Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Make that a numeracy and literacy secretariat

My feeds were full of math talk today, as Ontario Minister of Education Liz Sandals announced a series of responses to concerns over stagnant and declining assessment results on math.
The angst has been rising since the release of the 2012 PISA results late last year, showing that stagnation in achievement in math. It's existed longer than this however, as anyone paying attention to the full spread of EQAO results has been noticing for a number of years.
The Globe and Mail kicked off a recent spotlight on this angst by highlighting a series of petitions started across Canada to bring attention to the concern over how math is being taught and learned in K-12. I was sent a link to an Ontario petition last week. As of typing this, it still hadn't met's threshold.
It's too easy to go too basic on this. Far too easy to call upon a few curmudgeonly people inside the ed sector and parents on its periphery, griping about how things aren't taught the way they used to be, how kids today are getting dumber, etc. That's low-hanging fruit and I would challenge my journalist colleagues to reach a little higher on this issue.
Unlike Sandals, I would say the curriculum in Ontario does need a refresh. Curriculum review is never a bad thing because we constantly evolve-- we learn more about how people learn, different and new ways of teaching to meet the increasingly varied needs of school-aged kids in our classrooms today (not to mention tomorrow and the year after that). I'm not saying the curriculum is broken, but keeping it current is never a bad thing.
I support the added investment in training teachers how to be better when they teach math-- it's one of the areas where the inadequacy of Ontario's teacher education shines through. I witnessed this first-hand three years ago while on my fellowship and auditing teacher-education classes at OISE. One of the courses I audited was a masters of teaching junior-intermediate cohort's trip through a 12-week course on literacy and numeracy. The first block was all numeracy and of the class of just over 25, only a few had math as their teachable subject.
The professor kept insisting and encouraging the remainder of the students not to tune her out, imploring them to challenge their own biases on math, the poor way they'd been taught and and to realize in today's job market, the first, second and third jobs they might get in a school could very well involve teaching math.
With a move to a two-year program in Ontario, teacher-education programs would serve their candidates and those candidates' future students well by spending far more time on math-teaching strategies for primary, junior and intermediate panel candidates. 
When I was working on my EQAO series in 2008, I also saw first-hand how the emphasis was on literacy and not numeracy. The provincial and local investments in literacy far, far outnumbered (ha!) what was being put into math. If you've had a kid in elementary school since the Liberals took office in 2003, you've likely heard of a literacy coach at your child(ren)'s school. Have they had a math coach? Probably not, since there are few of them.
I've told various Ministry of Education communications staffers over the years the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat was full of untold stories on how an investment in a particular area generates results over time. How it's done well with targeted investment and support of existing teachers through their school boards.
Despite its dual name, the LNS has been primarily focused on literacy.
The details of today's announcement don't specify whether the LNS will be a conduit for any of the money pledged by the minister. It exists and already has the structure to deploy this training and new resources-- it would be foolish to set up a completely separate body to administer this.
As to results? They won't be visible overnight as it takes time for any changes spurred by this announcement to be seen. If the investment is targeted correctly, those results should show it in the coming years.


Anonymous said...

Teresa Murray A couple of comments I am the author of the Ontario petition.
A couple of concerns: I am not curmudgeonly; I do not want to go back anywhere in time; I do not want students taught the way I was;I am not part of the low-hanging fruit.

I am recently retired. I have seen the looks of despair in parents' eyes, even though I couldn't say much at the time; for my age I have relatively young children and have spent hundreds of dollars that I couldn't afford; I helped my daughter decipher the Nelson text and I did get it; I know too many people who go without to do the best they can for their children - re math. I have seen the utter confusion in many childrens' eyes. There are real struggling families behind this- families who are doing the best they can. I don't think test scores are everything. And I am experienced and thoughtful. I think that choice of words is important and can create certain impressions

There are people who want help and many have very little voice; they don't read the websites and they do care.

Education Reporter said...


Please don't misunderstand my point-- the critique and challenge wasn't to you or your survey.

It was to my media colleagues. I want them to reach beyond the low-hanging fruit. To go beyond the rhetoric and dig into the reasons why teachers struggle to teach the curriculum, to look at how the curriculum is being taught, to look at what elements in the curriculum could be improved. Too many comment freely on K-12 with an understanding that only extends as far as their memories of their own schooling or their experience (as peripheral as it is for some) as parents.

Kudos to you for standing up for your child and others who are struggling. Your petition has been noticed and may very well have played a part in today's announcement.


Anonymous said...

"Too many comment freely on K-12 with an understanding that only extends as far as their memories of their own schooling or their experience (as peripheral as it is for some) as parents."

Doesn't that describe you and this blog?

The curriculum is firstly a political animal - its stakeholders are a myriad of politicians, bureaucrats, educators and parents, but make no mistake, its finer points are driven by politics. Math is no different. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of education could spot that one.

Don't believe me? Guess where Careers and Civics came from?

Education Reporter said...

Anon 11 Jan.

Agree that curriculum is subject to political animals. Hence my disagreement with Sandals' statement the curriculum doesn't need to be looked at. That's a political statement for her heading into a likely election against an opposition party that has a "back to basics" approach in its policy paper.


Anonymous said...

"That's a political statement for her heading into a likely election against an opposition party that has a "back to basics" approach in its policy paper."

Where exactly in any of Tim's Teaparty policy papers does it outline a curriculum "back to basics" approach?

I've seen neocon anti-Union mush, recycled Harris failures, class size increases, wedge issues and the politically-moronic halting of full FDK implementation midstream, but i'm interested in seeing how he intends to fix a curriculum that is for all intents and purposes, a Harris-era policy.

Education Reporter said...

Anon 13 Jan.:

It's mentioned in Tim's introduction and also in the text on page 8.


Anonymous said...

I understood your challenge to those in the media who write on education issues.

They simply parrot what the news releases tell them without actually understanding the issues themselves.

Not all, but most.

There are also those media who do let politics influence their stories and let government off the hook.

Mike Marini said...

This was my letter sent to Liz Sandals on Jan reply BTW
Please extend my thanks to Minister Sandals for finally addressing a problem that Ontario parents and students have struggled with for years

My son is in Grade 11 and every year until last year, I had to spend hours with him after school "re-learning" the lessons of his math class

Fortunately, as a scientist, I have enough math skills to help my child, and the income to pay for tutoring as needed, but my heart breaks for kids whose parents have neither advantage

There is a couple of areas that I hope you will pay close attention to:

1. ensure that ANY teacher who teaches math or science is actually QUALIFIED to do so
OR make sure that schools have specialist teachers that can come in to classes to support regular teachers

2. better teacher to student ratios; you CAN'T teach math or science to 35 hyperactive ten-year olds, while they bounce on exercise balls around the room

my suggestion: if you can't bring the ratio down to 15:1 or so for complex subjects such as math , then allow school boards to let parents hire their own qualified tutors to come into the school ... this might sound crazy, but if ten students are getting tutoring at $50-75/hr, wouldn't it make sense to let them pool their money, have the tutors come to the school and help everyone?

I know that this idea flies in the face of publicly funded education,
and I feel dirty proposing it, but if schools don't hire teachers based on skills, parents have no other choice but to fill the gap

3. Burn the textbooks.... they are evil
why in this day and age,we are still buying printed textbooks?
why aren't we using digital media in the classroom?

Have a standardized, electronic textbook that uses animated or video examples of
solutions to problems....with printable sections for practice, etc
Take the best and brightest teachers in the province (or world) record their explanations and play them on the smart board ( a la Khan Academy)
Then, use the teacher to elaborate on the lesson, answer questions and clarify the material

In addition, EVERY teacher's class notes should be available to the students and parents either on-line or on paper & EVERY teacher should have a dedicated email address to facilitate contact between parents & students, not just once a year on Meet the Teacher night

too many nights,while helping my son, I wondered what the teacher actually meant by something, but without the original version, it was impossible to know

4. Allow parents to help

The local public school board has a policy that prevents parents of students from volunteering as tutors, coaches or counselors, even when they are professionally trained

If teachers are overwhelmed, it would be better to allow parents to come to the school and
help during the day when the teacher can help coordinate the process, rather than having thirty sets of parents working in isolation without support or training

5. Get input from parents and students too, not just the ivory tower at OISE

Have them ALL read this article as it very accurately reflects the issues that parents, even well educated ones, have with the current system