Canadian students have more math class, lower test scores

More class time is pointless if the curriculum isn’t up to par

by Tamsin McMahon

Andrew Francis Wallce/Toronto Star/Getstock

When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released its international student achievement rankings in December showing Canada had slipped to 13th place in math, it prompted much hand-wringing about the dire need for more math in our public schools. Former deputy prime minister John Manley said the results, which show that the math scores of Canadian 15-year-olds have dropped 14 points in the past decade, were “on the scale of a national emergency.” In Windsor, Ont., a local school superintendent called for “math, math and more math.”

Judging by the steady downhill slide in Canadian math scores, it’s natural to assume that our schools might be suffering from a lack of math. But a closer reading of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment shows just the opposite: since 2003, the amount of time Canadian high school students report spending in math class has risen to more than five hours a week, a jump of 90 minutes.

According to the OECD, Canadian students now spend more time in math class than any country in the Western world. At 75 minutes on average, Canadian class periods are also the longest in the world. The result is that Canadian students now spend significantly more time in math class than their counterparts in countries that outperform them at math. Our students spend twice as much time in math class as students in Finland, a country that slightly outranks Canada on math scores, and significantly more time than other top-performing countries such as the Netherlands and Japan.

The Canadian school year has traditionally been compared to that of other countries, but over the past several years Canadian schools have added to the already long hours students spend in the classroom. Some have begun experimenting with year-round schedules in hopes of preventing students from losing skills over the summer break, while others have extended the school day. Last year, Saskatchewan mandated a 950-hour school year in hopes of boosting student achievement in a province that scores below the Canadian average in math. The change required some school boards to add as many as 50 hours to the school year. New Brunswick lengthened its school day by 30 minutes a decade ago in hopes of improving its academic performance, and in recent years some school districts ended “potato break,” a two-week break that allowed students to work during the fall potato harvest. As a result, the province now has the longest school year in the country, at more than 1,000 hours for high school students, according to Statistics Canada. Yet its students scored below average among Canadian provinces on the most recent international math tests.

The push for more time in school is expensive, and the evidence from global comparisons that longer classes can boost student performance is weak, says Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education. “You can improve your results by adding more time,” he says. “But you can make a quantum leap by actually focusing more on quality, and that’s clearly what we see from international comparisons.”

Similar debates abound in Asia, he adds, where Japanese students perform as well as their Korean peers at math despite a drastically shorter school day. In high-scoring countries like Finland and the Netherlands, Schleicher says the focus is on getting the best teachers into the worst schools, and on highly individualized academic support for students. Finnish high schools typically have just four 45-minute classes a day, with 15 minute breaks. Teachers typically get two hours of professional development time each day. “Having ‘too little’ instructional time is a problem that I never imagined having,” Tim Walker, an American teacher who moved to Finland, wrote on his blog when he discovered he was expected to teach his Grade-5 students seven subjects in an 11-hour school week, an amount equivalent to just two school days in the North American education system.

Supporters of longer school days argue that more time in school means more opportunities to learn and lowers the risk that students from poor backgrounds, who don’t have access to private after-school lessons, will fall behind their wealthier peers. In the U.S., President Barack Obama has warned that a shorter school year is harming American students. States such as New York and Tennessee recently added 300 hours to the school year in an attempt to improve student achievement. Last year, U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove pledged to cut summer holidays and extend the school day to 4:30 p.m. in order to emulate the success of top-performing Asian countries, where students often spend long hours in after-school and weekend classes.

In a report published last year that was widely cited by supporters of a longer school day, University of Chicago economists studied the school environment and test results of 47,000 students in 72 countries and found spending more time in class did in fact boost student test scores slightly. But buried in the coverage of the study was that the only students who seemed to benefit from more classroom time were those who went to schools that were safe and well-disciplined. In problem schools, more time in class made no difference to student performance, and very long classes appeared to make things worse.

“If the school isn’t good, if the curriculum isn’t good, if the teacher is not effective, if the kids aren’t well-behaved and focused on learning, then the benefit you’re going to get from additional class time is probably very, very small,” says study co-author Steven Rivkin. “You’re much better off spending your efforts on trying to get a better curriculum, improving the quality of instruction of the teachers and doing things to improve the focus and richness of the classroom environment.”

Not surprisingly, critics of the Canadian school system often point out that more time spent in class is only useful when it’s actually spent learning the right material. One frequent critique is that widespread changes to provincial math curricula over the past decade have strayed too far from teaching essential math formulas, encouraging elementary students to draw pictures of math problems rather than learn fundamental concepts like multiplication or long division. “We have a situation where we’re not focusing on the basics, we’re focusing on everything else,” says Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba high school teacher and research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. “The issue is not how much time you spend in school, the issue is how efficiently you’re using it.”

Under the new curriculum, introduced about eight years ago, more class time is taken up learning fewer concepts. On top of that has been the move toward a “spiral curriculum,” in which the same concepts are taught repeatedly over multiple grades. The idea is to reinforce fundamental concepts year after year, but critics say in reality the changes mean teachers often end up passing students who are struggling to understand the concepts, because they’ll learn them again in the next grade. “The teachers might start teaching multiplication in Grade 3, but if 50 or 60 per cent of the class doesn’t get it, they say, ‘Who cares?’ because they’re going to see it again next year,” says Anna Stokke, a University of Winnipeg math professor who has become a vocal education critic after researching the math lessons her two daughters were learning in school. The OECD’s Schleicher disagrees that new “inquiry-based” math curricula adopted by many Canadian provinces over the past decade are to blame for the country’s sliding math scores. Such programs are part of a broader global education movement focused on getting students to understand the concepts behind math rather than simply memorizing specific formulas, he says.

More concerning to Schleicher are changes to high school curricula in many countries, including Canada, which allow struggling students to enrol in a “consumer math” stream. Such financial literacy courses, which teach students how to do their taxes or read a mortgage, became popular a decade ago as provinces were looking to lower high school drop-out rates. Allowing students to earn math credits while learning how to budget for groceries seemed a promising way to keep them in school and studying math all the way through Grade 12. But when OECD officials tested students on their math and financial literacy skills, it found that those who had studied academic math tended to also score well on financial literacy, while those who had only taken consumer math courses scored well on financial literacy but still struggled with basic math skills. “They didn’t understand the underlying concepts like probability and risk,” Schleicher says. “That’s really what math is about. So getting people to focus on those concepts makes people capable of applying them in a real-world context.”

While policies aimed at keeping students in math class for longer, such as easier courses and longer school days, are popular with policy-makers and the public, they also mean cash-strapped governments aren’t able to put their limited resources into changes that have actually proven to increase student performance, such as investing in teacher professional development, more effective curricula, more individualized support for students and safer and more orderly schools, he says. Ultimately, pouring resources into making sure Canadian students are spending hours each week in math class might seem like a good idea, but if it’s not actually making them better at math then it becomes a waste of money—and a waste of time.




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Canadian students have more math class, lower test scores

  1. This lack of effect been known about class size for some time. The same is true for funding. In fact, it’s easy to see how more funding can hurt. The woes in Canadian math classes are largely due to a pedagogical ideology predominant today in the consultant class who do pre-service and in-service training for teachers. Some call it “fuzzy math”. This approach promotes these odd methodologies (against most teachers’ good senses!) which are leaving many parents aghast. Message to the tinkerers: Let our teachers go! Let them teach!

    Teaching math isn’t rocket science, but it does require careful organization, systematic development, structure and sufficient repetition to reach mastery, or as the 2008 NMAP report put it, “closure after exposure”. Finally — and one shouldn’t have to say this — it requires teachers to teach.

    What motivated the elimination of the standard algorithms in K-6 in most provinces? Why aren’t math facts being learned to automaticity? Why has conventional scaffolding of instruction been torn down in favour of open-ended, unguided discovery (which is well-known to return poor learning outcomes). Why are teachers being told not to teach but merely to “facilitate”? Why are children not being shown how to “Stand on the shoulders of giants”, as Isaac Newton put it, but forced to learn by consensus and social interaction in tiny committees of 3 or 4 — focussing more on the social experiment than the acquisition of math knowledge or skills. Why? Because these “experts” — few of whom have any qualification in mathematics past high school themselves — are flogging this new ideology.

    Ontario, ask your Ministry of Education what this announced $4M for improved teacher training in math education is going toward? Will it only subsidize this direction further — or will it fix what has been broken by the teacher training already funded? Does the Minister even understand the distinction between the two kinds of training?

    If you want your voice heard visit us at wisemath.org and tell a bit of your story in a comment on the “JOIN” thread.

    • Having to teach teachers high school math says it all. I see it as unqualified.

      But the real reason government wants public school is indoctrination of kids not to question governemtn and unions. People graduate, blame the rich, blame oil companies for 10 cents a litre but in mass overlook the most expensive item in their lives….government.

      It is deliberate that we graduate people without math and personal finance skills. It is deliberate that they understand so very little of real economics and the value of money. Makes them nice compliant gov/union is good…..

      If you want kids that think for themselves, you need home or private schooling where learning is more important than indoctrination and appeasement.

  2. In Ontario, the fault can be laid squarely at the feet of the “social engineers” at OISE, but Ontario isn’t the only province guilty of letting down kids today.
    When I was in school, we did our multiplication tables daily, and that was grade three…..I know some kids in High school who still can’t multiply 6 X 9, or who know how to do long division, or “carry the 1″ etc.
    I’ve seen math “tests” or questions, when the subject is not about how to do math, but more about how to ‘equitably distribute wealth” to the poor…etc..etc…
    Math is not social engineering, but teachers today are sure as heck trying to turn it into such. There’s your problem.
    As well……the math teachers of today would for the most part be completely at a loss to do any advanced math without their notes. Sad, when my 10 year old self in the late 70′s could already do more math than a teacher of today can understand.
    You want better results……get better teachers. The ENTIRE problem lay at their feet….no one else’s.
    Thank you OISE !!!

  3. Parents in Ontario can sign a petition at Change.org (http://www.change.org/petitions/honourable-liz-sandals-parents-would-like-to-see-changes-to-math-education-in-ontario-we-would-like-a-more-structured-system-and-a-solid-foundation-in-arithmetic-and-problem-solving) to encourage the province to re-think its approach to math. The current system fails to teach basics while boring the kids to death. It turns off kids who have natural talent and harms kids who have problems with literacy. The teachers know it. Please let them teach!

    If the link doesn’t work, just google ‘math petition Ontario’.

  4. Yep, we pay the most education taxes in the world and get third rate results. Part of why all education systems need to consider outsourcing the more productive private education systems that are non-union and more focused on getting better results for lower costs. Being nice and easy with our wallets isn’t working.

    As basic high school math is essential for everyone. Its a requisite skill, not an option skill. Even carpenters need to know pythagoras theorem and other basic geometry, as it isn’t just investors and engineers that need math.

    How can our kids be functional adults if they can’t calculate interest on their credit card to know the $1000 TV on 2 years credit really has a $1500 price tag?

    Or to understand inflation, that $1000 last year buys more than $1010 today, so you need returns on money to preserve value. Most kids that graduate are too stupid to understand inflation and personal finance. You know teachers unions know about inflation and high annual raises.

    Maybe time to put more emphasis on math and finance and less on developing the high social needs to fit in at all costs and the indoctrination as to not question government. As lets face it, public school is about indoctrination, never question big government and unions. Yep, they do good at that.

    • Not just credit cards, Dave…..
      Have you ever seen the face of a person between 25 or 40 who just bought their first house and THEN discovers how much interest they’ll be paying on their $400,000 mortgage?
      Financial ineptitude is a common problem today….which is why you have so many folks looking for Government to bail them out of their own bad decisions.

  5. As a former H S math teacher having taught math in 43 minute periods in the seventies and 80 minute periods in the eighties, I witnessed first hand the decline in math, especially then. The very WORST thing to hit math was the 80- minute period. I only got to cover 70% of the same material after the 80-minute period and my department head at the time kept cutting out entire units to my dismay. Discipline became a real problem for me due to the long period of time that students with short attention spans had to endure. One 80-minute period certainly did not equal two 40 minute periods. Many teachers ended up entertaining the students with computers, movies, whatever, to fill out the wasted time. I suggest that 80-minute periods be banned for math and the languages for grades 9 to 11. The other problem in math is that weak primary school students are passed in math into high school not knowing anything. We then had to waste three months getting these students up to scratch in grade 9. It was still a hopeless task. We then had to scuttle even more math topics. The final severe problem came with semestering. One would have to teach two “classes” in the same room. One group just had math and the other eight months ago and more often than not, had forgotten everything! Classrooms became a three-ring circus.
    The problems in math are created solely by our Ministries of Education!!!!!

    • Agreed. I think shorter periods a better; it gives time to absorb new information without tuning out. When I moved to ON I was surprised by the length of the periods; they were about double the length of the periods when I was in school in NL.

      From my own days in school, I remember the schedule sometimes included double periods – largely to accommodate the time needed for science labs. But this led to similar scheduling in other subjects once per week as well – and the double periods in math in particular were less productive, as students started tuning out en mass partway through the second half.

      I think shorter periods and sharper-focused curriculum would go a long way to getting those numbers back up.

    • It’s good to hear from a teacher. I’m in full agreement with 80 minute versus 40 minute math classes. I still remember how boring that was.

    • I have no teaching experience whatsosever, but much experience as a student, and I wholeheartedly agree. 80 minute periods are a disaster for all but the most focused and motivated students.

    • The 1970′s were good for all subjects for the most part, not just math.
      I still remember my teacher “Mr. Sloan” beating the learning into our heads every class. He wouldn’t let you leave until you could do at least ONE of the problems he posed that day…if not, he’d keep you after school in detention until it was sorted out. Detention ended up being the second math class of the day for many students.
      back then…the teachers actually cared that you learned something. Nowadays, they’re only interested in their paid PD days and sick leave benefits….oh…and not too much work please.

      • Please don’t generalize. Not all teachers are “only interested in their paid PD days and sick leave benefits….oh…and not too much work please.” There are those teacher who spend far too much of their own time at night and on weekends, making sure they have the best lessons for their students and spend numerous hours after school each week doing extra help and extracurricular activities, so please don’t lump them all together. I am not denying that there are those teachers who come in 5 minutes before the bell and are out the door the minute the bell rings at the end of the day and don’t put any effort in, but they are not the majority. Good teachers who care about the education system are just as frustrated with the current state of the curriculum and the current educational pedagogy. And trust me, I know a few high school math teachers and they see the problems discussed here. It is truly appalling that grade 9 kids can’t add and subtract integers, or do their times tables. So, you can’t just blame the teachers, who are legally bound to teach what is in the curriculum documents laid out by the Ministry and yes, good teachers will try to go above and beyond to fill in gaps, especially in math and literacy, but this is a difficult battle with large class sizes, students misplaced in course levels, lack of resources, and an every increasing population of students who have a sense of entitlement (“I need and deserve this, so give it to me” not ” I earned this because I truly worked for it”). There is also a push from the Ministry for credit accumulation and increased graduation rates, these kids are getting pushed through the system, despite your better judgment as a teacher. Often teachers are pressured by administrators to pass kids or told to give extra assignments or let them redo a test, etc, so that their failure rates at the school are not too high. The push for lowering drop out rates has resulting a dumbed-down curriculum and a lack of integrity in the credits that are granted, especially those given in a “credit recovery” situation. Not sure what credit recovery is…look it up, you will be alarmed.

        • fyi…the credit recovery program is referring to Ontario curriculum

  6. This article fails to touch on an important cultural difference.

    In other countries being a teacher is more important. It’s a serious profession held in high regard; one that demands a high level of trust and respect and one that rewards the very best; even if with recognition rather than fortune. Although none are paid even 10% of what any Canadian bank CEO commands, they are still important; maybe even more important.

    My history is growing up in Calgary, getting married, having kids, daycare, kindergarten, schools, teachers, blah, blah blah.

    Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein were premiers for most of this time.

    Canada once topped the league tables in math. Alberta topped the league tables in Canada.

    Alberta was simply the best. It was like that Flames/Oilers series that everyone remembers.

    But teachers in Alberta are at the mercy of politicians. Politicians in Alberta treat teachers like unionized daycare workers. Do the math. Teachers are cheaper. Then the politicians reward themselves with fat paycheques for saying so.

    Don’t expect a teacher in Alberta to get a bonus for being excellent. It just does NOT work that way.

    • Alberta students still score the best in Canada. And some of Alberta’s chartered schools are excellent even when compared internationally. I agree teaching ain’t what it used to be, but that’s more the fault of the university system that force-feeds BS theories to B. Ed. students instead of teaching them how to be teachers. See my comment above.

  7. In the mid-90s I dated a young woman who was in her final year of her B Ed. at U of Manitoba. She was frustrated to the point of disgusted with how thorougly ill-prepared her “training” left her for the classroom. (I put training in quotes because that’s how she said it – with finger quotes – it was all theory and BS) I doubt anything has changed since. Instead of adding an extra year – as Ontario has done – maybe they should start making better use of the four years in the B Ed. program, and actually teach teachers how to teach.
    Another thing she told me which I found odd, is that the word “skills” was considered a dirty word among most of her professers. She said that B Ed. students were reminded over and over again that a teacher’s job was not about delivering skills, it was about delivering “learning”. This backward attitdue (no doubt considered very “progressive” among the acacemic crowd) could explain a lot, since math is very much a skill.

  8. For Ontario petition google: Ontario Petition Honourable Liz Sandals

  9. I have been in the teaching game since 1980. At one Education Department Math Seminar, we were told that wrong answers were damaging to young, fragile minds. If a student answered that 4 x 6 was 21… you were to gently answer…..”That is the correct answer to a different question.” I am sorry… That is just “fluffy”. Life is not fluffy… so why drop to that level? There are many reasons why the marks are dropping. There will be no simple solution. I do recommend…. Find the math leaders and follow their example. After all… hockey players look to Canada to pick up tips…

  10. If this new math is so fantastic then why isn’t Private Schools implementing this.?? We are not Finland. I can’t stand it when educators want our Cdn system mirror Finland’s. Cdn provincial governments have taken all the money away from the public system. Finland’s post secondary is free…can you imagine? Finland has high taxes to pay for small class sizes, teachers( who all have MBA) can plan and do more one/one instructing. They teach for 4 hours only and then have the rest of the day to plan one/ones with their students and PARENTS. Yes, they involve the parents and not shut them out of the system. Teachers are paid very well and highly respected. They have offices and staff. Each child can get money to use towards their education eg. learning Finnish or getting extra help. High Schools are overloaded with students in Alberta . Forty per class. Even Social Studies in Grade 11 exams are all multiple choice…Many students pay up to $50/hr for tutors as teachers don’t have time for one/one…Teachers are now teaching classes that they have no experience in. They push lack of percentages,no more rote memory of subject matter and report cards in Jnr HIgh only to have kids shocked at their low percentage marks in High School. Teachers have no time to plan. Alberta sends a few to Finland and then does the knee jerk reaction of quickly changing system. eg. use of descriptors instead of percentages for jnr high without any forthought. Kids suffer who are a part of their pilot projects. Finland took 40 years to develop their system. Perhaps Canada should spend at least a few years getting it right. Make changes top down not bottom up.

    • All good points. One other difference that everyone seems to miss is that in Finland their are no competitive sports. You will not see wall adorned with championship trophies. Schools are seen as learning institutions and sports are left to the community. I believe several other high achieving countries follow the same practice

  11. Somebody pass me my soap box.
    Everything R Craigen says is true and then some.
    That’s why I’m able to earn a supplementary income by tutoring high school students. The curriculum from K-12 is unrealistic, no matter how many “career math” course the “experts” create. Kids are pushed through the prescribed sequence of events whether they can display understanding or not. And–sorry to say this–many primary and intermediate teachers are not themselves comfortable with math. This leaves them unable to dream up a new teaching method to accommodate strugglers. Here’s how my high school math classes went.
    1. Take up the homework. Kids volunteer to put their answers–right or wrong–on the board, and they get credit for this. Meanwhile, I check out the homework done by the students still in their seats.
    2. When everyone “gets” yesterday’s problems, it’s time to teach the new lesson.
    3. Now I say “If you got that the first time around, you can start on today’s homework. It’s listed on the board. (In most classes, 5 or 6 kids start their homework.)
    4. “If you didn’t get understand it that time, keep your eyes on the board.” I erase everything, and teach the same lesson a completely different way. Now another 10-12 kids are ready to start the homework.
    5. “Now watch this.” Erase the board, and teach the lesson a third and different way. By now, most of the kids are able to start the homework.
    6. “If you’re not ready yet, come up to the desk and we’ll do it a different way.” It’s a small group, 4 maybe 5 students. They crouch around my desk, and I conduct an interactive, totally different exploration of the same lesson. Most of these kids will have to complete their homework that evening, but they will be able to do it, ready for when we take up the lesson next class.

    Find me a teacher who’s doing all that, and I’ll show you a class with high scores. The point is, the teacher needs to have a deep understanding of all the ways there are to solve a problem, and all the ways a student can misunderstand the problem. What percentage of math teachers K-12 have that understanding?

  12. It’s all about “feel-good, student-centered, experiential, self-directed, blended, inquiry-based, project-motivated, technology-aided, blended, business-oriented, no-one-can-fail, life-long, income-based learning”
    Very very progressive. Who cares about real math skills? Chinese and Indians can take care of that! We have oil sands and hockey!

  13. Never mentioned is the fact that the Standardized Tests are designed by an international body, that tends to focus on whatever that body thinks is most important. “They didn’t understand the underlying concepts like probability and risk…” it says in the article. I taught mathematics in junior and senior high school in Alberta for many years. We did NOT think those things were the most important. Both are complex topics.

    Comparing the results of those Standardized Tests is about as useless as comparing the results of I.Q. Tests that are designed for a specific group and then used on other groups.

  14. If you take notice that China is given four placements in the list instead of one the picture changes a bit. If all China was included and as one place the picture might even change more. For Western countries Canada ranks a tie for second in reading, fourth in Science, and sixth in mathematics.

    The Overview makes clear Canada is above the OECD average in all categories and even by their questionable breakdown of China. To be in the top of these categories means Canada is in the elite when it comes to global education. Indeed if China is included as one entry this country is in the top ten of all participating nations for all three categories.

    Clearly the sky is not falling.

    • You are right Canada is doing just fine. If my memory srves me well, China streams their students at a young age and only those in the academic stream take the PISA test, nuff said.

  15. the teacher in the picture is hot.

  16. Most of the following is for grade school. I believe that they should make the school day longer till 5:30pm, so the children can do their homework at school and get help from the teacher when they have a problem. The teacher gives the method in the first 10 minutes and then the class has 20 to 30 minutes to digest the info and do the work. Ex. Write the new spelling words five times and then the teacher can ask different children by pointing at the board what the words are? In math again ask what the children neet to memorize or need to know and see if they are getting the info and or if the child is having problems with a question, the teacher can help. The parents do not know what work is involved so they have to first read the work to be able to help the children and if they do not understand what is going on they have to make an appointment with a teacher. How long will this take to get an appointment???
    The school day would be better from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm, then they could actually have two teachers-one from 8:30 to 12:30 and one from 1:30 to 5:30. The one teaching in the am could then prepare their work in the afternoon at school for the next day. The one teaching in the afternoon could prepare their work in the am at school. (not being disturbed by family at home), they are now working 5 or 6 hrs depending upon the amount of time needed to prepare classroom work. With 15 minutes for recess in between and a hour lunch with 1/2 hr walking, running, jogging, and skipping rope encouraged to the children not climbing the climbers to help keep them fit and healthy. This could be part of their gym mark. With a class of gym as one of the classes to teach sports indoor or outdoors as well.
    With the children staying at school until 5:30 pm more parents will be able to pick up their children so there will be less money spent on bus service which in turn can be put into the school system. Also the children will not need after school daycare so their will be no need to build buildings for the Intergrated System of Early Childcare and Learning which in turn again can be put into the school system. for the children can keep going to the registered daycares that are now open or family daycares making it their responsibility to provide a building for the children not attending school are already using them.
    I guess this means one parent has to take time off to be with their child(ren) during spring break and winter break. If the school year was all year long-again a two week break on the last week of July and the first week of August would be considered a good time.
    These are suggestions and any more ideas should be discussed as they come up.

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