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When will Ontario break the cycle that is failing its math students?

Anna Stokke is a professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg, co-founder and president of the non-profit organization Archimedes Math Schools and author of the C.D. Howe Report, "What to do about Canada's declining math scores."

Ontario's Education Quality and Accountability Office's 2016/2017 results released this week show that for the second year in a row, only 50 per cent of Grade 6 students met the provincial math standard, compared with 61 per cent ten years ago. It is important to reverse this trend since early achievement in math is a strong predictor of later success in math and future career options.

Another concerning point to emerge from the EQAO tests is that the percentage of students who met the math standard in Grade 3 but did not do so in Grade 6 has increased. This suggests that students are not being well-prepared in lower grades to handle more difficult math concepts. Mathematics is extremely cumulative in nature. A student cannot successfully learn a new topic if topics on which it relies were not mastered in a previous year. That's why it's important to get it right when children are young.

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Other provinces such as Manitoba and Alberta have also seen steep declines in math performance and parents and advocacy groups across Canada have been pressing governments to make changes for many years. Progress has been slow and all too often those who are ideologically committed to the very math programs that have created the problem are given the job of fixing it.

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

Quiz: Can you pass the Grade 6 math test?

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

What's going wrong?

Several trends in Canadian math education may be contributing to students' struggles in math. Techniques such as multiple strategies, open-ended problems, project-based instruction and the use of hands-on materials such as blocks and fraction strips have been overemphasized in recent years. More traditional techniques such as explicit instruction by a teacher, followed by pencil-and-paper practice, are often minimized and the use of rigorous math texts or student workbooks is eschewed. The trend stems from a theory called discovery-based learning, which may also be referred to as student-centred, experiential, inquiry, or 21st-century learning.

Contrary to what parents are often told, discovery techniques are not backed up by solid research evidence. In fact, research evidence strongly favours explicit instruction by a teacher, followed by student practice, over discovery-based instruction for nurturing better understanding and strong mathematics problem solvers.

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Canadian curriculums were revised to make way for these new techniques and theories, resulting in important outcomes being eliminated or moved to later grades. Times-tables memorization is optional in Ontario, even though it's important to commit times tables to long-term memory to free up working memory to concentrate on more difficult tasks. Studies have shown the importance of fraction arithmetic to later success in math, yet addition and subtraction of fractions is not introduced until Grade 7. In high-performing countries, students learn to add fractions in Grades 4 and 5, putting them in a good position to master algebra, which is the bridge to higher-level mathematics.

It has been documented that many elementary teachers feel uncomfortable with math. Math requirements for elementary teachers should be increased and teachers must have access to instructional materials that allow them to deliver effective math lessons. It is shocking that teachers are often encouraged to teach math without textbooks. How can someone without a strong math background be expected to design lessons and problems without a well-written textbook to guide them and their students? Moreover, the texts that are provincially recommended incorporate discovery-based techniques and use convoluted methods for presenting even the most basic concepts, such as multiplication. It is no wonder students are confused.

The Ontario government has acknowledged that things need to improve. But I fear that the province's $60-million renewed math strategy, which was announced one year ago with the intent to increase math time in the classroom and provide math classes for teachers, may simply be a doubling down on the very techniques that have caused scores to decline in the first place.

After six years of advocating for better math education in Canada, I have noticed a frustrating cycle that ministries have done little to break. Expensive consultants are hired to provide teacher professional development on unproven fads. Resources are then purchased to support these ineffective methods in the classroom, which produces more struggling students who need extra support. After a round of testing shows that students are doing more poorly in math, the same people who created the problem decide that teachers need more support using the ineffective methods. More PD and resources are then purchased, and the cycle continues. Parents are often left with no other option but to hire tutors to cover the gaps and those who can't afford tutors watch helplessly as their children get further behind.

Many rounds of testing have shown that current math programs are not working. But how can we expect a change of direction when ministries of education tend to put the very people in charge who were responsible for choosing the wrong direction in the first place and have staked careers on promoting ineffective math programs across Canada? It's time for governments to start listening and make meaningful changes.

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