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At Crofton House School in Vancouver, faculty develop and constantly tweak the math program.

Crofton House

Tempers flared across Ontario last month when a report from the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office revealed that fully half of Grade 6 students failed to meet provincial mathematics targets.

Educators, parents and media commentators called for immediate changes to the curriculum.

Others pressed for calm, urging Queen's Park to stick to a math program that has evolved to include methods that emphasize problem-solving and inquiry-based learning, rather than focusing solely on traditional rote teaching practices that rely heavily on memorization and repetition.

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The EQAO report also found that fewer Grade 3 students were meeting provincial math standards, further underscoring the math-education fury that has swept across not only Ontario, but also almost every Canadian province where government-tracked assessments of public school mathematics performance have dipped in recent years.

In a 2015 C.D. Howe Institute study, University of Winnipeg mathematics professor Anna Stokke raised a red flag over declining math scores across the country.

"Between 2003 and 2012, all but two Canadian provinces showed statistically significant declines in math scores on international exams administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development," Dr. Stokke wrote.

"In several provinces, the percentage of students performing at the lowest levels in math significantly increased while the percentage of students performing at the highest levels significantly decreased, suggesting that more students are struggling and fewer students are excelling in math."

Amid the arithmetical turmoil, private school administrators across the country acknowledged these troublesome test scores, but did not join in the panic.

Mathematics education in the independent school system, while aligning with provincial curricula and adhering to overarching provincial standards, varies in significant ways from the public system, according to Patti MacDonald, executive director of St. Catharines, Ont.-based Canadian Accredited Independent Schools.

"Independent schools are committed to understanding what's most current in educational research and applying it to improve student learning in classrooms," she says. "Each school is unique and math is one of the ways that schools demonstrate their distinctiveness."

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In some cases, private schools have specialized math and science programs, or encourage math-minded students to participate in extracurricular clubs or challenging contests such as the University of Waterloo's global math competition.

Just how great are the differences between math education in the private and public systems in Canada?

The reality is that no matter the institution that's teaching it, math is still math. Provincial guidelines stipulate that students must be taught basic concepts in their early years, before eventually progressing to more complex subjects to prepare them for postsecondary education.

But the methods for conveying that knowledge and the support systems available to students can be more specialized at private schools.

At the all-girls Crofton House School in Vancouver, for example, the faculty works collaboratively to develop and constantly tweak its math program starting in junior school, building a consistent language around math across classes and grades, and using a wide range of problem-solving strategies.

Resource teachers are made available early on for students who struggle, while others are given the opportunity to work beyond their grade level. Perhaps most importantly, students are given more time to fail and correct course.

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"We've embraced normalizing confusion and mistakes," explains Wendy Macken, assistant director of Crofton House's kindergarten to Grade 6 junior school. "We want to keep math anxiety low so our girls can achieve their personal best."

The school places a major emphasis on helping students not only learn core concepts, but also apply them to real-world situations. While there is still significant rote memorization in areas such as multiplication, the focus is on ensuring students truly learn concepts rather than simply repeating formulae or answers without understanding the logic behind them.

In the middle grades, specialist teachers handle math education, while regular tutorial classes are available to help reinforce the week's lessons.

On nearby Vancouver Island, the staff at the co-ed Shawnigan Lake School in Shawnigan Lake, B.C., strike a balance between maintaining key rote methods in areas such as basic arithmetic and fractions, while encouraging more contemporary, discovery-based approaches in areas such as statistics.

"In math, there are some subjects where we go back to rote where it's all about practice," says Wendy Milne, the school's assistant head, academics, mathematics. "In others, we've moved to more inquiry-based and problem-solving [approaches]."

Parents hoping to find standardized tests to help them compare private-school math programs will be disappointed. According to Ms. MacDonald, there is no standardized form of testing across the independent school system. Instead, she explains, progress is generally tracked within schools.

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That said, a private school in Ontario might opt to write the province's EQAO exam even though it isn't obligated to do so, while another may have its students take an exam such as the nationally recognized Canadian Achievement Test-version 4 (or CAT4) test, then use the results as a benchmark.

At Shawnigan, administrators use a combination of standardized provincial testing and the performance of students who write the Advanced Placement calculus exam to track math proficiency.

Crofton House School uses B.C.'s standardized Foundation Skills Assessment testing in Grades 4 and 7, as well as student exam scores, to chart progress.

Whatever method of evaluation they choose, Ms. MacDonald says that private schools generally have greater flexibility to use student results to make funding decisions based on their school's mathematics needs and priorities.

As Shawnigan headmaster David Robertson points out, the key competitive advantage of a private school is specialization and availability of teachers, features that perpetually strained public boards struggle to match.

"Math is about memorization, exploration and discovery," he says. "The more access students have to teachers outside the classroom … that's key. Private schools in general are trying hard to make sure that kids are challenged and supported."

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