadian leader in math performance, have fallen 32 points over nine years. In Manitoba, scores fell 36 points in almost a decade. This fall, the Manitoba government responded to a push from parents and announced revisions to the curriculum where by the end of Grade 4, for example, students will need to know the conventional ways of doing math and perform basic equations without a calculator.

Jeff Johnson, chair of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, and Alberta's Minister of Education, said Canada's score left him a "little disappointed," but he added that Canadian students were still faring well globally and that the country has one of the most equitable education systems in the world where students perform well regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

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But Anna Stokke, an associate professor in the department of math and statistics at the University of Winnipeg, argues changes are needed. Prof. Stokke is part of a group that launched a reform movement to restore some of the basics into math education. "The education culture needs to change. Educators need to recognize the importance of practice, hard work and mastering basic skills early on," she said.

Canada did not fare too well in reading or science, either. Only one country outperformed Canada in reading in 2000, and now five do. In science, two countries outperformed Canada in 2006, and that number rose to seven.

The OECD's tests are administered once every three years with an alternating focus on reading, math and science.

For PISA 2012, more than 500,000 15-year-olds were tested, including 21,000 Canadian students from 900 schools from all the provinces.

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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