Things don't add up in B.C. math classes

By Bill Hook and Karin Litzcke
Vancouver Sun
Editorial Section, Issues & Ideas Page

Friday March 04, 2005

Reading and math are the two crucial elementary school subjects required for high school and life beyond, but British Columbia's elementary math curriculum is crippling learning, especially among disadvantaged students.

B.C. has used what is called a "spiral" curriculum since 1987, following a tradition of emulating U.S. educational practice.

A spiral curriculum runs a smorgasbord of math topics by students each year, the idea being that they pick up a little more of each with every pass. In reality, the spin leaves many students and teachers in the dust.

Ideally, the curriculum should cover fewer topics per year in more depth.

Presently, teachers face having Grade 4 classes who still cannot add 567 + 942 nor multiply 7 x 8 because the Grade 1, 2, and 3 teachers were forced to spend so much time on graphing, polygons and circles, estimating quantity and size, geometrical transformations, 2D and 3D geometry and other material not required to make the next step, which is 732 x 34.

And because elementary math fails to provide a solid foundation, many basically capable students simply give up when faced with the shock of high school algebra, which would be the doorway to advanced technical training at all levels. High school math teachers cannot make up Grades 1 to 7 while teaching Grade 8.

Alarm bells about the math curriculum have been ringing in B.C. since the United States, which used spiralling almost exclusively, registered a dismal performance on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a test that comparatively evaluated more than 500,000 students from 15,000 schools in 40 countries, first in 1995 and again in 1999 with the same results.

The B.C. ministry of education, to its credit, realized right away in 1995 that the U.S. performance on TIMSS suggested weaknesses in B.C.'s curriculum.

Also aware of some then-emerging data indicating that students in Quebec -- which had retained a sequential curriculum when B.C. went to the spiral -- were outperforming other Canadian students in math, Victoria commissioned researcher Helen Raptis, now a University of Victoria professor, to compare B.C. and Quebec test results and curricula.

In her report, submitted to the ministry in late 2000, Raptis showed that the average B.C. student was more than two years behind the average Quebec student in math by Grade 10, and explored the extent to which curriculum might be responsible.

Her report did not flatter B.C.'s curriculum, reading in part:

"The range of skills and operations within a specific topic area is deeper in Quebec, moving constantly between the abstract and concrete properties of mathematics concepts and maintaining a place for mental as well as rote processes.

"The B.C. curriculum is inconsistent in its treatment of abstract and concrete concepts.

"Objectives and notes throughout Quebec's curricula highlight the view that mathematics learning is interrelated and cumulative.

"These conscious links are not evident in B.C.'s mathematics curricula. Instead, learning objectives from prior years are repeated outright."

In 2002, the U.S. National Research Center for TIMSS published similar conclusions, finding that the curricula of virtually all the U.S. states had too many topics that were introduced too early, repeated too often, and covered too superficially.

The U.S. TIMSS report noted, too, that the spiral curriculum "favoured the children of well-off or sophisticated parents who could provide supplementary tutoring, and was terribly unfair to the disadvantaged. The learning of the luckier students snowballs while that of the less fortunate ones -- those dependent on the incoherent U.S. curriculum -- never begins to gather momentum."

To date neither the Raptis nor the TIMSS reports have generated any action in B.C., but California, also alarmed by the 1995 U.S. performance on TIMSS, implemented a redesigned curriculum with far fewer topics per year in 1998.

California's curriculum change was accidentally a perfect experiment. Los Angeles and San Diego refused to participate in the new curriculum and retained the spiral approach, creating an ideal "control" group.

Another group of districts and schools adopted the new curriculum with particular speed, buying matching textbooks right away in 1998. Most of these had a large percentage of economically disadvantaged and ESL students.

As the number of topics per year in the curriculum went down, student performance went up, up, and up. Fast-adopting schools with many disadvantaged students moved from about the 25th to the 60th percentile over the next five years.

Student results at schools with more affluent students jumped from about the 75th percentile to the 90th, showing that the improvement for lower-end students is not at the expense of traditionally high-performing students. The overall California average improved by 19 percentile points during this period, despite the poor performance of the refusenik districts and other districts slow to convert.

The size of the California experiment -- annually testing 2.9 million Grade 2 to 6 students over a five-year period, including more than 97 per cent of enrolled students in about 7,500 schools -- makes it another overwhelming piece of evidence.

With the data in from TIMSS and California, supported by the analysis from Raptis and by the recent PISA test that shows B.C. continuing to badly trail Quebec, the case for a major elementary school curriculum change in B.C. has been irrefutably made.

Let's hope Victoria can do the math.

Bill Hook is a research scientist at the University of Victoria; Karin Litzcke is a freelance education analyst.

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