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The real issue in Ontario’s schools: The teachers need to be taught math

Catherine Little is a Toronto-based educator, consultant and writer.

The school year hasn't even started, and the news isn't good. Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office has announced that half of Grade 6 students failed to meet the provincial standard in mathematics.

Results have been stagnant or declining for years. In early April, 2016, then Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals announced the parameters of her government's renewed math strategy. The plan involved $60-million in funding to ensure that students received an hour of "actual math instruction" every day. A few months earlier, a report called Closing the Numeracy Gap; an Urgent Issue for Ontario had been released. Graham Orpwood, an associate professor emeritus at York University, and Emily Sandford Brown, a professor at Sheridan College, co-authored the report and made several suggestions that made a lot of sense to me.

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The elephant in the room is teacher anxiety and lack of skill. More instruction from unskilled teachers won't help.

Quiz: Can you pass the Grade 6 math test?

Read more: Half of Grade 6 students fail to meet Ontario math standards

Prof. Orpwood and Prof. Brown found that 83 per cent of grade 3 teachers and 80 per cent of grade 6 teachers have no postsecondary background in mathematics. They wrote, "Ontario's teachers are, in our view, as professional and dedicated as teachers anywhere in the world. However, in common with teachers in many other jurisdictions, most Ontario teachers are not provided with the training required for effective mathematics teaching."

Their report detailed suggestions about multiplication tables (teach them) and calculators (introduce them later) but I was most interested in their suggestions for teacher education. They advocated for a general literacy and numeracy test as part of admission to a teacher education program and the development of university mathematics courses for teachers to ensure the next generation of mathematics teachers is better prepared.

When I was in Grade 8, I was among a number of students asked to write solutions to the math homework questions on the chalkboard. The question I was assigned involved determining the number of tin can tops that could be punched from a sheet of metal. I remember this day clearly, because it was the day I realized I was better at math than my teacher.

This happened in the 1980s, but there have been many times since then – when I have tutored students in math, taught math classes to students as well as future teachers and helped my son with his math homework – that I have wondered about the mathematics skills of elementary teachers in Ontario.

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When I applied for a primary/junior teaching position in 1992, I was offered a position on the spot if I would agree to teach middle-school mathematics and science. The superintendent was impressed with the fact that I had taken these courses in university when so few elementary teachers had. According to the report, it is still unusual.

While acknowledging that there are currently effective elementary mathematics teachers, the report pointed out that "the other side of the same coin is that there are also those, who – for whatever reason, whether or not they would admit it openly – would rather not have to teach mathematics at all." Prof. Orpwood and Prof. Brown acknowledged that, "even the most effective in-service teacher education programs are not going to turn around the math-phobias of many teachers." And perhaps the only way around this is to organize the school so they don't end up teaching math.

That day in Grade 8, when I was writing down the steps I had taken to solve the question – determine the diameter of the circle, determine how many times this number could fit along the length and the width of the metal sheet without overlapping, draw a diagram to illustrate my point – my classmates started to protest. This was not the answer they were expecting. The teacher intervened, asked me to erase my solution and sit down. Another student provided the expected answer by simply dividing the area of the metal sheet by the area of the circle.

Later, my teacher brought the other Grade 8 teachers to see the solution I had written in my notebook. They told me that my answer was the one provided in the teacher's manual, but they had always thought it was incorrect because they did not know how it had been achieved. They asked to photocopy my work for future reference because they had been teaching it incorrectly up until they saw my solution.

At least they realized what they were doing wrong and did something about it.

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