Sunday, December 11, 2011

Do Manitoba Kids Suck at Math?

A few weeks ago, the results of the Pan Canadian Assessment Program were released. Manitoba finished second from the bottom, just before PEI, in math. What does it mean? Well, to some people, it is cause for lots of worry and consternation. How can this happen? What is the cause?

Of course, everyone trotted out their pet peeves and opinions:

  • A mathematics prof at U of Winnipeg says it is because of the dismal math requirements for K-8 teachers.  There could be some truth to this, very little math/science is needed to get into teacher education programs in Manitoba, including my faculty. Yet, if there is a group of math profs calling for Pre-Calculus as a pre-requisite for teaching (I would think Applied would be sufficient as well), then why don't they change the pre-requisites to their own courses - after all, these students must take 3-6 credit hours of math courses. Additionally, perhaps they should 'beef' up the courses education students generally take, perhaps add a lab component as well? Then again, perhaps some (not all, to be sure) should take some education courses and add some teaching strategies (other than lecture) to their repertoire.
  • Another person blamed the Math Curriculum (actually the MB curriculum is based on the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol - used across Western Canada & the North). Perhaps some blame needs to go to MB Education. With budget constraints, courses are no longer piloted. Most do not have support materials. In a similar vein, perhaps MB Education and school divisions need to offer quality, long term, mandatory professional development for new curricula/approaches.
  • Another person says it is the lack of time spent on Math in schools (might be true - but what goes?)
  • Another enlightened soul says it is Manitoba's "no fail policy" (which does not exist - although divisions and schools can set such policies)
  • Yet others say it is not the curriculum per se, but the approach - we don't drill and kill enough! It was good enough for me, it is good enough for my kids! 
- and on it goes...

Amazingly, I was surprised and somewhat pleased with the response from (I shudder to say) the Education critic for the Conservative Party - who did not jump to blame the ruling NDP government, but said we need to look in the mirror and see what we can do to improve.

Of course, very few question the tests themselves - what are they testing? What do they really tell us, if anything? How do the questions relate to our curriculum? Who wrote the test, compared to other Provinces? How accurate & reliable can the results of a one shot test be?  I found it interesting that although MB slipped in overall rank, students actually improved from the last test (see article linked in last paragraph). This quote from the web site speaks volumes as well:

Over 90 per cent of Canadian students in Grade 8 are achieving at or above their expected level of performance in mathematics, that is to say, at level 2 or above. Almost half are achieving above their expected level.

Another issue is the general view of Math in society. What other subject area do people seem to take pride in not being good at? "Oh - I was never any good at math" is used as an excuse. Parents (and others) who profess a hatred - or strong dislike - of math, who speak of it not being useful. Perhaps trying to change that image should be a priority.

One other thing the critics are missing is the complexity of the educational process. There may be something to all - or none - of the postulated reasons for the results. Picking out a single 'cause' to the results is ridiculous, many factors go into successful learning, and reactions that result in quick band aid fixes are not the answer. If we are really concerned about the apparent lack of achievement, a number of issues need to be examined. I only hope that public consternation and a vocal group does not lead to a knee-jerk, politically expedient response that appeases a few people, but does not do much to address improving education.

In this article, the President of the Manitoba Teachers Society offers up a dose of sanity. Yes, we do need to look at these results, we need to look at what they mean. We do not have to create needless anxiety and resort to knee-jerk reactions. We should always examine what we do in schools, and always strive to improve. However, we must recognize the complexity of teaching and learning, and address the root causes.