Improving math education
Did you know?
Key facts about math performance:
- There are more students failing than achieving excellence on the Grade 6 Math Provincial Achievement Test (PAT) – a dramatic reversal of results in the course of a few short years.
- Calgary Board of Education (CBE) schools have an average failure rate over 50% higher than Calgary Catholic School District (CCSD) schools on the Grade 6 and Grade 9 Math PATs. The CBE’s Grade 9 failure rate is also 14% higher than the provincial average.
- The number of students achieving excellence on the Grade 6 Math PAT has declined 20%.
- Across all Calgary Board of Education (CBE) high schools last year, an average of 19 percent of students received passing marks on their report card for Math 30-1 but failed the diploma exam. At some high schools, the rate was as high as 47%. In the CBE high schools with the largest discrepancies between report card marks and diploma exam marks, the spread has increased over the previous year.
- At least $110 million more would reach CBE classrooms each year if CBE administrative spending was in line with that of the CCSD.
- The Kids Come First Math Action Plan on Math outlines five pragmatic solutions that would provide students with immediate practical support.
Math is a critical piece in K-12 education, providing students with fundamental knowledge of numeracy, developing their problem solving skills and expanding their career and education opportunities. Math is an essential for all students, providing not just technical skills for career readiness, but also basic life skills necessary for healthy citizenship.
Kids Come First is working to improve math literacy on a number of fronts. Our recommendations to improve math literacy include:
- Strengthen math curriculum and standards, ensuring that they support a progression that is mathematically coherent and leads to postsecondary and career readiness at an internationally competitive level.
- Ensure that mathematicians are directly involved at the highest level in provincial curriculum development.
- Ensure that quality materials for math instruction such as JUMP Math, Saxon math and Singapore Math are approved resources and are accessible to all teachers and all schools.
- Create easy to understand guides with specific examples to help parents understand what math their child should be able to do in each grade.
- Build on community partnerships through organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA to expand and strengthen after school math tutoring programs.
Kids need an early start
Research shows that knowledge of math in the early elementary years is the best predictor of later math success. Interestingly, it is also the best predictor -- better than early reading skills -- of later reading performance. Strong math skills in the early years translate into improved verbal abilities, including vocabulary, inference and grammatical complexity.
Career-ready, university-ready, life-ready
Proficiency in advanced math in high school is also a critical piece in the education puzzle. Although achieving advanced competency in math may not be an absolute requirement for a happy and productive life, low math skills dramatically limit a student’s career and education opportunities. Some point to math as the primary academic reason for low graduation rates and therefore support the idea that we should lower math requirements for graduation. Yet this argument is counterintuitive. If we are truly focused on success for every student -- in school and in life -- we need to figure out why students are failing math and then work to address these systemic root causes. Lowering the bar robs students of choices, thereby widening the opportunity gap.
Raising the bar
Despite the agreement that math will become ever more important in the 21st century workplace, our standards for math have never been lower. The Alberta math curriculum only requires students to recall the 9x9 times tables by the end of Grade 5. In other countries, including the US, UK and Singapore, this is required by the end of Grade 3. Similarly, while students in Alberta do not tackle division and multiplication of fractions until Grade 8, students in the US and Finland cover these topics in Grade 5. Yet academic research shows that early knowledge of fractions and division is a strong predictor of success in math in high school. By delaying these topics, we are creating unnecessary barriers to student success.
Math performance in decline
Although standards have been lowered over time, indicators from provincial achievement tests, diploma exams and international tests such as PISA show student math performance in decline. Provincial achievement test (PAT) statistics for Calgary students demonstrate the scope of the problem. In Calgary, almost 20% fewer students achieve excellence on the Grade 6 math PAT than four years ago while the Grade 9 math PAT failure rate is 28%. In addition, 35% of Calgary Grade 12 students don’t even take Math 30. While students struggle, many families with the necessary economic means are resorting to math tutoring, even in elementary grades.
Many students must complete academic upgrading coursework before they can pursue their chosen program of postsecondary study, adding both time and expense. University professors report that students -- even those who have completed the requisite math courses for admission -- are arriving in postsecondary studies without the ability to perform basic math.
Balanced math instruction
The debate over “discovery math” has dominated the provincial conversation about math education for years. The practical reality is that just like reading, math instruction is most effective when it works from the foundation up. First students must be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide without a calculator before moving on to other mathematical functions. Just as beginning readers must master phonics to understand larger chunks of text, students must be proficient in basic arithmetic before they can delve into tougher mathematical concepts.
A balanced approach to math education makes sense. Direct instruction gives students a strong foundation of procedural skills and fluency. Well-planned guided inquiry provides an opportunity to explore the application of mathematical knowledge and to develop deeper conceptual understanding. Canadian mathematician Robert Craigen has described it best, saying:
You need to have the foundations in place in order for students to do any sophisticated problem-solving on their own. It’s not that discovery is a bad thing to do, [in elementary classrooms]. But it should not become the main course of your meal.
Why math matters
While improving math education and boosting student performance is a daunting task, it is imperative that we face this challenge head-on. Only by providing all students with a rigorous and high quality math education can we ensure that they are supported with basic life skills they deserve and have the widest set of opportunities open to them to pursue careers and postsecondary education. Ensuring that all students graduate from high school with a strong foundation in math is important not just because it paves the way for post-secondary education and expands career opportunities. Math literacy also provides valuable life skills that are necessary not just on a personal level but for full participation in society.