Are Our Kids Losing Ground in Math?
Hamilton’s poor EQAO results reflect some larger issues in math instruction today. Lack of emphasis on basic skills, less time for practice and consolidation, and a broad and complex curriculum are part of the “math problem” in North America in general. The good news is that there is much that parents and kids can do to improve math skills.
In my many years of teaching and tutoring, I’ve found that math is one of those areas that almost all kids struggle with at some point. But lately, we’ve been hearing more and more from parents concerned about their children’s math skills. And these worries are appearing earlier and earlier. Here at OnCourse, we’ve noticed a significant uptick in inquiries for math help, particularly from grades 4-8.
The recent EQAO Provincial math test results tell part of the story. These results have been all over the news (Spectator: EQAO Confounding Decline), but a few statistics bear repeating:
- Grade 3 EQAO math results dropped from 67% to 62% in 2017.
- Grade 6 EQAO results are even more dismal. The percentage of students at the provincial standard is only 49%, a decline of 7% over the last 5 years.
- Grade 9 EQAO dropped from 47% to 44% in 2017.
Should we be worried?
While EQAO testing is not a full reflection of our kids’ math abilities, it does point to a trend that we see in our day-to-day tutoring, and in conversations with families. Increasingly, parents are worried about how their children will fare when faced with the more demanding challenges of high school math. These are valid concerns.
So What is Going On?
Part of the problem appears to be that many children are not developing math skills in a logical, developmental fashion. For example, a typical math textbook teaches each concept in isolation rather than making the connection between, say, division and fractions. The result? Kids feel rushed, and topics in math feel disconnected. Many students never learn that math concepts are a continuum of related ideas, not just a series of isolated topics. In our tutoring programs at OnCourse, we help kids see those connections, and to apply the concepts to new, real-world situations. This type of “bridge building” leads kids to their “Eureka!” moment, a key part of true math mastery.
Process Is Important
Another concern is the emphasis in elementary school on finding the right answer using any strategy or method. While there is great value in developing creative problem solving and an experimental approach to learning, it sometimes means that children don’t approach new learning in a consistent or logical fashion, making solving word problems feel “hit and miss”.
Sadly, and somewhat ironically, the value in this experimental approach can be lost when students reach high school. If the skills and processes behind math concepts are not solid, many struggle when math becomes more complex, and the pace increases. This is often where we lose a lot of kids who feel math is “too hard”; once their confidence is lost, it can be hard to recover.
Time for Drill
The Ontario math curriculum is large, and growing larger. But the reality is that there is often just not enough time to in the school day to fully cover a broad and complex curriculum. Something has to give, and often it’s time to practice. Math is learned and mastered in part by practice and repetition. More time used to be spent on this in-class, but this has been scaled back with the rationale that most kids have ready access to calculators. However, as we well know, a calculator is only useful if the user has the ability to accurately estimate the reasonableness of the answer. So there is something to be said for good old-fashioned drill and practice!
So What Can We Do?
These challenges are significant, but there are still many things that parents and kids can do to improve math skills and mastery of concepts:
- Talk to your child’s teacher.
- Connect math to real life.
- A great, practical activity is to develop a budget for a family activity or trip that your child manages.
- Take your kids with you to the grocery store, and have them calculate your tab or work out the tax.
- For higher level math, have them work out the best value item based on volume and price.
- Give your kids an allowance for chores, and help them plan and save for a special purchase.
- Explore STEM As the world becomes more tech-driven, ensure that your girls (and boys) get more involved in math and science through activities such as STEM workshops, or Mad Science Camp.
- Inspire them! Check out movies like Hidden Figures and Gifted to help your girls see strong female role models in these fields.
- Build in time for drill and practice Especially during the younger grades. Even old-fashioned flashcard activities can be done quickly and in a fun way while reinforcing skills. Check out Cram, Quizlet or Brainscape for online flashcard help.
- Use Manipulatives Learning tools from the ancient abacus to fraction or decimal blocks engage kids in a “hands-on” way, bringing math to life.
- Check out math apps and games PBS Kids’ Games or the old tried and true, Funbrain.
- For older kids, check out sites like Khan Academy.
- Seek out a good tutor who knows the curriculum, provides an objective assessment, and outlines clear, realistic goals. (Check out Does Tutoring Really Work? for more on this topic.) Pinpointing exactly where the problems lie is essential to ensure that your tutoring dollars are well spent.
OnCourse conducts detailed standardized testing to identify missing skills and troubleshoot the best ways to deal with weaknesses. (Free Diagnostic Assessment) For some kids, this means exploring more personalized ways to build an understanding of content, or better study habits. For others, it means finding fun ways to practice and reinforce concepts in ways that bring math to life.
While we hope that steps are taken to address the concerning trends we are seeing in Ontario, the reality seems to be that schools can only do so much in a day. Getting that extra edge in math sometimes means looking beyond the traditional classroom.
For more ideas on how to help your child, or to learn how OnCourse can help, contact us at OnCourse Education.