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OP ED: In search of evidence-based math policy

The Hamilton Spectator by Mary Reid 09 May 2019

When it comes to determining fact from fiction, it’s hard to keep up regarding the myriad of claims coming from the Ontario government. One recent example involves Premier Ford saying that “one third of our teachers are failing the Grade 6 math test.”

Really? Where’s the evidence? Was the Premier’s statement based on a Globe and Mail article published in August of 2017 that reported about one-third of pre-service teachers performed at or below 70 per cent on a Grade 6-7 numeracy pretest? Intentional or not, the Premier misconstrued this OISE-based research, used it out of context, and consequently has tainted the reputations of our teachers in Ontario.

As a case study in how ignoring or mishandling evidence can be used to “weaponize” dangerous pathways of action, let’s shed light on the research in question. Every year, OISE’s Master of Teaching candidates complete a Grade 6-7 numeracy test prior to the start of their program. On average, about one third of pre-service candidates score at or below 70 per cent. Let’s be clear, this is not a “failing grade” of below 50 per cent. Instead, this is a criterion set by the researchers to identify specific needs of pre-service teachers performing at a particular level.

Through “anxiety” surveys and qualitative interviews, our research gives ample evidence that emotional issues impact math learning and performance. Factors such as math anxiety, self-confidence, motivation, and experiences in math schooling, play a vital role in candidates’ math identities and achievement. The purpose of education at all levels is to advance learning by knowing what students understand at the start of a new course or program.

In our case, we’ve used this upfront testing as a diagnostic tool to develop a tailored response to pre-service candidates’ math proficiency. We then employ a rich and intensive program of teaching that supports the individual and collective needs of our teacher candidates. Our research was the impetus for a new intensive math content course for pre-service teachers, beyond courses on how to effectively teach math. The Master of Teaching program requires candidates to achieve a minimum of 75 per cent in their math content course. Post-test results demonstrate statistically significant improvements. Preliminary research suggests that these improvements are related to: reduced anxiety, increased confidence in math learning, devoted time to really learn the math, and being part of a positive math community.

So why did the Premier take OISE’s research findings about pre-service candidates and make the claim that one third of Ontario teachers fail a Grade 6 math test? Pre-service candidates are not the same as in-service teachers. And those results were part of an entry process to assist developing strategies to bring about great outcomes at the end of their training. Simply put, it is irresponsibly misleading to reach a conclusion about the broader group of Ontario teachers based on a smaller sample of pre-service teachers at the beginning of their studies.

As I noted earlier, this kind of evidence manipulation can be used to justify pathways of action, in this case a false impression regarding how best to ensure high-quality math teaching. With the passing of Bill 48, I seriously question whether high stakes math testing for teacher certification is the most effective approach to ensure math proficiency of teachers. Our research shows that math productivity is better achieved through high quality pre-service course engagement. A recent Ontario research report from The Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity (ICP) recommends a mandated math content course for all faculties of education. This recommendation stems from evidence that course engagement creates sustainable learning.

Determining the best way to improve math education should be based on research and evidence regarding how to foster pre-service teachers’ math knowledge which then positively impacts math teaching. Bill 48 seems more like a political shortcut designed to create the impression that the government is doing something “tough” to improve math outcomes.

But will it actually improve the supply side of highly skilled and motivated math teachers in Ontario? I am still hoping that our government will check their math facts before offering up grossly misleading statements about Ontario teachers. I encourage our Minister of Education to think carefully of the ramifications of math teacher testing for certification. No government should implement new measures of practice without evidence that supports their merit.

Mary Reid is an assistant professor of math education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).