A standard, basic math course should be a requirement for elementary student teachers at all university faculties of education in Ontario, according to a report that comes after the number of children meeting provincial standards in the subject dipped to a record low.

The report, released on Wednesday by the non-profit Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity (ICP), stated that about 80 per cent of primary and junior teachers have never taken a post-secondary math, meaning they have not studied it since high school. A new math content course would allow educators “to hone in on their quantitative skills and gain a greater understanding of content” to help children “attain the province’s most in-demand jobs,” the report stated.

The report also recommended that teacher colleges assess new students on their math knowledge up to Grade 8, and have a compulsory arithmetic course to help them with fractions, percentages and other concepts.

A recent Globe and Mail analysis found the amount of classroom time university training programs spent on math for elementary school teachers across the country varies from 36 hours to more than 100 hours. Further, the programs focus primarily on learning how to teach the subject.

“I don’t think we’re blaming teachers,” said Jamison Steeve, executive director of ICP, which is funded by the Ontario government. “I think we’re recognizing there’s a gap between the education level they are receiving from a math [perspective] and what they are required to teach.”

The latest test results in Ontario showed that fewer than half of Grade 6 pupils – 49 per cent – met the provincial standard in math in 2017-18, a decline of one percentage point from the previous year and 5 percentage points since 2014.

Math has become a politically charged issue across the country. Several math professors and parents say provincial curriculums fail to teach the basics and encourage problem-solving and expressing ideas in a variety of ways. But experts and politicians are also looking at teachers’ math skills and training.

Ontario Education Minister Lisa Thompson promised in an e-mail to school boards, teacher unions and parent organizations in July that the Progressive Conservative government would “restore proven methods of teaching the fundamentals” and examine teacher training. A spokeswoman said she was unavailable on Tuesday to comment.

The ICP report pointed to Lakehead University, which gives math-competency exams on numeracy basics, including fractions and volumes, to teacher candidates. The university has found that about one in three people in the first year fail the tests and must take a course to understand math concepts. They can take the test three more times, but must pass it to graduate.

And this fall, student teachers at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) will take a 24-hour mandatory course on fractions, percentages and other basic arithmetic on top of 54 hours focusing on math pedagogy and research. This comes after OISE researchers administered a Grade 6 and 7 level math test to new students and found that about one-third scored at or below 70 per cent, the provincial standard.

Mr. Steeve said mandating a math content course for new teachers would “properly arm” them to teach. “It’s recognizing that they need some more skills to go into classrooms,” he said. The ICP report makes a number of other recommendations, including retaining standardized testing in Ontario, but modifying it to include sample-based tests on “vital competencies” such as citizenship, health and creativity.

Maddie Di Muccio, spokeswoman for the Toronto-based advocacy group Society for Quality Education, said making sure teachers understand basic math is a good first step. But she added that the provincial government needs to revise the curriculum and how material is taught.

“I want the government to not just hire experts, but to listen to parents and students. That is really missing from the equation” when politicians make changes, she said.

The Globe and Mail, September 12, 2018

Note: Here’s a careers lesson plan on this topic.