The emphasis on child-centred learning in earlier grades is preventing Ontario students from mastering the fundamentals at school, a problem highlighted by their worsening performance in math in the latest province-wide EQAO test results, says Doretta Wilson, executive director of the Society for Quality Education.
The Society for Quality Education (SQE), based in Waterloo, Ont., is a non-profit organization that works to significantly improve student learning in Canada.
Public schools are heading in the wrong direction with a student-centred curriculum, an approach emphasizing problem solving and allowing students even in earlier grades to decide their own learning goals and construct their own understanding of what they’re learning, with the teacher only as a facilitator, says Wilson in an interview with Our Kids Media.
“There’s too much emphasis, especially for math, on problem-solving skills at too early an age instead of making sure that children have mastered fundamental skills,” says Wilson, who has served on the board of Ontario’s Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) from 1997 to 2005 and chaired its audit committee. “What we’re most concerned about is the math results. They’re not improving; they seem to be actually getting worse. . . . We’re very alarmed (by these findings) because we’ve been talking about this now for a generation, but we still don’t see real concrete initiatives in place to correct the problem.”
Without the fundamentals to build upon those skills, students struggle in later grades to do more complex problems, Wilson points out.
“Schools are trying to teach them to do too many things before they’re ready,” she says. “They need to get the fundamentals, and get lots of practice so it becomes all automatic and then apply those skills to problem solving later on. . . . One thing that the EQAO did remark on was the fact that kids who don’t master their fundamentals early on continue to have difficulty as they go through school.”
Since the EQAO is closely aligned with the curriculum, it minimizes skill mastery and emphasizes higher level thinking in its tests, Wilson says. “Schools that spend much instructional time on math skills mastery or systematic phonics may actually see their EQAO scores go down, not up,” she explains.
Even as a huge amount of instructional time is devoted to teaching kids how to “mimic” having these complex higher level skills and background experiences through child-centred practices, students still haven’t made significant improvement in math, she points out.
In response to these concerns, the Ministry of Education spokesperson Kevin Dove says EQAO math results for English-language students have increased between five to 17 percentage points since 2003. “This increase represents the hard work of students, parents and teachers and confirms that we are making progress,” he says. “The EQAO results also identify those areas where additional resources and support are needed to support higher levels of learning and achievement in math. We are committed to continuing to work together to enable all our students to succeed.”
Starting this September, Dove says all students in grades 7 to 10 will have access to Ontario’s free online math tutoring program called Homework Help, connecting certified Ontario teachers with more than 600,000 students who are looking for extra support. “We are also working with the College of Teachers and education partners on initiatives such as the Mathematics Teaching and Learning Working Group, which brings together academic researchers, school boards and teachers to determine how we can move forward,” Dove says.
Highlights From EQAO Tests
On a positive note, students made some improvements on the EQAO literacy tests.
“The performance of individual students varies over time. But despite the variation, there appear to be a general trend toward improvement in most areas,” says Charles Ungerleider, professor of Sociology of Education at the University of British Columbia and author of Failing Our Kids: How we are ruining our public schools. “The effort Ontario has made over the past 10 years to improve literacy and numeracy appears to be paying off. Those efforts will need to be sustained. . . . Ensuring successful school performance requires conscious and continuous effort.”
The Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), an independent provincial agency funded by the Ontario government, released on Aug. 29 the highlights of three of its provincial tests, including two elementary school assessments of reading, writing and math in Grade 3 and 6, and the secondary school assessment of mathematics in Grade 9.
Despite concerns from the SQE about the results, the EQAO reported that Grade 3 and 6 students have made notable gains over the past five years in both reading and writing. The percentage of Grade 6 students at or above the provincial standard has increased by 10 percentage points in reading (from 64 per cent to 74 per cent) and by 12 percentage points in writing (from 61 per cent to 73 per cent), the largest increases among students.
In Grade 3, 73 per cent of students are meeting or exceeding the provincial standard in writing, up nine percentage points from five years ago. For reading results, 65 per cent of Grade 3 students are now meeting or exceeding the provincial standard. In mathematics, the percentage of elementary school students achieving the standard in Grade 3 and 6 has remained stable over the past five years at 69 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively.
However, Wilson of SQE doesn’t see a significant improvement.
“Yes, over last 15 years there’s been improvement, but there’s still a long way to go,” Wilson says. “The improvements are coming very slowly and there’s still a significant number of children that are not meeting the standards.”
Although the majority of Grade 9 students in the applied math course are still not meeting the standard, a larger percentage are now meeting it than ever before, according to the EQAO. Over the past five years, the percentage of students at or above the standard rose from 71 per cent to 83 per cent in the academic course and from 35 per cent to 42 per cent in the applied course. These findings are consistent with Ontario student achievement on recent international assessments, where math achievement overall has been strong in later grades and more modest in earlier grades.
“This year’s results show encouraging signs of student progress in elementary school literacy and in the Grade 9 academic math course. They also show that improvement in mathematics, particularly in the elementary grades and in applied mathematics at the secondary level, is not keeping pace with the improvements in reading and writing,” says Brian Desbiens, chair of EQAO’s board of directors, in a press release. “This should be a call to action for the education system as a whole. It is clear from the gains in literacy that much can be accomplished through focused attention and interventions once an area of need has been identified. This attention must now be applied to improving math achievement.”
How Parents and Educators Can Help
To help students improve at school, parents can ensure they know how to add, subtract, multiply and divide really well before Grade 4, Wilson suggests. Play games with them, and practice at home.
“Parents can also try and push school boards to put in programs that are much more effective,” she adds.
For instance, SQE recommends early direct instruction in systematic, explicit phonics to beginning readers and sequential direct instruction in mathematics. SQE makes available a free remedial reading program and math practice materials through its website www.societyforqualityeducation.org.
“There’s lots of good materials out there,” Wilson says. “They come from research-based practice and it’s about time that we started paying attention to that and encouraging teachers to use them, if not to the point of mandating them in the primary grades.”
Schools need to have better instructional methods, she adds.
“The faculties of education are not really training teachers in the mechanics of teaching,” she explains. “But it is important to teach teachers the craft of teaching using systematic and explicit phonics, which would certainly help children learn to read much better and easier at an early age.”
On Sept. 14, EQAO will release student achievement results for each school and school board in Ontario, as well as comprehensive provincial reports about student achievement on the two elementary school tests and two secondary school tests, including strategies for success and profiles of successful schools.
EQAO TEST CONFIRMS . . .
The tests by Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) tracked the progress of students in math through three provincial tests. This year it looked at the group of students who advanced from Grade 3 in 2005 to Grade 6 in 2008 to Grade 9 in 2011. The analysis confirmed the following:
- Students who meet the provincial standard early in their schooling are most likely to maintain their high achievement in secondary school. Of the students who had met the provincial standard in both Grade 3 and Grade 6, 92 per cent met it again in Grade 9 in the academic math course and 77 per cent met it again in Grade 9 in the applied course.
- Students who do not meet the provincial standard early in their schooling are most likely to continue not meeting the standard in later grades. Of the students who had not met the provincial standard in Grade 3 and Grade 6, 51 per cent did not meet it again in Grade 9 in the academic math course and 71 per cent did not in the applied course.
- Pinpointing the needs of students early and providing support makes a difference. The large majority of students who had not met the standard in Grade 3 but were supported and improved to meet it in Grade 6 carried their success forward into Grade 9. Of the students who had not met the provincial standard in Grade 3 but improved to meet it in Grade 6, 77 per cent met it in Grade 9 in the academic math course and 60 per cent did so in the applied course.
* * * * *
Are students not learning enough about the fundamentals of math at school? Is child-centred learning harmful? How can students improve in math? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below, or vote on the Dialogue Online poll.