Subtracting new math in Saskatchewan

November 3, 2017

Published by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Finally, after enduring years of fuzzy math, Saskatchewan parents may finally have cause for hope.

Not only did the provincial government’s latest throne speech acknowledge that Saskatchewan students have the worst math skills in the country, the speech pledged to address the problem with a “common-sense” plan that focuses on the basics. That is, indeed, good news for parents and children in Saskatchewan.

During a recent radio interview, newly-minted education minister Bronwyn Eyre made it clear that she intends to change the way math is taught in Saskatchewan schools. While Eyre is not the first education minister to bemoan the state of math scores, she is the first to propose a comprehensive set of reforms that would address the problem.

Among other things, Eyre expressed a willingness to implement cross-provincial numeracy assessments (a.k.a. standardized testing), spoke favourably about a back-to-basics approach to math instruction, and acknowledged that the current approach to math teaching was, in a word, driving parents and students “crazy”.

Eyre even suggested that students should have the right to a math textbook that actually shows them step-by-step how to solve math problems.

These statements are music to the ears of parents who are fed up seeing their children come home with nonsensical math assignments. When parents who work as accountants, engineers, or even university math professors have difficulty deciphering the convoluted word problems in textbooks such as Math Makes Sense, something is clearly amiss.

As these and many other frustrated parents already know, students need to master the basics in order to be successful in math. This means learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and memorizing math facts such as the times table. Mastery of the basics provides students with the foundational skills necessary to tackle more advanced math problems.

However, if Saskatchewan’s education minister intends to introduce a common-sense approach to math instruction to schools, she will encounter heavy resistance from education professors and curriculum consultants. This resistance faces every education minister who challenges the educational establishment.

Most notably, the progressive education ideology, which de-emphasizes subject-specific content knowledge (such as learning the times tables) and encourages teachers to avoid direct instruction (actual teaching), now dominates the education system. Many math education professors, not to be confused with actual mathematicians, have built their entire careers on progressive ideology and will defend it vigorously, even in the face of contrary evidence.

As a case in point, Dr. Jo Boaler, a math education professor at Stanford University, is a regular speaker at teacher professional development conferences in Canada and the United States. Boaler’s ideas are about as far away from Minister Eyre’s proposed math reforms as it is possible to get. In particular, Boaler stridently opposes the use of timed math facts drills and discourages students from using the standard algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Sadly, Boaler is only one of countless math education professors who promote this failed ideology.

While many grassroots teachers recognize the need for students to master the basics, the same cannot be said for the hundreds of math consultants who work for education departments and school boards. Many of them are devoted disciples of math education professors like Boaler.

As a case in point, Jennifer Brokofsky, the Coordinator of Mathematics for Saskatoon Public Schools, recently described Boaler as her “math hero” in an article she wrote for the Saskatchewan Mathematics Teachers’ Society. Thus, it is highly unlikely that Brokofsky and other like-minded education consultants are going to warmly welcome Minister Eyre’s new direction. Rather, they will do everything they can to stymie it.

Minister Eyre can also expect fierce resistance from within her own department. Many of the people working in the education department come from the ranks of education superintendents and curriculum consultants, most of whom have climbed the career ladder by espousing progressive education ideas and enacting progressive policies.

While Minister Eyre’s department officials may not openly oppose her planned reforms—at least not to her face– they won’t exactly help her either. Watch the British political satire Yes Minister to see what this passive resistance might look like.

Saskatchewan has an opportunity to make substantial reforms to math instruction. Hopefully, Minister Eyre overcomes resistance from the establishment and pushes ahead with some improvements.