Making education better by the numbers: What can be done to increase math success in Ontario?

It’s a Monday night in the living room of the Meroy family, and Grade 6 student Levi*, 12, helps his sister Laura*, 9, with her Grade 4 math homework: making patterns with shapes and numbers. Both kids go to Our Lady of Mercy Elementary, a school under the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board in Mississauga, Ont.

Math is Levi’s favourite subject. He says he doesn’t find it challenging, saying he’s not nervous at all about the annual test happening at the end of the year for Ontario sixth graders.

In contrast, Laura struggles a bit more with her Grade 4 math. Their mom, Leah, says she’s enrolled Laura into Kumon, an after-school tutoring program for math and literacy, to help build her practice and knowledge in basic math skills like multiplication.

“Some of her teachers are very concerned she’s having a hard time catching up with some of the basics,” Meroy says. “She gets more practice doing that in Kumon.”

Laura’s struggle with math is familiar to many elementary school students across Ontario, as shown from declining math scores in provincial tests.

According to a report from the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), the organization administering the provincial assessment of math and literacy skills, students’ success in mathematics has been declining across the province in the last five years.

Along with the provincial government, educators and academic experts believe change is needed to improve Ontario students’ math skills.

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of Grade 3 students meeting provincial standards for math dropped from 68 per cent to 63 per cent, says the report, released in 2016. The percentage of sixth-grade students meeting the standard dropped even more: from 58 per cent in 2011 to 50 per cent in 2016.

In April 2016, the Ontario Ministry of Education funded $60 million towards a new plan aimed at improving students’ math abilities, but experts are at odds as to what improvements should look like.

Key strategies in the plan are to require schools to allot 60 minutes a day towards grades 1-8 math instruction, training three teachers in every elementary school to be math specialists, and professional days for teachers to get training on teaching math.

However, opinions among experts vary on whether provincial initiatives will actually help math learning.

Students need to be taught to have a stronger handle on basic math skills, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, according to Frances Agro, manager of outreach and teacher support of JUMP Math Ontario.

The organization is part of JUMP Math Canada, a non-profit group that provides math programming and resources to educators and parents to further an enthusiasm and understanding of math in students. JUMP Math programs have been implemented in over 400 schools across Canada and the United States.

“Mathematics is a cumulative subject, meaning that every new skill builds on a previously learned skill,” Agro says.

According to her, students should master foundational math skills like understanding the value and relationships of numbers in order to be able to solve harder problems later on.

“If kids leave primary school without that foundation, then everything they learn from grades three and up becomes a surprise every day because they’re not building on that foundation,” she says.

Levi echoes the need for building on a foundation as he helps Laura with her homework.

“Sometimes the new things we learn we don’t really know because we weren’t prepared from last year,” he says.

A report by Anna Stokke, a University of Winnipeg mathematics professor, gives several suggestions for improving math foundations and thereby math scores.

Stokke proposes teachers use a “direct instruction” approach to teaching math, as opposed to an “experiential-based” approach.

The experiential-based approach, she explains, is having the teacher act more as a guide on the sidelines, allowing children to figure out answers to math problems through various means, like using visual and hands-on materials.

Direct instruction, however, is when the teacher takes a more proactive role, teaching specific methods of math and having students practice these methods over and over again to retain them, she says.

Stokke argues that school boards push for experiential-based methods to be used in teaching math, which contributes to the failure of students to retain basic math practices and ideas.

While Jamie Pyper, a Queens University professor of math education, sees the value in direct instruction methods, he also says educators shouldn’t underscore importance of experiential-based learning in the classroom.

He says learning math is more than just a one-way path, that students will more likely retain the skill if they know the reasons behind learning skills, and discovery-based methods give those reasons.

“There needs to be a focus on the environment in learning math, not just the actual content,” Pyper says.

Pyper also says it is important to have an “ongoing review process” for math curriculum in schools, paying particular attention to the depth of what students are learning, not just the range of content.

“It’s nice to learn something really well before moving on to something else,” he says.

Stokke supports the province’s new requirement of 60-minute math instruction, the first time Ontario has mandated a specific amount of time to teaching a subject, but she expresses doubt about whether the initiative will change much if the methods of teaching are the same.

“If it’s just the doubling down on what’s already been going on and not working and causing the decline in scores, then it’s not going to help,” Stokke says.

“More important is that the government concentrate on what’s actually going to improve outcome instead of just throwing money at the problem without thinking about whether it’s going to have a positive impact or not,” she says.

Both Stokke and Pyper say school teachers need to have a better education in mathematics in order to give effective math education. They say the amount of required hours for mathematics in teachers’ college should be increased.

In the classroom, teachers face the challenge of teaching a variety of different province-mandated subjects alongside accommodating the social and emotional issues of students with different abilities and needs, according to Agro.

“Teachers are almost left having to make decisions every single day about what’s going to fit with all of their needs,” Agro says. “Inevitably, something gets lost.”

The Conseils des Écoles Publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario (CEPEO), a French school board in Ottawa, already has implemented math specialists in its schools before the provincial government’s plan was created.

The CEPEO is an outlier in statistics of EQAO scores. From 2011-2016, the percentage of Grade 6 students passing the provincial standard for math in EQAO rose to 86 per cent from 84 per cent.

Jean-Pierre Dufour, CEPEO superintendent of education, says his school board already invests in hiring teachers specifically in charge for helping students with numeracy skills for each school.

Dufour says the board analyzes EQAO data and local observations of every school to see specific strengths and needs for support for every student.

“We do a specific plan for specific schools on the reality of the particular school,” he says.

Dufour emphasizes how the school board collaborates with school staff on creating a plan to help students. In addition to student-specific support, he says the CEPEO has a “pedagogical counsellor” who provides training and support at the school level for teachers to teach math.

“We put money in for a good reason, for the wellbeing and success of our students,” Dufour says.

Back at the Meroy house, Laura moves on to addition in her homework, drawing out different squares to represent big numbers. Her mother says she’s going to keep Laura in Kumon for now, as she’s improving in school because of the extra time she spends on concepts she had difficulty with.

“Math is everywhere. You cannot skip math,” Meroy says. “I don’t want them to suffer later on when they’re in high school, in college, if they don’t know much in math.”

*Names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the children, at the request of Leah Meroy, their mother.