High school Mathematics exam results still make the headlines. On June 30, 2010, The Halifax *Chronicle Herald* featured a front page news story headed **“55% failed Grade 12 Math Exam.”** The electronic version of the story (http://thechronicleherald.ca/Search/1189774.html) attracted over 90 comments, the vast majority of which were critical of Mathematics teaching and learning in Nova Scotia.

Mathematics standards had taken another hit. The stark facts: Only 45% of all Grade 12 students writing the Grade 12 Regular 2009 provincial Mathematics Examination managed to pass, down from 51% in 2008. Most of the failing students still passed, because the exam only counted for 30% of the final grade. Even more remarkably, with or without passing the Math Exam, some 83% of Nova Scotia’s Grade 12’s secured a graduation diploma.

Struggling to pass Mathematics is certainly nothing new, especially in Nova Scotia. While researching *The Grammar School* book, I discovered that fifty years ago, in July of 1959, the province was in an uproar over the abysmal Provincial Examination results, particularly in Mathematics. Halifax’s two dailies, *The Mail Star* and *The Chronicle Herald* were full of stories and letters expressing outrage and dismay over the latest results. Reading last week’s paper, was like *deja vu*.

Student performance in Mathematics has long been fraught with controversy. In July 1992, the Mattel Company’s statuesque doll, *Teen Talk Barbie*, was caught saying that “Math class is tough!.” When the story broke, the American Association of University Women went ballistic over the aspersion cast on all young women. * *The beleaguered company scrambled to change the voice recording and managed to escape a public relations disaster. It was the age of *Reviving Ophelia* and the story then was the plight of girls and their poor performance in Mathematics.

What has really changed? Today, girls tend to outperform boys in Mathematics and in most other subjects. Indeed, high school boys now lag significantly behind girls on provincial examination results in Quebec and Nova Scotia. Standardized assessments of math and literacy skills in Ontario and elsewhere testify to this new “gender gap” in education.

Whatever the gender differences, both girls and boys still find mastering Mathematics a challenge. The June 2009 Mathematics Examination results in Nova Scotia are only the most recent demonstration of the chronic problem. It is also abundantly clear that education officials and mathematics consultants have tried a variety of remedies and now appear to be completely stymied by student under-performance in Mathematics.

The official Nova Scotia response to the Grade 12 Math exam debacle was typical. Education Minister Marilyn More admitted to being troubled by the math exam scores, but offered little in the way of remediation. Yet another “new elementary math curriculum” was promised, beginning in 2011, that would be “more focused” and aim for “deeper understanding.” One brave Department official, Dan Harrison, conceded that “too many math concepts” were presented to Grade 12 students in “the time available during the school year.”

The Mathematics results created a real furor. Halifax Herald columnist Marilla Stephenson blamed the results on the lack of academic rigour, the absence of homework, and the* laissez faire* attitude of both parents and students. (http://thechronicleherald.ca/Opinion/1190181.html) Rather surprisingly, no one mentioned that the 2008-09 school year was the worst ever in terms of school days lost through cancellations. My AIMS Research Study,** “School’s Out , Again,”** released in May 2010 (www.aims.ca) was completely ignored, even though it offered the first detailed analysis of the impact of lost days on actual student performance. In a year when Nova Scotia students lost between 8 and 15 teaching days because of cancellations, it was definitely a contributing factor.

**Today’s students still can’t do Math! **

**What’s the root of the problem — the academic demands of Mathematics curricula, the quality of Math teaching, the decline in student work ethic, the laissez faire attitude of many parents, or some combination of these factors? Why, after wave after wave of curriculum reform, do students still struggle to master Mathematics?**
on July 4, 2010 at 12:09 am |DougMy grade 13 Calculus teacher was trying to explain a very difficult concept to us one day when he said, “I majored in math at university and I studied this stuff in second year university.”

Frankly I am slowly coming to believe that we just make too many kids study math too late in their high school career. We had a 2 credit high school diploma before the Mike Harris government in Ontario and everybody saw it as perfectly normal. Then the Ontario government demanded three compulsory credits so that became “normal” to people.

The overwhelming majority of citizens never use the math they learned after grade 10. Why do we insist on jamming it down their throats if they can have a much better HS career with 2 credits only? Leave math to the ones who can really do it. I was never happier than the day I realized I had taken my last math class (Sadly, I was forced to take a Statistics class in Political Science later, but it was not difficult).

Barbie was right, “Math class is tough!” LOL

on July 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm |Paul W. BennettToday’s Business Column in The Halifax Sunday Herald (July 4, 2010) focuses on the Grade 12 Math Exam results and their significance. Rachel Brighton predicts that “Canada’s Education Provionce” will pay in the future for its Math exam failure rates.

A short excerpt captures the gist of her argument:

“… Math and business go hand in hand. Which means that Canada’s Education Province is headed for serious trouble.

The problem is much worse than the simple results revealed this week: only 45 per cent of Grade 12 students passed their basic math exam last year.

In many school board districts, the results were much worse.

The pass rate ranged from 29 per cent in the Tri-County regional school board to 57 per cent in the Strait regional school board.

Within the school districts, the results were as low as eight per cent at Baddeck Academy and nine per cent at Cabot High.

With only a dozen or so students writing the exam at these schools, the poor results may be an aberration.

Yet at West Kings District High in the Annapolis Valley, where 69 students wrote the basic math exam, the pass rate was still just 12 per cent.

Being a small rural school doesn’t have to be a disadvantage. At Oxford Regional High, where 14 students wrote the exam, the pass rate was 93 per cent — the best in the province.

A detailed comparison of this school with Baddeck Academy, for example, should reveal where the problems and solutions lie.

It is hard for teachers and the department to simply blame the curriculum when some schools do so well. Kudos to these teachers and students.

Whether the problem lies with the students, teachers, curriculum or exams, however, the result is profound inequality.

This social problem is also an economic and a business problem.”

Credit: The Halifax Sunday Herald. For the full story, see

http://thechronicleherald.ca/Business/1190408.html

Editorial Comment:

Rachel Brighton’s column is the first to probe more deeply into the chronic nature of the problem. It’s not just about the abysmal June 2009 Math results. The regional variations in results are quite shocking and reveal great inequities in the public education system.

Current teaching methods simply aren’t working to improve Math scores. It’s also clear that Mathematics curriculum experts and teachers are on a different wavelength. Math educators still believe that high school students need to master core content and hold firm to “objective-referenced” evaluations.

Most secondary school evaluation is now “peer-referenced” and driven, to a surprising degree, by university cut-off admission marks. The Grade 12 English marks are a case in point because they are now so close to the school-determined marks. Just ask any seasoned administrator to comment, off -the-record.

What’s strange is that Grade 12 Mathematics marks remain one of the few objective measures that remain for assessing high school standards. That’s why we read so much significance into such small samples of student results.

on July 4, 2010 at 8:55 pm |DougCanada does very well by all objective international evaluations. It may well be that this is as good as it gets.

http://www.nationalpost.com/story.html?id=3226361&cid=

Educators have been wringing their hands over the younger generation since Socrates.

on July 5, 2010 at 12:08 pm |PeggyI know I struggled with math because it didn’t come naturally to me at all. There are lots of people like me. I put up a wall against it early, and resisted trying to learn. The most math I need for my job was adding up two columns of numbers, and the day I realized this was grade 4 level or so, when my kids were doing it for homework,I was a bit shocked to think this is as far as I got!

My husband does all the math homework with our kids, Thank God!! He was always good at math, liked it and went on to get a degree in Electrical Engineering and a masters Degree in Applied Science. He has been saying for some time that the schools are making math far too complicated. As an Engineer, he can naturally take something complex and break in down into it’s simplest form. He spends a fair bit of time “unteaching” what was taught at school, telling the kids to forget all that distracting information and teaching them in a simple way. it has helped them understand greatly.

As for me, my advice for improving math success would be things like:

– identifying the successful schools, including IB programs (someone told me on FB that the IB students were not included in the testing) and developing best practices. Just do what the smart people do!;

-Practice! There is something out there called “Bell Work” for elementary students. Have you heard of it? It is just simple work for the kids to do as they are coming into the class in the morning, getting to their desks and getting settled before the bell to start the day. It can be a review, a brain teaser, a word search, anything, but it is not new material. It’s purpose is to help the students get their bodies settled and their brains warmed up for class.(it is usually not marked, as that is not the purpose of it) If we could start this practice, we could put mostly math reviews in there.

-I only came to understand the credit system this past year, with my first child hitting high school. It is possible to spread math courses out really far where you might take one in the first semester and then not take another math course until the next year, after many months of no math going on in your head. We could change this so that a student always has to carry a math credit each semester of highschool, so that when the grade 12 provincial test comes up, the students have had more consistency with practice.

So, there are 4 suggestions: keep it simple, find best practices,PRACTICE, build consistency into the credit system.

on July 5, 2010 at 12:42 pm |DorettaMath can be taught. We just don’t teach it very well. We expect kids to “discover” it.

There is nothing “natural” about learning math any more than you can “naturally” learn to play piano. (Of course the exceptional few can, but most of us need to learn!)

Peggy is right. You need to start at the beginning by teaching fundamentals sequentially, practice (lots), and only advance to the next concept when the first is mastered.

Readers may want to try the Society for Quality Education’s practice worksheets at http://www.teachyourchildmath.ca or

JUMP Math devised by mathematician, playwright, and now Order of Canada recipient John Mighton for more. His essay “Myth of Ability” makes it clear.

on July 5, 2010 at 2:30 pm |PeggyHave you read “Outliers” by Malcom Gladwell? He says in that book that most people who are “experts” at something have to put in thir 10,000 hours of practice. He discusses how Asian people are so good at math. It’s not just that they are born with it, they actually spend hours and hours on math in their schools and at home after school. Success in math is not usually an accident. (I did find it hard in school though and stopped trying. Maybe someone could have helped me, but I never had the luck of meeting that person).

The thing is, we don’t have to beat the students over the head with it from a young age. We just do it. We keep it simple and we don’t give up.

Another thing I’ve wondered about is how in school they teach the kids about “Just Right reading” which is, they want them to choose books from the library that they are comfortable reading, and not to worry about what other kids in the class are reading, just read at your own level. I’ve wondered why this is only encouraged with reading? Why not other subjects? Wouldn’t “Just Right Math” be good too? If some kids are ready to do more, they should have the opportunity to exceed the math outcomes.

on July 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm |Peggy“Even more remarkably, with or without passing the Math Exam, some 83% of Nova Scotia’s Grade 12′s secured a graduation diploma.” This from your blog above. We give our students credits for graduating in subjects such as Yoga, these days. Yoga is a high school credit elective. This is not where we are headed folks,this is where we are.

on July 6, 2010 at 2:02 am |jtcHaving teachers familiar with the subject matter would be helpful. Too many elementary teachers have NO CLUE how to do basic math themselves so they can’t possibly teach students properly.

The Secondary School situation is a bit better but not always.

Up until this coming school year, we’ve had a Senior Mathematics teacher not familiar with Calculus teaching that subject. Too many kids and their parents struggled with the result. Next year finally the teacher in the school who does have knowledge of advanced math will be taking the Gr. 12 academic class.

I also believe much of today’s math centres around word problems, and if a kid can’t read he/she will struggle though that part of math.

on July 6, 2010 at 3:03 am |DougIn declining areas like northern Ontario,my contacts tell me that there is a shortage of qualified teachers. School boards put an advertisement in the paper or on the net for a senior math teacher or physics teacher — and get 0 applications.

on July 6, 2010 at 2:42 pm |TDSBThe need for better math skills is greater today than in the past. Even minimally-skilled-labour jobs now require solid elementary/middle school math mastery. This article from the N.Y. Times was instructive:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/02/business/economy/02manufacturing.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=skills%20manufacturing&st=cse

It’s a similar situation here. My local auto shop used to recruit apprentices out of high school in the general or basic level, when we had those levels, and even some who dropped out could be skilled at fixing things and learn to repair cars quite well. This is no longer the case — to get the certificates and licences now required, mechanics need much better literacy and math skills than in the past. They now take apprentices out of community college programs, not high schools.

A TDSB in-service for staff recently shared a startling data point: students need a higher level of literacy and math skills, on average, for entry into the trades than for university. How can this be? Well if your reading and written language and/or math skills are weak, and you have an IEP (Individual Education Plan), you can use adaptive technology, have a scribe, use recorded books and so on to get a university degree.

One speaker told us how she has only Grade 2 reading and writing skills but got an honours degree from York U. in social sciences using the accommodations provided. But in the trades, there’s no “IEP” for a worker who cannot read diagrams, perform calculations (in Imperial measurements, yet), readily manipulate fractions, decimals, handle sophisticated graphing and applications machinery and software, and so on. If you can’t do what the job requires, you simply won’t make the cut.

If you are very interested in the problems affecting mathematics education, you might want to follow the blog, Kitchen Table Math:

http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/

Most of the contributors are from the U.S.A., with some representatives from New Zealand, Canada and Singapore. The issues are similar, however, except for the use of textbook series like

Everyday Mathwhich are endemic in the USA but much less common at the elementary level in Ontario and other provinces. The use of a “spiral” teaching approach is fairly standard across the continent.This may indeed be part of the problem, as it requires teachers to move on to the next unit while at least half the students have not mastered the material being covered. With pacing guides that mandate teachers “cover” a minimum of three strands per term (for example), after 3 weeks of “patterning and algebra” they must drop that and move to “probability” or “measurement” for the next three weeks. An integrated approach where students were taught “tracked” lessons which continually rehearsed topics previously taught by including paced practice on a regular basis (every lesson has several “tracks” which continue and review topics taught before) would be more effective for students who have issues with mastery, long-term retention, and application. Some American programs that use variants of this approach are

Saxon MathandConnecting Math ConceptsAnother problem with the “spiral” approach is that it encourages students to think (subconsciously at least), “It doesn’t matter if I really learn this — in a week or two it will go away and I won’t see it again for at least a year.” By the next year, the student may have forgotten how to factor an equation, calculate the area of a parellelogram, or change millimetres to centimetres.

Several well-conducted studies have recently demonstrated that the emphasis on using math “manipulatives,” while helpful in introducing a concept, actually interferes with generalization and application for most students. Lack of mastery of steps along the way leads to cumulative gaps which frustrate students and make math an unrewarding and aversive activity. The separation of mathematics into “concepts” versus ‘procedures” is also a false dichotomy. The two are intricately interwoven and cannot be divorced from one another. You learn how to do the computations by understanding the concepts, but you also develop an understanding of the concepts by doing the calculations. It’s a reciprocal relationship.

on July 7, 2010 at 12:20 pm |PeggyThe Grade 12 Math Exam results continue to spark a response. See 4 good Letters to the Editor in today’s Halifax Chronicle Herald.

http://thechronicleherald.ca/Letters/1190713.html

on July 10, 2010 at 2:07 pm |Paul W. BennettThe teaching of Elementary School Mathematics prompted a rather bizarre Twitter post (July 10, 2010) by American writer Alfie Kohn, the intellectual darling of progressive educators.

Like many of Kohn’s tweets, it recycles “educational research” supporting play theory and the use of personal calculators in elementary education.

Today’s Alfie Kohn post dredges up an obscure Anthony Ralston paper, “Let’s Abolish Pencil-and-Paper Arithmetic,” from the Journal of Computers in Mathematics and Science Teaching ( Vol. 18, No. 2, 1999).

http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~ar9/abolpub.htm

What’s happened to the computation skills of today’s elementary students? Where did Mathematics teaching go awry? How did Ameican schools go off the rails in preparing students for mastery of computation skills? Here is a perfect example of the fuzzy thinking behind the dumbing-down of the Elementary Math curriculum.

Why is Alfie Kohn worth following? As a popular education writer, he continues to wield considerable influence, especially among educators. He’s the prime mover behind the North American movement to rid the public schools of homework. His Twitter posts also demonstrate that Kohn continues to fight a rearguard action against the raising of academic standards in Mathematics.

on July 10, 2010 at 9:31 pm |DougThere was no “going awry” Paul. Math was always hard. Some of us have too much nostalgia about a system in the 1960-80s but by the time we were doing grade 13 math, huge groups of kids had already dropped out.

on July 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm |jtcYou’re exactly right Paul. That fuzzy math thinking comes by way of teaching students that getting the correct answer isn’t always important.

I recall a parent-teacher interview where the teacher said she put more value in the attempt at getting a right answer than she did at the student’s actually being able to get the right answer. My professional engineer partner almost lost his supper. What nonsense.

In Ontario, students were scared away from the more difficult math by the usual union toadies whose politics interfered with the challenge students need to be competent in math.

on July 14, 2010 at 11:14 am |PeggyHey! The same point that I made about math being spead out too far in the high school credit system is made in this article by Louisa Horne,the owner of Sylvan Learning, Halifax and Bedford.

“In addition, depending on their course selection, high school students can go a full calendar year with no math, and this is a significant problem in interrupting their learning of a progressive subject. Parents need to be aware of and involved in their students’ selections. Parents also need to ensure that students are ready for the next level of math, particularly in the transition years of Grade 7 and 10 — so much depends upon success in those years.”

Here’s the rest of her article.

on July 14, 2010 at 11:14 am |PeggyOpps, here’s the link.

http://thechronicleherald.ca/Letters/1191868.html#recommends

on July 14, 2010 at 11:39 am |DorettaYes semestering is a problem—good for scheduling teachers, bad for math students.

If the system supposedly does such a great job teaching math, why the proliferation of private tutoring companies? Just wondering…

According to a parent at the local high school, the principal actually got up during the graduation awards ceremony and thanked a company like Kumon!

on July 14, 2010 at 1:02 pm |PeggyDoretta, I think that if the schools really wanted to solve this “math problem” they would require the students to carry a math course each semester. I don’t think that would be a hard change to implement, do you?

If i’m not mistaken, the kid’s schedules are computer generated and then looked over by school staff. All that is needed is a change in the program that automatically places a math course in the schedule. It would be progressive in that, let’s say the student took advanced math in grade 10, then each semester thereafter, the next level of that line of math gets automatically programmed in.

Parents need to be aware of the need for consistent math, but lets face the facts. Most parents don’t have a good grasp or even any grasp of how high school works. I’m figuring it out as I go along.Having the schools take the guess work out of this math problem would be a good thing.

on July 14, 2010 at 1:54 pm |DorettaIt’s not that they want kids to fail, on the contrary; it’s that school systems have taken the progressive route. You are right math should be taking year round, especially if students are considering higher level science or any type of applied science study.

Semestering is definitely an issue.

on July 16, 2010 at 8:17 pm |Paul W. BennettThe Nova Scotia Math Exam results continue to generate controversy. Even in mid-July, BBQ season, it continues to spark Opinion pieces in The Halifax Chronicle Herald.

Louisa Horne, Owner of the Halifax branches of Sylvan Learning, has plenty of experience tutoring kids struggling with high school Mathematics.

Here are excerpts from her Letter to the Editor:

Math the sum of its parts: attitude, skills and timing

By LOUISA HORNE

Wed. Jul 14, 2010

The recent report on high school math results has garnered considerable attention, and that is a good thing. If we are to be a province of innovators and skilled workers, as columnist Rachel Brighton described, we need to pay more attention to what is going on in our schools. We all depend on them.

The public should be more engaged in our education system — both celebrating student successes and participating in dialogue about change. I hope we see more dialogue about the topic. I think fondly of living in Hong Kong, where the local newspaper had a thick section every Saturday on education, and it was such a treat to see the broad-based interest in the issues facing the public education system. Hint to The Chronicle Herald: Let’s talk more about education! We need a commitment to dialogue about our schools if we are to create the future we desire.

As a founder of both the Scientists in the Schools program at Dalhousie and the Discovery Centre’s Discovery Awards program for science and math, I am passionate about public awareness of issues related to science and math, as I believe it is essential for our future.

On to the topic at hand — math assessments. Like letter writer Ken MacDonald, I am a former high school math and science teacher, and like him, I am not surprised by the results. I believe that there are three factors that deserve discussion.

The first is attitude. Too many students have the perception that math is hard, boring and useless and this message may be reinforced by others, often parents or peers. It does not need to be that way! Math can be fascinating, and positive attitudes should be developed in elementary school through engaging learning experiences, facilitated by teachers who can impart a love of the subject and reinforced by parents — even if they are not fond of math themselves, parents play such an important role in the development of positive attitudes toward math…

The second factor is skills. I agree with MacDonald’s view that a focus on “the basics” is critical. I continue to see far too many students who struggle in high school math, particularly in Grade 10. The problem is not that Grade 10 is so difficult, it is that there are missing skills from elementary and junior high….

The third factor is time. High school math offered as a semestered course does not suit the learning styles of many students; having approximately 110 hours of material covered in such a short time means there is limited time for reflection, practice and full understanding. And if a class or two are missed, it is very difficult to make up for the lost time.

In addition, depending on their course selection, high school students can go a full calendar year with no math, and this is a significant problem in interrupting their learning of a progressive subject. Parents need to be aware of and involved in their students’ selections. Parents also need to ensure that students are ready for the next level of math, particularly in the transition years of Grade 7 and 10 — so much depends upon success in those years.

We see too many students who do not have the necessary math credit, or the necessary grade in a math course, to pursue their career of choice. Parents can help make sure this does not happen.”

Comment:

Louisa Horne is on the receiving end for the Halifax Regional School Board. The Sylvan Centre and Oxford Learning Centre both offer extensive Math tutoring programs. Many parents turn to after-school “tutoring shops” to secure the needed help for their children struggling mightily in Mathematics. They are particularly popular with independent school parents with the means to afford such services.

How much of the Mathematics Exam Prep is actually being delegated or handled by the Sylvan Learning Centres in our cities and towns? What happens in communities without the fee-for-service “tutoring shops”? To what extent does that explain the rather shocking poor results in many of the more remote communities?

on July 19, 2010 at 5:44 pm |PeggySomething nice to see… I had a yard sale on Saturday and Grandmother (I assume) was helping her little Grand daughter buy a few books from me. She helped her out with the money,letting the girl do the thinking to get the correct change. That’s where it starts. Not to mention, they bought books, so she’s encouraged to read over the summer as well!

on July 25, 2010 at 9:57 pm |JennWhen semestering was being considered by my high school in the 1990s, the argument was put forth it would be BETTER for teaching math skills. What goes around, comes around.

on July 27, 2010 at 1:15 pm |kdmPart of the problem is the environment in the classroom too. When teachers pay and promotion is not linked to student performance but to their ability to get Master’s degrees (at the taxpayers’ expense) there is no incentive to “get through” to the children. Only the teachers who are there for the right reasons actually care if they teach Math properly.

My children complain about how much time the teacher misses due to in-servicing and meetings scheduled during class time. Then they have teacher subsitutes who are not “Math” teachers and the class is wasted. Combine that with storm days and special activities days and missing time for sports teams and there’s a lot of teaching time lost….

Only when teachers, school boards and principals are held responsible for producing good outcomes will our system improve.

on July 27, 2010 at 1:35 pm |Paul W. BennettToday’s revelation about Nova Scotia’s declining Grade 3 and 6 Math results is hardly new. Back in October, I produced an Opinion piece for The Chronicle Herald (What’s Next for Education in NS?) and that article identified this as a major hole in the Annual “Accountability” Report. We now know why it was absent from the previous report. It’s particularly disappointing because we have just finished the last series of reforms under the much ballyhooed “Learning for Life” change agenda.

Rolling out a new Mathematics curriculum simply won’t work without other major changes in philosophy and program delivery. It’s time to restore rigour and to abandon the spiral curriculum philosophy that has set us “off course” in Nova Scotia. Fewer word problems and more mental computation would solidify the basic skills.

Teacher quality is a major factor, as clearly identified in recent American education research(Gates Foundation) Here in Nova Scotia talking about it is an educational taboo. We should be asking why a factor responsible for 33% of all student learning is rarely, if ever, openly discussed, except (of course) in kitchens, coffee shops, and parking lots across Nova Scotia.

on July 29, 2010 at 3:16 pm |Paul W. BennettToday’s Halifax Chronicle Herald has a fine Commentary by AIMS President Charles Cirtwill. He knows his Math and does a fine job of slaying the Nova Scotia Math Shibboleth. We are NOT performing well on international tests, contrary to NS Education propaganda:

Defence of math scores doesn’t add up

Nova Scotia behind most of country

By CHARLES CIRTWILL

Thu, Jul 29, 2010

Are we really “high flyers”?

In the face of the one-two punch of atrocious high school math exam results and declining math performance in elementary grades, the province of Nova Scotia has, once again, trotted out the usual defence. We live in Canada, our standards are high and the evidence of that is how well we do on international assessments. The implication, of course, is that a 60 here (or a 50) is as good as an 80 (or a 90) in most other countries.

Well, that could be true, but the evidence does not support it. First off, let’s be clear, Nova Scotia does NOT do exceptionally well on international assessments. Canada scores well, but Canada scores well because Alberta, and to a lesser degree B.C., Ontario and Quebec, carry the rest of us along on their backs, kicking and screaming.

On the international assessments known as PISA, the Program of International Student Assessment, Nova Scotia (and the rest of Atlantic Canada) has, again, consistently trailed the rest of Canada by up to a full year’s worth of educational performance.

How can I be so sure? Well, PISA results are reported using a scale where the average of all OECD countries is 500 points with a standard deviation of plus or minus 100. In 2003, as just one example, Alberta scored 549 on this scale, Nova Scotia scored 515. The variances on the scores are examined carefully around the world (the research is readily available on the web) and analysis for 2003 PISA math results suggests that a difference of 36 points from country to country represents about a one-year difference in schooling. Analysis for Canada in 2003 suggested a difference of 53 points between provinces actually represented a year of schooling. This may well back up the assertion that Canadian standards are higher and relatively more consistent, but it also raises serious questions about where Nova Scotia stands, high standards or not.

Looking at just the Canadian results for the 2003 PISA math assessment, the difference between the top (Alberta) and bottom (Prince Edward Island) scores is 49 points, roughly a full year of schooling. Four other provinces (Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) were between 32 and 37 points behind Alberta, meaning those provinces’ 15-year-olds were basically more than a half year of schooling behind the top province in the country.

That is not, of course, how the province of Nova Scotia sees it. Indeed, a few years ago they went so far as to announce that Nova Scotia was 9th in the world on the most recent assessments. The problem being that, in order to get that ranking they had to pretend the other provinces did not exist, and they had to ignore any other sub-national entities for which scores were available. So — let’s leave out those pesky people from Alberta and those obnoxious know-it-alls from B.C.,for instance.

A few years later, they at least conceded that other Canadian provinces might possibly exist and claimed only 18th place on the world stage. Again, conveniently leaving out any snooty high-performing provinces, states, cantons or other sub-national entities from other places — why clutter up the scorecard with people who did better than you?

If we compare apples to apples — states, provinces, cantons and other sub-national regions for which data are readily available; Nova Scotia, and our Atlantic neighbours, are firmly entrenched in the middle of the international pack. If that is how the province defines flying high, then it is no wonder that our kids continue to soar so low.

( Excerpt from The Halifax Chronicle Herald)

on November 11, 2010 at 1:55 pm |Paul W. BennettEver wondered why today’s kids “Can’t Do Math’?

Our newest contributor, Hypatia, hosts a fantastic EduBlog known as “Do the Math.” Looking over the recent posts, I was most impressed. It seems that Educhatter is not alone when it comes to exposing daily examples of “edubabble.” http://ahypatia.wordpress.com/

Hypatia’s first You Tube video entitled “Math Edubabble” is absolutely priceless. It captures, in graphic terms, the absurdity of the so-called “New Math.”

As a professor of Mathematics in Western Canada, Hypatia speaks with some authority on the subject. Stay tuned for more revelations.

on November 12, 2010 at 2:49 pm |Paul W. BennettHypatia has a talent for raising the critical issues in Mathematics education. Yesterday, on “DO YOUR MATH,” I discovered this little gem of sound research and incisive commentary:

“And the research shows…”

Hypatia, Do Your Math

November 11, 2010

“Math instruction in the elementary years is extremely important since later success in math hinges on the mastery of basic mathematics skills. Unfortunately, there is very little rigorous research that supports any given method for math instruction. Although you may have heard, by professors of education or at parent nights hosted by schools, that the “research shows” that constructivist methods work best or algorithms are harmful to children, I have not been able to find any valid research articles that support this (nor was Herb Wilf able to find anything when he embarked on this task – there is a link to his article on the side of the page).

I was, therefore, very delighted to learn of a large-scale 5-year study that was recently completed in the United States. From Mathematica Policy Research Inc., Widely Used Math Curricula in U.S. Schools Yield Significantly Different Results,

What is taught to students and how it is taught may be important factors in a school’s ability to improve student math achievement. A small number of curricula dominate elementary math instruction and the curricula are based on different theories for developing student math skills. However, there is little rigorous research evidence to support one theory or curriculum over another. This lack of information was recognized in discussions by the National Assessment of Title I Independent Review Panel in December 2004 and was recently reiterated by the National Math Panel in 2008. Given the fact that only a small fraction of this country’s students are judged as proficient in mathematics and the lack of rigorous information available, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) decided to sponsor an evaluation of mathematics curricula.

Well, how about that? What a great idea! I am not intimately familiar with any of the four programs that were used in the study but I can certainly get the picture from the description of the curriculum for each. These are apparently some of the most widely used programs in the US. Here is the low-down on the four math instructional programs that were randomly assigned to classrooms in the study:

Investigations in Number, Data, and Space: Constructivist or discovery-based.

Math Expressions: Incorporates approaches from both reform and traditional mathematics programs – a blended approach; balances deep understanding with essential skills and problem solving. Students invent, question, and explore, but also learn and practice important math strategies.

Saxon Math: Concepts are developed incrementally, reviewed, and practiced over time. The philosophy is that understanding follows doing and discussing, mastery follows learning over time, and fluency follows practicing over time. (This would probably be considered a direct instruction/guided instruction approach.)

Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics (SFAWM): Instruction of essential mathematics skills and concepts, using concrete manipulatives and pictorial and abstract representations. (Not sure what a manipulative is? Think digi-blocks, rods, lots of colourful puzzles, etc.)

I mentioned earlier that I hadn’t found any research articles that support many of the favoured approaches to math education in the schools. A very intelligent and well-read cognitive psychologist did, however, point out some articles to me that show that many of the methods purported to be effective by math reformers actually are not as effective as more traditional methods. One that comes to mind concerns the use of manipulatives in teaching mathematical concepts. It turns out that, when a manipulative is too colourful, or has many attributes that a child sees as interesting, he or she becomes distracted by the colours and properties of the manipulative and then has trouble learning the intended mathematical concept (makes sense, doesn’t it?).

I have a personal story to this effect. My daughter was learning about the different combinations of outfits that one can make using three different shirts and three different pairs of pants. At first I was impressed by this (great – she is learning about permutations and combinations in grade 3!). The kids made trees (and I mean trees in the nature sense – the ones with trunks and leaves) and hung the different wardrobe combinations on the branches (the shirts and pants were also carefully constructed by the kids, no doubt). At one point, when things got a little out of control in the class, the teacher directed the kids to get back to doing their math. To this, one of the children replied “Math? I thought we were talking about clothes!”. Of course, this story came from my 8-year old so it may or may not be true but I think it does illustrate the point.

Now, back to the research study. This was apparently the largest study to have ever used experimental methods to compare math instructional programs and included 110 schools. Schools were randomly assigned to the four different curricula. The results:

Among first-graders, math achievement was significantly higher in schools assigned to Math Expressions than in schools assigned to Investigations in Number, Data, and Space (Investigations) and Scott Foresman-Addison Wesley Mathematics (SFAW). The effect is strong enough that an average-performing student’s percentile rank would improve by 5 points.

Among second-grade students, math achievement was significantly higher in schools assigned to Math Expressions and Saxon Math than in schools assigned to SFAW. The effect is equivalent to improving an average-performing student’s percentile rank by 5 to 7 points.

In addition, Math Expressions and Saxon Math improved results for several subgroups, including students in schools with low math scores and students in schools with high poverty levels.

The final report will be available in the summer of 2011 but an initial report is available on the website I linked to above. So, what does this mean? Math Expressions and Saxon Math are the types of programs for which I have been advocating on this blog (focus on both practice as well as understanding, teaching isn’t dominated by manipulatives, etc.) so I, for one, am extremely pleased by these results, but not especially surprised. I just hope that those who design math curricula take notice and make some changes. When a large-scale study like this shows clearly that one method works better than another, we need to take action and make sure that children are receiving the best type of education.”

(Reprinted from Do Your Math)

on November 25, 2010 at 1:02 pm |Paul W. BennettWhile reviewing our Blog thread and reviewing news coverage, I stumbled upon the Halifax Chronicle Herald poll conducted on JUuy 27, 2010 on the so-called “Math problem” in the Nova Scotia system.

The Question: Do you think there is a widespread math problem in the Nova Scotia public school system?

The results were overwhelming:

Some 91% of the 2,999 respondents answered “Yes.”

No provincial report on student performance has ever produced that result. That must mean that the “provincial standards” have no credibility with the public.

See the Poll and the comments at:

http://thechronicleherald.ca/poll/Do-you-believe-theres-widespread-math-problem-within-Nova-Scotia-school-system

In any field, that constitutes a crisis of confidence.

Nova Scotia’s response, so far, should be measured against that alarming poll finding. Major changes, not band aids, are needed to turn the situation around. Inevitably, someone is going to ask, why is the problem such a chronic concern? Do we have “the right people on the bus” leading NS Mathematics education? Is it teacher quality? How much of this is caused by teacher preparation or lack of prior training in math? To be fair, Mathematics results are subject to far more scrutiny than those inflated English/literacy provincial scores.

on January 14, 2011 at 1:34 pm |Paul W. BennettMath teaching in elementary schools continues to be a chronic problem. One of our contributors, Hypatia, posted this proposal on the blog “Do the Math.”

Here’s the post (January 14, 2011) with the proposed solution:

“A few months ago, I wrote a post titled “Is your child’s teacher qualified to teach mathematics?”, where I discussed my observation of extremely weak math skills that are, unfortunately, characteristic of many (not all) pre-service teachers (particularly in the elementary/middle years streams). After reading that post, several people commented to me, informally, that they wondered why Canadian elementary schools do not have designated math teachers who teach only mathematics. After all, our schools have designated gym teachers and designated music teachers. Why not designated math teachers?

This is a very good question, one that has been considered by American mathematician and advocate for better mathematics education in schools, Hung-Hsi Wu. I would like to draw your attention to the article, What’s Sophisticated about Elementary Mathematics?, which appeared in American Educator, Fall, 2009. In the article, Wu argues that schools should have designated math teachers, starting no later than Grade 4. Such teachers would have strong backgrounds in mathematics and extensive training in teaching the type of mathematics that is encountered in the grades that they teach. Some might think that this seems excessive, given that elementary math is so simple-minded (so is gym, is it not?). Wu argues that there is plenty of sophisticated mathematics behind much of the math that is taught in elementary schools and that teachers should be familiar with these deeper concepts. I agree with this.”

For the reasons, go to http://wp.me/pUc9N-92

Comment:

What a great proposal! That’s what I find the most valuable about blogging — coming up with ideas that have the potential to improve the quality of education for kids.

on January 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm |Doretta WilsonI just wrote about this very topic today Paul.

http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/index.php/blog

An article by Dr. Wu was reprinted in our newsletter a while back and I’ve used it to illustrate the point.

on February 13, 2012 at 8:28 am |Paul W. BennettJust spotted the most incredible example of the state of Grade 12 Mathematics teaching in rural Nova Scotia.

After 7 different teachers come and go, the Grade 12 class at Shelburne High School completely bombed the provincial examination. Only one student managed to pass. After parent Monique Fillmore complained, TCRSB official Trevor Cunningham offered up a lame rationalization.

Listen to the official response:

http://www.cbc.ca/informationmorningns/2012/02/13/all-but-one-student-failed-provincial-math-exam-at-shelburne-regional-high-school/

on June 14, 2012 at 9:57 pm |Math 12 StudentHi, I am a Nova Scotia high school student who will be taking the dreaded Math12 exam….tomorrow. While taking a break from my now 7 hours of constant studying I came across this and would just like to tell you my story of being in the public math system. Firstly I would just like to say the problem with the Nova Scotia math starts young and with the teachers. Up to grade 5 I was an excellent math student understanding concepts that were ahead of my grade level. When I went to junior high in grade 6 I had an amazing math teacher who loved it. He made even the most hardest questions fun and enjoyable(everyone did well in the class). Then grade 7 came…. I had my actual math teacher for about a month until her son tragically passed away in a car crash, she left school on leave for the rest of the year. After she left we had a different teacher almost every day. These subs were the kind that just flicked on a movie and just watched the clock until the period was over. They didn’t care about what we learned, they were just wanting that pay check at the end of the day. Now I must admit we did have the odd teacher actually try to teach us a thing or 2, but I remember very well to how some of them were amazed by how far we were behind. At that grade level we didn’t have exams so everyone’s marks were actually half decent with out us actually taking anything real amount of knowledge in. Grade 8 came and that was just as bad if not worse then grade 7. This teacher was THE WORST teacher I have ever had. He did absolutely nothing!! He would put science videos on during our math class and take us on nature walks saying they both were “educational” It was clear to students parents and even other teachers he was not very good at his job. My parents enraged with how my past 2 years had went and blatantly seeing that I was struggling in a course I once excelled in, enrolled in in tutoring, I went 2 times a week. I learned so much in tutoring! More then I had learned in the last 2 years in class. Finally grade 9 rolled around, new school, new teachers, new fresh start. Grade 9 was great, I mad a Calculus teacher that year that was filling in for another teacher that was on maternity leave. She quickly realized with how behind me and my fellow students were and quickly learned about our history with math teachers. Like my grade 6 teacher she loved math and could explain it in a way that even the most confused person could eventually understand. That year we all loved the course again, our marks all shot up in the 80 +. Confident and ready to move on in my high school year grade 10 came around….. remember that teacher in grade 7 that went on leave because her son died. she came back… This was the year of the first grade 10 provincial math exam. this teacher did not even know about the exam until 2 months into the course( we are semester ed) when parents reassured her that there was an actual provincial exam. After she found this out she became a basket case, stressed out all the time, trying to whip threw the material as fast as she could weather we understood it or not. I remember one day I had a question I raised my hand and she told me to put it down because she didn’t have time to explain it… This teacher was out more and more of class due to doctor appointments and was becoming even more and more stressed. One day she was in the middle of teaching and she randomly started to break down and cry getting mad at us for being frustrated because we didnt understand then proceeded to tell us that her doctor told her she shouldnt even be teaching because she was to stressed. Now of course us students told our parents about the crazyness we were experiencing every day from her and parents were complaining to the school. Finally she left completely on stress leave. And we again had subs that didnt care in the slightest what was happening. When the exam finally rolled around EVERYONE did poorly. I was so frustrated at the fact that I had no idea what I was looking that I didnt even look at the last 4 pages of the exam. Thankfully i passed the class anyways. Grade 11 came around and I had signed up to do grade 11 math and grade 12 math in the same year so i could do pre cal and cal in grade 12. When i got my schedule on the first day of school it showed that I had math 12 first semester and math 11 second. that first day in math 12 we were all given a review sheet just to work on stuff that we were already taught. Looking at that sheet it looked like a complete other language. My parents frustrated with how my mast couple math years had went had me courses switched so I had math 11 first semester and math 12 second. All the normal math 11 classes were full and had no room for just 1 more student so then had to put me in a foundations math. This math teacher was again horrible, she didn’t know how use the graphing calculators, didn’t really understand was she was teaching and frankly didn’t really care. I had exchange students in my class and they didn’t really have to do anything because they were taught all the stuff we were learning in grade 11 that they already learned in grade 9. I didn’t do well in this class again. I was again going to tutoring twice a week there i again was learning more there then I was in actual classes. I couldnt take my exam that semester due to surgery but my final mark not including my exam was a 52…even though its clear on all my assignments and everything I had 100%’s. Finally here I am in math 12, I have a great teacher, he is nice and he really knows what he is doing, he understand how to “dumb down” concepts for us slower ones but at the same time can keep the smarter kids working on other stuff so that they are not bored. This math course has been good one, I have a 83 going into my exam and will be passing the course weather I fail the exam or not. Although its been a good year I have some issues. The first day of class he pulls up the statistics about the exam and shows us that only 43% of students in Nova Scotia passed the exam and less then 30% of students passed in my school. Threw this course that has stuck in the back of every ones minds, every one is thinking “why bother, im going to fail anyways” “whats the point of studying so hard I am going to fail” even I am guilty. Although yes I have a 83 there is alot you habe to remember and the wording of the exam questions are so hard to understand, on the practice ones, some times i dont even know what they are asking for. So I am stressed and I probably wont get any sleep tonight because Ill be so stressed. With all of this I just wanted to say that teaching any course especially math shouldnt be thought as a job, it should be thought as a carrier because their attitude about/at their job effects the lives of the students in the long run. I feel bad for my fellow students who didnt have the money or means to get teaching out side of school because I know many of them still have 0 idea with what is going on because they never really got a good chance to learn. Anyways my break is over. Back to studying. wish me luck, Ill need it.

on January 10, 2014 at 9:06 am |math-childrenGood math article.