DC native’s school experiences illuminate why Ontario’s scores are so bad

The Ontario Education Department recently released the results of its 2018 student-focussed reading and math tests, marking the sixth year in a row that most elementary school children in the province scored below provincial…

DC native’s school experiences illuminate why Ontario’s scores are so bad

The Ontario Education Department recently released the results of its 2018 student-focussed reading and math tests, marking the sixth year in a row that most elementary school children in the province scored below provincial average in both subjects.

This past year, nine out of 10 elementary students received failing grades in either the reading or math tests, placing them in the bottom quarter of students in every grade. The results suggest that kids are not getting the math they need to succeed in life and that the Ontario government needs to do more to address poor performance.

For elementary students, the gap between their performance and that of students in many other countries and states is a long and shameful one. It is worse for students who identify as Aboriginal, and even the positive test results for Canadian-born students score below provincial averages, reinforcing the findings of others that racial segregation still plagues our public education system.

It is troubling that, despite the educational and policy reforms underway, the gap in performance persists.

What is holding Ontario back? The largest challenge is poor teacher and school environment.

Classroom environment has been at the center of all these campaigns for the improvement of students’ academic performance. By better defining, better training, and better incentives for teachers, the province has made considerable progress in improving the student learning environment since the days of old. Moreover, research suggests that good classroom environments contribute to better student learning in other areas.

Notwithstanding the efforts to improve the learning environment, students in Ontario are struggling because they have been losing many essential skills in-class. More than anything else, this remains the single greatest barrier to academic success.

This is why I have been concerned with the situation for a long time. Specifically, I have been concerned with the growth of low-level academic literacy in Ontario classrooms. In Canada, educators are well aware of the need to develop low-level reading skills in classrooms. Educators have for a long time emphasized the importance of teaching cognitive skills and skills for maintaining persistence, emotional support, relationship building, resilience, and thinking skills. These are some of the skills we emphasize in the early years of learning and secondary years of schooling.

We do not advocate for teachers to teach these skills, but they have become part of every syllabus in schools across Canada. The curricula emphasize the ability to work through problems, make decisions, cope with stress, and focus in demanding and challenging situations.

But after a short period of focus on low-level school skills, teachers seem to have dropped these important skills — like the ability to hold complex ideas in mind — from the classroom. There has been a steep decline in the percentage of Ontario students in both Grade 3 and Grade 6 who believe they can solve all of the grammar and spelling problems on a given assignment. In 2015, only one-third of Grade 3 students and one-half of Grade 6 students were proficient in both grammar and spelling.

Yet, as noted above, focusing on low-level academic skills does not ensure that students will be able to learn in other areas. Students would perform far better on tests if they had the ability to learn across disciplines.

What is wrong with the math curriculum? When it comes to math, the focus on low-level academic skills in the classroom has focused on high-level abstract concepts. More than anything else, the numbers behind these exercises — algorithms, the percentages by which things can multiply, multiplying of an object by another, and so on — can be abstract. Because most schools across Canada and Ontario use the same curriculum and tests, more and more students are losing on both low-level and high-level math.

The promotion of low-level academic skills should stop and class size should be reduced. Teacher salaries and the number of days and hours they work should be increased as well as increased salary incentives, so that they are better incentivized to develop high-level academic skills.

In the past, changes to the curriculum and the teaching and learning environment have been slow to happen. But now, as a result of all of the school improvement campaigns launched in the past three years, the Education Department is setting priorities and evaluating implementation. These are important steps.

The government must not let up. It is time for more rapid changes in the classroom. We must ensure all students are taught the necessary lessons in the classroom, and they must be able to demonstrate critical thinking and problem-solving skills across multiple disciplines.

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