|David Staples - Hockey Report|
Alberta Education just released the results of the Provincial Achievement Tests and Diploma Exams. For the first time, the students were given a written, no-calculator portion of the test which 1/3 of Grade 6 students failed. In other respects the results for both PATs and Diploma exams were much the same as last year. Grade 9 math PAT results were slightly down from last year while the Diploma results in math were slightly up. Pretty boring stuff, right? Yet David gets right into it.
He responded on Twitter linking the related Edmonton Journal article with the comment, "Tragic that 1/3 of AB Gr. 6 students can't do basic arithmetic. But at least we know how low we have sunk." That said, he goes on to praise David Eggen, Minister of Education for bringing in the timed tests without
calculators in Grade 6. He retweeted Gary Feltham's tweet "It's pretty sad that my father got a better math education in rural Newfoundland in the 1940s that do students nowadays." Why? Does Mr. Staples really believe this? Does he even know what's expected of students working with math in the job market?
Recently I took a first year Real Estate Math course through Sauder Business School at the University of British Columbia. One of the main objectives of the course was to learn how to use a business calculator which was frustrating because the real work of this math is not done through the long drawn-out process of punching huge strings of numbers into a calculator. It's done by using an excel spreadsheet where the user can program complicated formulas into a long list of numbers that can be checked for accuracy. How would a 1940 math education in rural Newfoundland helped me with the real-world math of appraising house prices?
In an article published just before the municipal elections was entitled Culture wars heat up school trustee races," David claimed that “the culture wars around various educational issues have exploded into the political realm” and that “debates rage on topics ranging from gay-straight alliances to the ideological slant of the professors writing our new school curriculum.”
What debates? If the debates actually exist, how are they related to a "culture war"? Culture has many definitions and almost none make sense here. Unless he means the recent emphasis on First Nations in the present and proposed social studies curriculum? But he doesn't say that so is it a dog whistle? Bad writing? Who knows?
He further claims that educational issues have exploded into the political realm. Well, who's responsible for that? Could it be the same guy who's claiming it to exist. He began his diatribes with the introduction of the new math curriculum when Dave Hancock was the P.C. Minister of Education. No question, the performance of Alberta students in math has slipped according to the PISA scores last updated by the Conference Board of Canada in 2014. That said, of all the provinces only Quebec received an A rating while Alberta, Ontario and B.C. all received a B.
Researchers who had investigated the reasons for Quebec's superior performance concluded that the result of intensive teacher training and a curriculum balancing math drills with problem-solving approaches. For example, elementary school teachers in Quebec must take 225 hours of university courses in math training while in other provinces it can be as little as 39. I believe the University of Alberta requires about 90.
According to the a Globe and Mail article published in 2014, "Alberta, which fared above-average in the test scores, has been the only province to bend to pressure from parents for curriculum changes." David Staples is at least partially responsible for those changes since he's been on a back to basics campaign since 2014.
So, instead of using real research that's been done by professionals, Alberta has chosen to focus on a pedagogical practice that may have little or no impact on student performance. After all, the "new math" as Mr. Staples likes to call it, may or may not have led to a drop in student performance. Perhaps, there's another factor at play. Could it also be possible that the bump of experienced teachers began to retire about this time and replaced by new ones possibly not trained to the extent of their Quebec counterparts? Who know? That's what research is for.
Besides math, how did Quebec students perform on the other PISA tests? They received "Bs" in both inadequate and high-level scores in reading skills while Alberta received and "A" and a "B" respectively. In science, Quebec received PISA scores of "D" in high-level and "B" in inadequate while Alberta received "A"s in both. So, where would you rather send your child?
Students in Brad Wall's Saskatchewan, Jason Kenney's paragon of how a province should be run, scored abysmally on the PISA tests with a "D" in high level reading, "C" in high level math and a "D" in high level science. Competing in university with students from Alberta must be very difficult for students from Saskatchewan.
So, why are we not listening to the professionals at least partially responsible for these excellent results? Why are we even engaging with David Staples who spouts off theories as facts and anecdotes as proof? After all, we all have anecdotes. I have three children who have all pursued math related careers.
My eldest daughter received a perfect score on the Math 30 Diploma exam, graduated with an Engineering degree from the U. of A. and then went on to complete a PhD in Biotechnology from Cambridge University. My second daughter has a geophysics degree from the U. of A. and works for an oil company in Calgary. My youngest just graduated with a science degree specializing in computing science and works for a start-up in Calgary. They all come from a small town without the benefit of specialized programs like the I.B. or parents who could help them. After all, my wife and I are social studies teachers.
Besides bragging, there's no point to this story whatsoever. It's just an anecdote. There could be any number of reasons my children did well in math. It could be that they didn't like us and wanted to pursue careers that would make them as different as possible. It could be that they were encouraged to pursue the science because they'd witnessed the frustration their parents had experienced with parent and the public who think they know better how to do their job. Or, they could just be geniuses which may be the case however I can say that they worked awfully hard to be that way.
The problem is that for anyone to figure out why they succeeded in math and science where my wife and I didn't would require research. Research is a scary thing for those of us who are not involved. We like to think that we have greater control of our existence, that our intuition can tell us the right answer. Unfortunately, that's becoming more and more not the case. We are entering a world where machines tell us how to get to a location, what restaurant we might like in the area, how long it will take to go home and, in the not-too-distant future, drive us there.
Like most of the rest of us, David Staples is afraid of that future. He'd rather hide behind the facade of gut-feeling, to pick and choose his anecdotes and find comfort in the belief that, if only given a chance, he and his readers can gain greater control of his existence. After all, they grew up memorizing their mathematics tables. What's good for him is good for his children. But is it?
My children work with math everyday and it has nothing to do with basic math. Their math involves spreadsheets and formulas, algorithms and massive quantities of numbers that would require many individuals many lifetimes to calculate using basic math. Memorizing times-tables may be a good learning experience on its own (only research could tell) however don't pretend that's what our children are going to be using in the future.