It’s all hands on deck for math education in Ontario. In response to Grade 3 & 6 math scores not changing for the past two years the media and “education chicken littles” have declared that the sky is falling and our system is in crisis. Never mind that reading and writing scores have also flatlined for the past two years, what we care about now is math. Just math (I think this is how we got into this problem in the first place btw. Ten years focussed on literacy and ignoring math).

This presumably prompted Premier Kathleen Wynne to announce a “curriculum revamp” of math in the province, which has apparently already started with ministry thinkers discussing math education with educators a week after the announcement. We’ve had a flurry of Op-Ed pieces (1) about math education (2) (both of those are good) and even I got pulled into a podcast where we tried to pull apart what was really going on here:

CBC show The Current even discussed the topic of Math Anxiety, and how parents can deal better deal with it, suggesting that maybe this isn’t exclusively all about curriculum and teaching. Maybe families and our society in general has a role to play here.

The topic of math anxiety is an interesting entry into considering how we, as a culture, value math. This, in turn, affects how our students progress in math.

Several years ago then Alberta Minister of Education Jeff Johnson was addressing the question of why Alberta students lagged behind some Asian countries in international math test scores. Johnson indicated that part of the issue was that these countries simply value math much more than we do. He pointed out that over three-quarters of Chinese families have their children enrolled in after-school tutoring in math (2 hours/night), and provocatively asked parents if they were prepared to take their kids to math class every night instead of hockey practice.

Further, students in China must complete five math courses in order to graduate high school, whereas here in Ontario the requirement is three.

Are we prepared to require students to become proficient at math in order to graduate from high school? Do we see math as an essential basic skill for citizenship in the province?

The fact that there is even a discussion about math anxiety is interesting. What this means is there are adults who will publicly admit that they aren’t very good at basic math. As a teacher I’ve seen this at curriculum nights and parent teacher interviews. Parents who admit they aren’t good at math, with a smirk and a shrug of the shoulders, and seem to suggest that therefore, their children can’t be expected to learn math.

Contrast this attitude with adults who aren’t very good at literacy. Illiteracy as an adult is seen as shameful and something to be hidden. There are all kinds of programs available to help illiterate adults overcome this problem and social support to encourage them to do that. And yet no such support exists for innumeracy.

Part of the problem is that reading is seen as a gateway skill while math is an end unto itself. First you learn how to read and then you use that skill to become educated in whatever way you choose. Reading unlocks all kinds of other learning. Math, however, is seen and taught as a skill unto itself. You learn it, find out how to get “the answer” and then you’re done unless you enter a profession that uses math. People read throughout their lives but think that they stop using math as soon as they leave school. Even trades that depend on math (e.g. carpentry) don’t really think of that as “using math”.

The essential nature of reading is reflected in our parenting. Every parent knows to sit down and share reading with their child. But what about math? How many parents do math with their infants every night? How many babies get gifts of math manipulatives instead of board books?

There’s been some suggestion that it’s good that people freely admit their math anxiety, because this allows us to be aware and address it. I disagree.

If we really believe that math is an essential skill, we have to start valuing it just as much as reading. We have to get to a place where innumeracy is as shameful as illiteracy. A place where we all have to admit, as a culture, that if you can’t do basic math, you’re missing a fundamental skill that’s required to be an engaged citizen.

I wasn’t surprised by anything shared in Natasha Singer’s NY Times article “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues“. I’ve been warning about the ethical grey area caused by corporations recruiting “teacher influencers” (my nomination for worst education related term of 2017) in conference presentations since 2014.

Slide from "Five Reasons Not To Use EdTech" presented at ConnectEd in 2014

Slide from “Five Reasons Not To Use EdTech” presented at ConnectEd in 2014

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This week EQAO released its review of provincial testing scores and it again raised questions about whether or the relatively poor performance of students on math is due to the curriculum or the test.

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This was different by the way than the interpretation that EQAO put on the results. They said the that Grade 6 results were “stable’ with a small decline (1%) at Grade 3. (Incidentally reading scores either went up or stayed the same and writing went down by 1% but apparently we don’t care about literacy any more). Read More

Earlier this week, in response the parent and staff concerns, Earl Grey Senior Public School in The Toronto District School Board banned cell phones from class. This closely follows a similar move by Herring Cove Junior High School in Nova Scotia. At least, that was the media story.

In fact, the so-called ban was really just providing a set of restrictions around when students could and could not use their personal devices. Students could still bring their phones into class if their teachers wanted students to use them. Otherwise, they should be stowed in their lockers.

Students will be allowed to use their phones at lunch, but not for social media, texting, taking or viewing photos and videos. So I guess as a paper weight? And I wouldn’t want to be the staff who are responsible for supervising students who are on their phones at lunch and making sure they aren’t texting or posting. How could you ever enforce that?

The story did provide an opportunity to discuss the issue however. In my opinion the cell phone ban, and how people react to it, it a “bellwether issue”. If you see schools as places where students go to learn how to behave and follow the rules, you support the ban and want those distractions out of schools. If you see schools are places that engage students in learning about things they care about, you oppose a ban. I fall into the later category.

I was asked to speak about the issue with Wei Chen on CBC’s Ontario Morning (Feb 24, 2017) and you can listen to a “dodgy” recording of the interview below.

A few days later (Feb 28, 2017) I was also invited to speak about Cell Phone Bans with Matt Galloway on CBC’s Metro Morning.

And then on March 14th I was the guest on Ontario Today, Ontario’s No. 1 call-in radio show, to discuss Cell Phones in Class: Are they a hassle or a necessary tool?

This is an issue which resonates with a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. It says a lot about what we think schools are for, what learning in our classrooms should look like and what the influence of technology is or should be.

Your thoughts and feedback on the issue and the interviews are very much appreciated.

In 2013 The Ontario Public School Boards Association (OPSBA) made it a priority to develop a position paper on EQAO testing in response to Provincial Policy Memorandum 155 and the position paper of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF). A survey was distributed to trustees and senior staff of all the member boards and based on that some recommendations about EQAO were developed. The OPSBA discussion paper: “EQAO and Large Scale Testing In Ontario” was released to this public on December 12, 2016.

The paper has three main sections. The survey results, the recommendations and “Key Themes” from the survey,

Here are some highlights:

The Survey

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Perhaps the most stunning finding of the survey is right up front. The survey found that 76.7% of OPSBA Trustees and senior staff want to either eliminate EQAO or agree that changes are required. Putting that in EQAO parlance only 23.3% of those OPSBA surveyed found EQAO to be at or above the provincial standard.

Recommendations

There are seven main recommendations:

  1. Equity & Accessibility: Work to remove cultural biases and make the test more accessible to students with IEPs.
  2. Technology & High Order Thinking Skills: Accelerate the use of technology in testing and have fewer multiple choice questions. Make the test more like the kind of learning that happens in the classroom.
  3. OSSLT: Allow students to go directly to the OSSLT remedial course without failing the test first. Make the OSSLT writing activities more like the writing students regularly do (collaboration, peer editing, etc.)
  4. Diagnostic Assessment: EQAO isn’t the same as a diagnostic test and shouldn’t be used that way.
  5. Student Well-Being: There was some suggestion in the Ministry’s Well-Being Strategy document that EQAO would develop a measure of student well-being. OPSBA doesn’t support this.screen-shot-2016-12-13-at-8-04-49-pm
  6. Overhaul how EQAO Shares Information With The Public:
    1. Clarify that EQAO data is limited in scope and has a narrow, specific purpose.
    2. EQAO should fit into school routines, and shouldn’t be a source of stress.
    3. Find a way of sharing data that prevents ranking schools.
  7. Use of Randomized Testing: The Ministry should examine whether randomized testing could effectively replace EQAO’s current Large Scale Testing model.

Reflections

Overall this is a very exciting document. It’s wonderful to have OPSBA confirm and agree what many vocal critics of EQAO testing have been saying. It seems that the tide on standardized testing is truly starting to turn and it’s great to see OPSBA also calling for significant reforms along with Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves.

  • The failure of the OSSLT trial earlier this year has left many questions about EQAO’s ability to successfully manage this transition. EQAO needs to pull back from integrating technology into their testing and develop a more effective approach. Technological failures are further undermining confidence in their competence.
  • The hand wringing about Ontario students and their math scores continues. There’s every reason to wonder if part of the drop in student’s math scores is related to EQAO tests not effectively measuring the kind of math learning students are doing. Standardized tests are good at measuring procedural math but not very good at assessing mathematical thinking. Having EQAO more closely reflect classroom learning may well help with this discrepancy.
  •  The notion that EQAO would develop a Student Well-Being measure is disturbing. Students need less testing, not more. One of the most effective ways of enhancing student well-being would be to eliminate EQAO completely, so eliminating the associated stress for students.
  • It’s great to see OPSBA agree that EQAO must take steps to prevent the harmful misuse assessment data by other groups. EQAO’s stance has been to condemn the practice but to take no steps to prevent it. OPSBA recommends that they start to do that. How about collecting school specific data but not releasing it publicly? EQAO can still fulfill its mandate by publicly releasing results for the school board without stigmatizing low scoring schools.
  • I first heard Dr Joel Westheimer suggest that EQAO could move to randomized testing and get equally reliable data on student achievement. Doing so would also de-emphasize the number of students affected and the stress caused by EQAO. Schools wouldn’t know who was being tested, so no need for a lot of teaching to the test. Great to see that OPSBA agrees.

 

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