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Ontario's Math Scores Are Down, So Creating STEM Jobs Doesn't Add Up

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Justin Lewis via Getty Images
Justin Lewis via Getty Images

In Ontario, an election is underway, and the Progressive Conservative Party is promising to create one million new jobs over the next eight years.

Chances are, a lot of these new jobs will be in the STEM sector (science, technology, engineering, and math). But already Ontario doesn't have enough citizens with the ability to do these STEM sector jobs!

The Conference Board of Canada in its recent report The Cost of Ontario's Skills Gap identifies 25 occupations experiencing skill shortages in Canada -- mostly engineering, skilled labour and trades, computing, accounting, and health services. Virtually all of the occupations experiencing skill shortages require math proficiency.

Unfortunately, very few Ontario citizens are very good at math. According to the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of International Competencies, only about 16 per cent of Ontario's citizens demonstrate the level of math proficiency needed to even consider a STEM career.

Even more worrisome, the math scores of Ontario students have been dropping for the past five years, such that last year only two-thirds of grade three students even passed the provincial test, with only 12 per cent of students being judged proficient in math. And it's the same story when it comes to international comparisons of student achievement like the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study and the Programme for International Student Assessment.

Ontario's education leaders have no explanation for these poor math results. After all, class sizes are smaller, much more money is being spent, there are more math consultants and more professional development, there is a new Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat... In short, education leaders have been pulling out all the stops in their efforts to increase student learning.

As part of these efforts, Ontario's education leaders have been changing the way math is taught in the province. For the past five years or so, they have been heavily promoting "discovery-based" teaching methods and discouraging teachers from using more traditional methods such as memorized times tables and standard arithmetical techniques (which, not coincidentally, disappeared from the provincial math curriculum during this period).

The result, as we have seen, has been a steady drop in students' math proficiency. This really should not come as a surprise, as common sense, the research, and the experience in other jurisdictions all strongly suggest that these new discovery-based methods result in less student learning, especially when it comes to disadvantaged students and boys.

Instead of directing teachers to use discovery-based methods, education leaders should be encouraging classroom teachers to use proven methods like teacher-led instruction, standard arithmetical techniques, memorized number facts, and lots of practice. In addition, good traditional math tests like Saxon Math and Singapore Math should be restored to the list of approved texts, teachers should be provided with training in effective teaching methods, and the trend towards dumbing down the provincial math curriculum should be reversed.

Because they mistakenly believe that they have no aptitude for math, students with low numeracy scores typically drop math as soon as they can, thereby closing the door to hundreds of STEM careers. But it doesn't have to be like this!

John Mighton, a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto, has shown that, with proper teaching, all children can become proficient at math and understand advanced concepts. At the moment, only about 15 per cent of Ontarians are reaching this goal!

Dr. Mighton is so distressed by this terrible waste of human potential that he has written two books: The Myth of Ability and The End of Ignorance. In the latter book, Dr. Mighton writes about the ignorance that leads our society to "neglect the majority of children by educating them in schools in which only a small minority are expected to naturally love or excel at learning." Yet Dr. Mighton knows, and has proven, that virtually all students have extraordinary potential - potential that is not being realized by the majority of students because of the way they are being mis-educated.

If Ontario is lucky enough to get, say, even 500,000 new STEM sector jobs, that would be the good news. But the bad news would be that at present we don't have nearly enough citizens who can fill them. It is critically important that our children receive the education they need to reach their potential, get good jobs, and help put Ontario back on its feet again.


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