Last week, a fellow named Michael Zwaagstra from Manitoba published an article for an organization called the “Frontier Center for Public Policy“. I have no idea what the Frontier Center does, or what their agenda is. I suspect I wouldn’t like it.
Michael’s bio in the article lists him as an M.Ed. currently teaching Social Studies. He tells me he has experience teaching math. Michael has published a book called What’s Wrong With Our Schools And How We Can Fix Them. The chapters have titles like, “Tests are good for students” and “Direct instruction is good teaching”. His blog, which fortunately hasn’t been updated for more than a year calls for punitive grading, more tests, and eliminating technology.
With that brief background, guess what I thought of his article? Feel free to read it here and form your own opinion before looking at mine.
I honestly find the whole thing ridiculous. Any article that questions the work of John Van de Walle and Cathy Fosnot probably isn’t worth my time. There are so many things in the article I’d like to refute, but I’m just going to tackle his assertion that we are poorly preparing students for university.
It’s not entirely clear to me after reading the article whether Michael is aware that we are in the middle of implementing a revised curriculum. We have yet to see how students from this revised curriculum will perform when they reach university since it will be two more years until graduates of this curriculum get there. For the first three years after that, these students will only have had three years of the revised curriculum. It will take many more years before we can judge how students who had 13 years of the revised curriculum will adapt to university. Michael’s arguments about university preparedness, then, should be based on our outgoing curriculum rather than the new one. He neglects to clarify this in his report.
In the article, Michael states,
University professors who are responsible for instructing first-year students work on the front lines with high school graduates. There is a strong consensus among math professors that the math skills of these students are much weaker than they were two or three decades ago.
Michael cites two sources as evidence to back up this claim. They both interview some University professors. They are not exhaustive or extensive surveys. Plain and simple, they are anecdotal.
Since Michael’s evidence is anecdotal, I’d like to respond with three anecdotes.
I took first year Calculus in University two or three decades ago. On day 1, the professor asked us to look at the person on our left, then at the person on our right. He then told us that only one of those people would pass the course. He was basically telling us, up front, that he expected a huge failure rate. I can honestly say he underestimated the failure rate. He lost more than two-thirds of the class. It wasn’t a problem with basic skills of my classmates. The guy couldn’t teach. Moral of anecdote #1: High school graduates having trouble with University Calculus is not a new phenomenon.
At another point in his article, Michael mentions that,
First-year post-secondary students are increasingly unprepared for university-level mathematics, and this has led to a proliferation os remedial math courses at universities across Canada.
No evidence is cited for this claim, but I suspect it is true because I know it began happening at least eight years ago, as this anecdote will show. Eight years ago, I had a math professor from the University of Alberta come to talk to my AP Calculus class. He was an award-winning professor, who cared deeply about his students’ success. I found myself wishing he had taught me first year Calculus when I went to U of A. He was there to talk about a program they were setting up to support students in first year university. Their goal was to improve the completion rates of students in first year Calculus. They wanted to do away with the ridiculous failure rates that I discussed above. Moral of anecdote #2: Universities were offering supports and remedial courses long before this revised program of studies even began, and certainly well before it hit high school.
When I first saw the revised program of studies about five years ago, my first reaction was concern over material being removed, so that we’d have more time to cover topics in greater depth. I was worried that students wouldn’t be as prepared for first year calculus if we took material out of the curriculum. I found myself having a conversation with another professor from the University of Alberta. This fellow had been involved with Alberta Education and the WNCP in the writing of the revised program of studies. I asked him if he was concerned that students would arrive at university knowing less material than they currently knew. His reply was that he felt exactly the opposite. He was excited about getting students who knew how to problem solve, explore, and think mathematically. He said that the material wouldn’t be a problem for students who thought like that. Moral of anecdote #3: University math professors want students who think deeper about math.
My biggest fear in reading Michael’s report is that some teachers may try to use it as an excuse to ignore the front matter of our revised program of studies. I think it is irresponsible of an educator in the WNCP to suggest that we should teach math differently than our curriculum tells us. I fear that this article could set us back in the good work we have been doing in implementing a curriculum that allows students to get deeper understanding through meaningful exploration.
I’ve lectured in class. I’ve let kids construct their own meaning in class. The kids who I let construct their own meaning knew the material cold and retained it longer. That’s all the evidence I need.