Math skills must add up

Math skills must add up: MacDonald

Kids still not armed with knowledge they need for university or job market

By Moira MacDonald

Don’t forget the comments – including this:

“Why is this so surprising? The average student has abysmal reading, writing and grammatical skills dating back to Hall-Dennis. How can they solve an algebra problem when they can’t read it in the first place? If in doubt, check our the high school literacy scores, and the horrific grammatical and spelling mistakes in the “Comments” section of the paper…”

Math skills and the lack of them are a perennial problem, one that shows up with a vengeance when students move on to college or university.

Ontario’s College Mathematics Project found two years ago that a depressing 37% of recent Ontario high school graduates were either flunking or doing dismally badly in first semester college math courses — needed for programs in business, technology and health.

Unlike in grade or high school, where there’s still worry about maintaining students’ self-esteem and the escape hatch of “oh well, he can do something else” or “she can pick that up on the job,” by post-secondary school, the choices have been made, sometimes eliminated, and it’s perform or get out.

Kudos to the research team from York University and Seneca College for sticking with this project, and to the Ontario government for continuing to fund them.

Unfortunately, this year the project found only a slight uptick in improvement, with 35% of recent Ontario high school graduates getting better than a “D” grade in their first semester math courses.

“We haven’t seen a significant change,” says Laurel Schollen, one of four lead project researchers.

Year after year, a major complaint from both colleges and students is that those in that one-third “at risk” group often lack very basic math skills that should have been learned in grade school — such as fractions, decimals, ratios, proportion and percentages — and are not taught again in high school.

Why does this matter? Increasingly, you can’t avoid having some math skill on your personal asset sheet if you want to get a job. And while too many people like to talk about less academically-inclined students being more suited to “jobs with their hands,” this is a fallacy. These are jobs needing the head more than ever – requiring more math than a university English major needs.

As Schollen told me, one student pursuing a career in health care said if she made a mathematical mistake, “I could kill the patient.”

If you can’t handle fractions, you’re not going to make it as a carpenter.

What can be done? Already more colleges are offering math prep courses to incoming students and more students are taking them.

Schollen tells parents to encourage their high-school teenagers to take “the most challenging (math) course they can that they can be successful in … It’s not all about marks; it’s about their learning.”

Students also need to work on learning skills, such as time-management and self-discipline.

Parents should educate themselves as much as possible about the high school math curriculum — there are 16 courses offered — and which courses are required for admission into related post-secondary programs. And students need to master the basics.

“Those concepts matter,” says Schollen. “Get them, get them well and practice them.”

Great, but what about schools? Although the report does not mention it, clearly they have to do more to effectively teach and reinforce basic math for students — all the way through. The report does recommend that schools, as much as possible, use “real world” applications to teach math to make it more relevant for students.

Ontario’s newly-revised tech education curriculum seems to be trying to encourage just that.

Said one student quoted in the report, “I was motivated to learn calculus when a teacher told me he studied it so that he could track the stock market and make money. So I said, ‘Teach me all you’ve got.’”

That’s got to be music to a teacher’s ears.

A vast improvement in freshmen college students’ math skills would be too.

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