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The most recent April 2021 Fraser Institute report on Mathematics performance of students across Canada contained very few surprises. Students from Quebec continue to be at the head of the class. On the benchmark Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) from 2003 to 2018, they scored the highest (532 in 2018), 20 points above the Canadian average, and continued to outpace those of any other province. Steep declines have been registered by students from Alberta (- 38 points), British Columbia (-34 points), and Saskatchewan (- 31 points). Students from two Maritime provinces, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, have steadily declined and now hover around the OECD mean score of 494. 

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Most interesting to analyze is New Brunswick because it exemplifies why Canadian students produce such mediocre results. With PISA scores dropping from 511 (2003) to 491 (2018),  New Brunswick 15-year-old students perform well below the national mean scores on a “steadily negative ” trajectory over the past fifteen years. On the past three PISA tests, 2012 to 2018, their scores have declined by 2.2 per cent, third worst among the provinces. The national Grade 8 PCAP results for 2010 to 2016 while below the national mean do show slight improvement, albeit on assessments keyed to provincial curriculum standards.  What jumps out at you in the report, however, is the row of blanks for provincial math assessments in New Brunswick and the statement “insufficient data to estimate trends.”

Assessing student capabilities in mathematics should, one would think, be a provincial priority when there’s plenty of evidence that students are still struggling in math. The clearest example of this, confirmed in interviews with math tutors over the past two weeks, is that most N.B. students today are so lacking in basic computational skills that they cannot complete secondary school math placement tests without a calculator.

Calculator dependence is now widespread in New Brunswick schools and its most telling impact is in the lagging Mathematics achievement of students.  The use of calculators in North American math classrooms has been common since the 1980s, but top performing nations, such as Singapore, China and Korea, put far more emphasis on integrating mental computation with conceptual understanding before progressing to higher-level math and problem solving. That approach is also reflected in the most successful after-school math tutoring programs such as Kumon Math and the Toronto-based alternative, the Spirit of Math, widely used in Ontario independent schools.

Provincial school officials do not generally react to periodic reports that students are struggling in mathematics, pointing to rising teacher-assigned student grades and healthy graduation rates. Those in the ‘shadow school system’ of private tutoring and the math assessment offices of universities and colleges have no such inhibitions. Most are alarmed at what they see and learn while conducting intake assessments of prospective students. Most perform one or two grades below expected levels and, moving upwards through the grades, wide variations appear in students’ skill levels and competencies.

‘Discovery Math’ is the prevailing teaching approach in the vast majority of N.B. elementary schools and the tutors insist it’s not working for far too many students. “Most students have gaps in their skills,” says Rhonda Connell, manager of Fredericton’s Kumon Math and Reading operation with 28-years of tutoring experience. “The N.B. curriculum is not skills-based, but rather more exploratory of different methods.”

What’s wrong with that approach?  “Students in public schools without basic skills get taught long and complicated operations and the kids get lost,” Connell tells me. “They don’t know their mental math and that’s why high school students simply cannot do the Kumon placement test without a calculator.”

The mathematics deficits grow as students progress from elementary grades into high school. “There’s a widening gap,” says Connell. She finds that students do not know their fractions, cannot do long division or basic subtraction and borrowing operations. The bottom line: “Students don’t have the skills at hand to engage in problem-solving and higher-level math.”

The founder of Mathnasium in Moncton, Jocelyn Chan, saw through the eyes of her son, now 7-years-of age, that mathematics education was sadly lacking. As a CPA with plenty of corporate finance experience, she decided to do something about it by opening the first Mathnasium franchise operation in Atlantic Canada. Since opening in October 2020, it’s grown from 4 or 5 students to 70 enrolments today with a majority of students in Grades 5 and 6 where the math deficits become more pronounced and visible to parents.

The pandemic shutdowns and default to hybrid learning have set students back, particularly in a more teacher-dependent subject like mathematics. “A lot of Moncton area students were already behind to begin with,” Chan says, ‘so the learning loss is more acute.” “Lots of Grade 9s this year are struggling,” she notes, “because of COVID-19 causing them to lose half of their grade 8 year, leaving them unprepared for the next grade.”

Private tutoring after-school programs such as Kumon and Mathnasium both cater to upwardly, mobile, affluent families with the financial resources to afford such programs. Out of 331 Kumon operations in Canada, there’s only one in New Brunswick.  While the Fredericton Kumon centre run by Connell has grown steadily from some 30 to 40 students in 1993 to 141 students today, that’s still a small fraction of the total student population.

Many of the new clients also turn out to be newcomers, recently arrived in the province. Most local parents, according to Connell and Chan, only become concerned when they see their children falling behind or getting lower grades. “People moving here from elsewhere,” Connell notes, “expect more” and “come to Kumon saying that there’s nothing going on in the schools.”

Unaddressed math problems surface again when students proceed on to university and find themselves in popular programs like management, marketing, or economics where some math skills are required to master the core content.  Many turn to mathematics and language remediation programs.

Senior Math instructor C. Hope Alderson is on the front-lines as coordinator of the UNB- SJ Flora Beckett Mathematics and Science Help Centre. As a mathematics tutor, she spends most of her time building the skills and confidence of students struggling in their university courses. Choosing her words carefully, Dr. Hope Alderson confirms what private after-school tutors say about today’s students. “Student have quite an attachment to the calculator,” is how she puts it. “There’s certainly less emphasis on mental computations in today’s schools. They grab the calculator to do simple calculations.”

The pandemic is not helping the situation. Faced with stay-at-home orders, students and families were left with online remedial programs or strictly-limited in-person, socially-distanced tutoring. Enrollment in Kumon Fredericton peaked in 2019, just before the school shutdown.  Since then, home learning and family stresses have kept families away from Kumon.  “Family stresses ran high,” says Connell, “and it had an effect on students’ abilities to focus on their math.” Separation from their social group was especially hard on teenage students.

Mastery of basic math skills is being sadly neglected in our K-12 schools. Conceptual understanding should not be emphasized to the virtual exclusion of mental computation skills. Getting a calculator to do the mathematics for you contributed to the entrenched problem.

*An earlier version of this commentary appeared in The Telegraph-Journal, provincial edition, In New Brunswick.

Why are Canadian students losing ground in Mathematics on the benchmark PISA tests administered every three years?  What can we learn from a case study looking at the state of math competencies in New Brunswick? Is it a combination of factors?  If so, what needs to be done to address the underperformance of our students on international assessments?  

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