At the end of the summer, Ontario’s public school system received its own report card reflecting the results of students’ performance in the provincial Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tests administered earlier this year. Since 1996, these standardized tests have been administered to Ontario students in Grades 3, 6 and 9, and are designed to assess how well Ontario’s public education system is developing students’ reading, writing and math skills, generating reliable information to help improve student achievement and ensure the accountability of school boards.
The news in the math field wasn’t good. For the last five years, student achievement in the math portion of the tests has been in decline and last year the province announced a new math strategy backed by $60 million in new funding to boost math instruction. In it was a stipulation that each class receive a minimum of 60 minutes of in-class math instruction per day. To encourage student engagement, the curriculum focused on ways to incorporate math skills in a variety of ways using math concepts in discussions of everyday life.
The revised math strategy was precipitated by a 2016 report called Closing the Numeracy Gap; an Urgent Issue for Ontario. Amongst other findings, researchers determined that 83 per cent of grade 3 teachers and 80 per cent of grade 6 teachers had no postsecondary background in mathematics, concluding that part of the problem was that Ontario teachers were inadequately trained to deliver effective mathematics teaching.
Joe Tompkins, recently appointed Superintendent of Teaching and Learning at Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board (KPRDS) also recognizes the ongoing challenges in math proficiency, and says they are on it, and their new strategy is less a reset but rather an extension of efforts initiated last year.
Tompkins describes the new direction as a three-pronged approach. At the heart of the issue is attitude, so their first objective is to engage the mathematician in every student, so they see themselves as capable of using math. Tompkins wants to dispel the pervasive attitude that math is hard, which is reinforced by dismissive comments from celebrities who say “they don’t do math”, effectively giving permission to abandon this key life skill and leave it to others who are more competent. Teachers will be sending a different message; that math can be learned and it is worth the effort, but first they need to believe it themselves.
The board is offering intensive math workshops for teachers in each division where they not only discuss how to deliver effective math instruction; they actually perform math exercises together. In these exercises they have the opportunity to see the math problems through the lens of a child. Workshop participants often find that like in the classroom, their colleagues approach math problems from different angles, finding their own path to a solution. According to North Cavan interim Principal Bob Sinclair, working with other teachers is particularly helpful to those from small schools like North Cavan by providing an opportunity to learn from each other.
The second aspect of the new strategy is to move away from what Tompkins describes as “plug and play” activities focussing on number manipulating and working on problem solving. This involves incorporating math concepts into a variety of subjects and talking about math in ways that relate to everyday life to broaden student understanding of not just how numbers work, but where they are relevant. This will be supported by a revised report card incorporating broader life skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity skills.
The final piece of the puzzle is to develop math fluency; ensuring students know their numbers and understand mathematical relationships. They are also establishing what Tomkins terms the scope and sequence of content delivery, to identify what concepts should be delivered and when they should be taught.
EQAO results at the local level reflect those of the province, where the numbers show that student proficiency in math declines between grades three and six. In Millbrook South Cavan, just over one third of grade six students achieved the provincial standard, down from 52% the previous year.
Research shows math skills in the early years are the best predictor of academic success in all subjects, not just math, so there is a lot at stake. Parents can help reduce the intimidation factor by incorporating math concepts into everyday activities, so students see that math is all around them, not just in the classroom. Counting change, estimating outcomes and allocating screen time to television and video games may help students see that math is useful and relevant, and will equip them to be better at solving problems, setting priorities and evaluating alternatives in their daily lives now and in their future. KG