04/11/2018 10:47 EDT | Updated 04/11/2018 10:51 EDT

Solve Ontario's Math Education Problem For All Students, Not Just The Rich

Students at schools with median family incomes exceeding $150,000 per year are most likely to meet provincial math standards. What about everyone else?

In the spring of 2004, newly elected Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty had a problem. Students across the province were floundering on Ontario's standardized Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) exams. For example, the number of Grade 6 students at the provincial standard in math had been stuck in a stubborn range of between 46 and 54 per cent for five years running.

McGuinty decided to announce major policy and curriculum changes and promised to get 75 per cent of Ontario's students up to the provincial standard in each of the three subject areas tested by the EQAO: reading, writing and math.

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Fourteen years later, kids are faring better in reading and writing, but for the past two years the number of Grade 6 students at the provincial standard for math was, wait for it... 50 per cent.

As Meat Loaf once said, two out of three ain't bad.

Those who see the folly in forcing kids to "problem solve" without mastering basic arithmetic have pounced on the most recent EQAO scores as evidence that Ontario's discovery-based math curriculum isn't working.

Missing from most of these critiques is the depressing observation that in the absence of a billion-dollar private tutoring industry, the numbers would be a lot worse.

As Peter Goffin recently noted in the Canadian Press, enrollment at extracurricular math programs such as Kumon, Oxford Learning, Mathnasium and Spirit of Math has exploded in recent years, with Kumon alone reporting more than 28,000 students in October.

There's lively debate as to whether these businesses are larding their coffers by exploiting the neuroses of hard-driving Yuppie parents or filling major gaps.

In the absence of a billion-dollar private tutoring industry, the numbers would be a lot worse.

I was curious if there was official data to help resolve this debate, so I asked the EQAO folks.

Their surveys have plenty of questions about kids' attitudes toward learning, screen time and involvement in extracurricular activities such as art, music or sports, so surely they must know something about private tutoring.

Oddly enough, they have no idea because they've never asked.

Having struck out there, I decided to follow the money.

The chart below is based on data from the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). Each dot represents a single school in the TDSB system. Its position on the horizontal axis reflects the median family income at the school, and the vertical axis represents the percentage of Grade 6 students at or above the provincial standard for math in that school.

Data provided by TDSB and compiled by Ian Cooper

The TDSB has a range of schools that reflects Toronto's diversity. Some schools are rich; others are poor. The range of academic outcomes is also wide, with one school scoring zero per cent on the most recent EQAO exam and another scoring 97 per cent.

The TDSB is also fairly representative of the rest of the province, with the median school scoring 54 per cent.

There's another trend, however, and that is the fact that higher-income schools tend to perform better. Among the 31 schools with median family incomes above $150,000 per year, the lowest-performing school scored 52 per cent, and the median one was a solid 80 per cent. More than one-third of wealthy schools scored between 85 and 95 per cent.

Meanwhile, at the remaining 293 schools, the median score was 50 per cent, and high performers were relatively rare.

In other words, the difference between a middling TDSB school and one that meets McGuinty's target is $100,000.

On average, for every additional $10,000 in median income, a school's Grade 6 math EQAO score goes up by two per cent. In other words, the difference between a middling TDSB school and one that meets McGuinty's target is $100,000.

The dynamic at work here is obvious.

Poorer schools leave children at the mercy of the curriculum. That means a small number of schools flounder terribly, a roughly equal number do very well, and the vast majority settle around the provincial average.

At wealthy schools, parents who see their children struggle can afford to fork out a few thousand dollars a year on tutoring in order to get them up to a reasonable level of competence, and voila! The kids are suddenly doing much better on the tests.

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This is an ugly reality to face for any government, but it should be particularly troubling for Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, who have been trying to raise their moribund reelection prospects with high-profile measures to boost economic and social equality, such as energy rebates, a minimum basic income, an increased minimum wage and free daycare.

When it came to rewriting Ontario's sex-education curriculum, the Liberal government did not shy away from controversy in order to do what it thought was right.

With its recent promise of a "curriculum refresh" on the academic side of things, Wynne's charges seem a lot less confident that they actually have any answers.

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On the other side of the political spectrum, newly anointed Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford seems to be treating the traditional nuts and bolts of educational policy as a subject best avoided. The self-styled populist's biggest educational priority appears to be to tear down Wynne's sex-education curriculum rather than to tackle more challenging and less polarizing academic issues.

Ford can bash an elite bogeyman until he's blue in the face, but in the absence of quality public education it is difficult to imagine how he expects to empower his base, whose children will only fall further behind their wealthier peers in a society where numeracy is increasingly valuable.

Whoever wins the election in June, let's all hope that 14 years from now someone has finally solved Ontario's math problem for all of its students — not just the ones with rich parents.

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