December 18, 2013

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

When it comes to math skills, Canadian students are getting worse, not better. That was the finding of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released Dec. 3. Among the 65 nations that participated in the OECD study, Canada’s overall standing in math fell to 13th from 10th in 2009 and 7th in 2006.

Nova Scotia is no exception to this trend. The province has steadily declined since 2003 and its students scored significantly below the Canadian average. Clearly, something is wrong with the way Nova Scotia schools teach mathematics.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education chose to downplay this problem with a news release entitled, “Nova Scotia students perform well in international assessments.” While the release acknowledged a decline in math scores, it suggested that a newly introduced math curriculum in Nova Scotia schools would fix this problem.

The new math curriculum stems from a commitment the previous government made. Last year, former Education Minister Ramona Jennex announced that Nova Scotia would import and adopt Alberta’s math curriculum. The reasoning behind this announcement was that since Alberta students have some of the best test results in Canada, adopting their curriculum would lead to similar results in this province.

At a superficial level, this announcement made sense. After all, if Alberta’s math curriculum improved student achievement in that province, why wouldn’t it do the same here? There’s just one problem with this approach — it did nothing of the sort.

The reality is that Alberta’s math scores, as measured by PISA, have been in a free-fall since 2003. In fact, next to Manitoba, Alberta experienced the biggest decline in math skills over the last decade. While Alberta students used to perform well above the Canadian average in math, they are now merely average.

Alberta’s decline coincides with the adoption of a new math curriculum known as the Western and Northern Curriculum Protocol (WNCP). The WNCP downplays the importance of practice and memorization and encourages students to invent their own ways of solving math questions. Instead of learning the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, students invent their own.

This approach to teaching and learning, often called romantic progressivism or constructivism, is widely pushed within faculties of education. “A teacher should be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage” is its mantra. The WNCP math curriculum was heavily influenced by this philosophy. Considering the large number of provinces that follow the WNCP, it should come as little surprise that math scores across the country are declining.

Instead of adopting a math curriculum that led to worse student achievement, Nova Scotia should consider better options. One is to look at the only province to maintain its high standing in math — Quebec. Unlike many other provinces, Quebec still has a math curriculum that places a strong emphasis on the mastery of fundamental skills.

In addition, at least one province using the WNCP math curriculum has made steps to reverse course. Manitoba’s education minister recently announced a new back-to-basics approach in math. Students in K-8 will now be expected to memorize their math facts, solve math questions without a calculator, and use traditional algorithms for basic math operations. Given that Manitoba is one of the lowest achieving provinces in the country, this announcement came not a moment too soon.

However, if Nova Scotia wants to make significant improvements to its math scores, the education minister should take even bigger steps than Manitoba. John Mighton’s JUMP math program could be just what this province needs.

The JUMP approach to math instruction is almost exactly opposite from WNCP. Instead of leaving students to figure out their own ways of solving math questions, JUMP helps students break a math problem down to its component parts. Students are taught math concepts sequentially and must practise a skill until it becomes automatic.

Several years ago, a research team from the University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, conducted a randomized controlled study of JUMP math’s effectiveness. It divided approximately 300 students into two groups, one taught WNCP-style math and the other JUMP math. Students in the JUMP math program significantly outperformed students in the other group.

The widespread adoption of JUMP math, or something like it, could revolutionize math instruction in this province. It’s time for Nova Scotia to take bold action and reverse its longstanding decline in math skills. The status quo is unacceptable.