Canada has done it again. According to the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), our rankings in math, reading, and science have fallen once more, especially in math. In PISA’s 2009 test, Canada ranked 10th for math, with a score of 527 points. In 2012, we came 13th, with a score of 514. While these scores are both above the OECD’s average scores of 496 and 494 respectively, the 13-point slide has people up in arms about the state of math education in Canada.
PISA’s findings were published on December 3rd of last year. In the week following, education reporters went to town, demanding a makeover of the education system and citing so many percentages and facts from the study that they made our heads spin.
In Canada, our problems don’t lie in PISA’s rankings themselves, but rather three other areas: teacher training and curriculum changes, the media’s hand-wringing, and this leads to the third problem: a lack of actual action.
Over a month has passed since the story broke, and relatively little action has taken place. It was not until January 8th that Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals made an announcement that changes would be made to the amount of math training teachers receive. No curriculum changes were promised for the near future, and many believe this to be a mistake.
Quebec seems to be the one province doing something right, for their math scores are significantly higher than elsewhere in Canada. This lies largely in their approach to teacher training. Anyone wanting to be even an elementary school math teacher must have taken 225 hours of university level math courses. Compare that to 36 hours required by Ontario’s Bachelor of Education program. That’s roughly a third of the time a Grade 9 spends in math class. (A high school math or science teacher requires a background in their chosen specialty prior to entering a B.Ed program.) In August, Ms. Sandals said, “The academic background of a lot of our elementary teachers is more in the arts – they don’t necessarily have an extensive background themselves in math and science.” Quebec’s math scores show that their method of training teachers translates to more effective math instruction.
There are also issues in how the math curriculum is delivered. Ontario, like many other parts of Canada, uses the “discovery method” of math education. This means students are expected to creatively solve problems before they master basic skills and learn fundamental rules and formulas. Dr. Mirsoslav Lovric of McMaster University said that, “[Arithmetic] skills have decreased over time.” He also said that “students need to have better developed routine skills [in areas such as] fractions, square roots, and exponential functions. It’s not just that students don’t know [material]. Some [know] it but are too slow to finish tests on time. It has to be second nature.”
Dr. Lovric also added that a better balance of routine learning and discovery would help students in their post-secondary education. Clearly, teaching methods need to be updated so they focus on concrete methods and not personal journeys.
When stories like PISA’s rankings hit the news, the outcry about our education system quickly rises. In the first week of December 2013, The Globe and Mail published no less than eight articles about the current state of our country’s education system, many of which focused on math. At first, this seemed positive; the issue drew attention and people seemed to care about the quality of education in Canada, regardless of whether they were students or parents. The news cycle kept turning, however, and over the span of less than two weeks, the issue dropped off the face of the media planet.
While the hand-wringing and headlines fade away, the problems remain unresolved. The Ministry of Education and the various school boards know that all they need to do is find shelter during the brief media storm, but never need to actually change anything. Once math scores are bumped off the front page, people stop caring and the call to arms dies down.
On the Ontario Ministry of Education’s website, the most recently documented curriculum changes are from 2005. Nine years ago. The curriculum for any subject, whether it’s Grade 7 History or Grade 12 Calculus, should be revisited more than once a decade.
That said, the intent to make changes is a step in the right direction.
Ontario and other provinces are re-evaluating how they train teachers, especially in math. New training methods implemented in tandem with regular curriculum updates should position students across the country to excel in the classroom. Ministries and boards of education should not fear change. If students are taught using outdated methods, their scores will continue to plummet, and, more importantly, their education will have little value in the real world.
Having higher test scores than other countries doesn’t change the fact that our scores are lower than they were three years ago. We need to stop patting ourselves on the back for not being at the bottom of the list. We should be working to improve our score for more than a gold star.