I failed Grade 9 math and I can tell you with absolute certainty that this failure had nothing to do with a lack of knowledge on the part of my math teacher — a stern woman who knew her stuff.
It had to do with me: with my own fear and laziness around the subject. And perhaps with the way math was taught at the time. When you struggle in a particular class, you’re not inclined to solve a problem on the blackboard in front of your peers. You’re inclined to skip that class to save yourself the embarrassment.
But that was then (the mid-2000s) and this is now.
I’m not trying to presume that my math story is universal or indicative of the challenges Ontario students face today. And they face a lot of them. Newly released standardized test results show that elementary-school math scores are on the decline in the province.
But I do think my story is one of many that points to the wrongheadedness of the provincial government’s latest education announcement.
According to a memo recently obtained by The Canadian Press from the office of deputy education minister Nancy Naylor, new Ontario teachers will soon be required to score at least 70% on a mathematics proficiency test in order to teach professionally.
This doesn’t mean simply that new math teachers must take a proficiency mathematics test, but that all new teachers, regardless of discipline, will have to take a math test.
It doesn’t matter that the only math a new English teacher may do in her classroom is in her head (adding up how many copies of Macbeth to distribute). If she can’t pass the proficiency test she won’t be distributing anything. She’ll be searching for a new calling.
This is a shame because proficiency on a test has arguably little to do with teaching proficiency in the classroom. I may lack a PhD in education but even minimal research into the subject reveals that the factors most commonly known to improve learning and test scores are changes to curriculum and greater support for students. (And according to one study: exposure to sunshine in the morning.)
The Ministry claims a math proficiency test “will enhance teacher confidence and sense of efficacy in teaching mathematics.”
But how do we know that any of this is even half-true? We don’t. Like a struggling math student, the provincial government consistently fails to show its work. There is no evidence to suggest that testing teachers will improve Ontario students’ test scores, just as there was no evidence to suggest (as former education minister Lisa Thompson did) that bigger class sizes improve student resiliency.
None of this should surprise us, however, because we’re dealing with leadership that doesn’t appear to concern itself with evidence.
What was Lisa Thompson’s reason for touting larger class sizes earlier this year? A group of professors and employers allegedly told her that young people today lack coping skills.
What they should have told her is that she and her colleagues lack the skills to govern until they prove otherwise.
If the Ford government is prepared to force Ontario teachers to take a proficiency test, he and his peers should (as many on social media are demanding) take a proficiency test too.
More specifically, in the spirit of respecting taxpayers, the Ford government should take a math test to prove it has the skills to manage public money. It should also take a civics test to prove it knows how government works before it makes sweeping cuts to our institutions.
And because the provincial Progressive Conservatives are in the business of testing educators on a subject many of them don’t even teach, it’s only fair that Ford et al be mandated to pass a test on a subject that has nothing to do with the act of governing. Say, for example, an exam on contemporary Canadian literature.
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Will any of this improve students’ math scores? Unlikely.
But it would be fun to watch. And at the very least, Doug Ford might finally learn who Margaret Atwood is.
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