John Manley, the former federal cabinet minister and current president of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, does not overstate the problem of falling math scores in this country by likening it to a national emergency.
In fact, he’s utterly correct when he tells The Globe and Mail, “we need skills, we need knowledge-workers to really improve our prosperity and build our society (because) having the skills becomes a very important element to attracting investment and creating jobs.”
But apart from sounding the alarm bell (again), there’s not much he or anyone else is doing about what is clearly becoming a structurally deficient system of public education – one that routinely emphasizes social integration over actual learning.
These days, schools are virtual trauma centers. Teachers are overwhelmed patching up kids who are injured by exposure to all the rank perfidies this linked-in, hooked-up, texting, sexting world has to offer, 24 hours a day, every day. They’re too busy wondering whether little Johnny had a bagel or bupkis for breakfast.
The stark fact is that, relative to their peers in other developed countries, Canadian children are falling behind in every subject that matters to a so-called knowledge-loving global marketplace, especially math.
The most recent results are in and they are not encouraging. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Canadian 15-year-olds plunged to 13th place, overall, in the global rankings of math proficiency. That was down from 10th in 2009 and seventh in 2006. If this trend holds up, three years from now, Vanuatu will be wiping the floor with us.
Why is this troubling?
“Nearly all adults, not just those with technical or scientific careers, now need to have adequate proficiency in mathematics – as well as reading and science – for personal fulfillment, employment and full participation in society,” the PISA executive summary states. “Literacy in mathematics . . .is not an attribute that an individual has or does not have; rather, it is a skill that can be acquired and used, to a greater or lesser extent, throughout a lifetime.”
Despite these rather obvious facts, however, we continue to enlist teachers with liberal arts backgrounds to instruct their charges on functions, fractions and decimals, because, we have been told, actual expertise scares kids silly. Indeed, the problem, many experts say, is cultural.
“Parents with school-aged children will be familiar with the rhetoric surrounding math education today,” observed Anna Stokke, an Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Winnipeg, in a piece she penned for The Globe in October. (The good professor is also co-founder of the non-profit organization Archimedes Math Schools and of WISE Math).
“Children are to discover their own techniques, pencil and paper math and extended practice are kept at a minimum and conventional math techniques are discouraged in favour of using objects like blocks and fraction strips. Teachers are told to encourage children to create their own math questions instead of assigning prescribed problems. It is argued that children will then feel successful even if their math skills are lacking. Much time is devoted to projects intended to keep children engaged in math, such as building gardens or creating posters that list examples of uses of math. Parents are told that these teaching methods have been well researched and will benefit their children in the long run.”
That’s the theory, at any rate. But if this approach works, then why, asks Prof. Stokke “are parents across Canada concerned about their children being unable to carry out the simplest mathematical calculations? Why are business owners, tradespeople, university and college professors and scientists concerned about the lack of skills in high school graduates? Why could only 28 per cent of eighth graders in one of our highest performing province – Alberta – correctly subtract two simple fractions on the 2011 international TIMSS exam, compared with 86 per cent in Korea?”
John Manley shrewdly alludes to Canada’s natural resource sector as key to the country’s competitiveness. It “pays the rent,” he says, “but that just keeps us in the house.”
What will keep us in the global game of productivity and innovation are strategic investments in that other, far more necessary, natural resource: the human intellect.