Balanced Math Teaching Approach Creates Innovators

Waterloo Region Record

February 20, 2014

Kids who struggle in Grade 3 math are less and less likely to achieve a turnaround by Grade 6, new research shows.

Ontario revised its math curriculum in 2005 to stress problem-solving over drills.

It's meant to help students learn more effectively.

However, findings from the government's Education Quality and Accountability Office, which tests students, show a steady decline since 2005 in the number and percentage of struggling elementary students who improved their math results.

According to a report:

In 2005, 10,793 students who missed the Grade 3 math standard met the Grade 6 standard three years later. This means 28% of students who struggled in Grade 3 achieved a turnaround by Grade 6.

In 2009, 6,923 students who missed the Grade 3 math standard met the Grade 6 standard three years later. This means 20% of students who struggled in Grade 3 achieved a turnaround by Grade 6.

Every year in between, fewer students achieved a math turnaround.

"It may not be the math curriculum," said Michael Koslow, director of data for the government's testing agency. "It could be that teachers had such a strong focus on reading and writing that the math curriculum wasn't receiving the same attention."

"We're comfortable with the math curriculum," said Maria Ivankovic.

Ivankovic is a superintendent with the Waterloo Catholic District School Board.

She said the board is targeting students in grades 3 and 4 to improve their math skills.

Math grades are tumbling locally and in Ontario, inviting criticism of a method that encourages students to discover concepts through solving problems.

Education Minister Liz Sandals is standing by the curriculum.

"I've heard from business and community leaders who tell me that they are looking for graduates who know their math facts and who are also critical thinkers and problem solvers," she said.

"I'm confident that our balanced approach to math will ensure Ontario students are innovators, problem solvers and critical thinkers who will thrive in the new economy."

New research tracks individual students from Grade 3 (in 2005-2006) to Grade 6 (in 2008-2009) to Grade 9 (in 2011-2012) in reading, writing and math skills.

Findings generally suggest that kids who struggle early in school tend to struggle later, that intervening early and often can help turn this around, and that it's important to promote positive attitudes around math.

How our students perform over time

The Record analyzed how Waterloo Region students perform in math between Grades 6 (in 2008-2009) and Grade 9 (in 2011-2012) and then compared this to the provincial average.

The biggest difference is students who choose applied math in high school.

Compared to Ontario, local students who study applied math are slightly less likely to meet the Grade 9 standard (46% meet it locally and 48% meet it provincially).

They are slightly more likely to see their math score fall after Grade 6 and slightly less likely to see their math score improve after Grade 6.

Local students who choose university-oriented academic math in high school are almost at the provincial average.

Local academic students meet the Grade 9 math standard 83 per cent of the time compared to 84 per cent provincially.

After Grade 6, math scores of local academic students fall or improve at almost the same rate as the Ontario average.

This analysis considers public and Catholic students together. The government's testing agency could not provide corresponding Grade 3 math results.

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