Mark Fraser
Mark Fraser, Chair, Skilled Workforce Task Force

The Halifax Chamber of Commerce welcomed the government’s announcement of a provincial panel to review education.  The Chamber places such importance on this issue that it is enshrined in our Strategic Plan goals for the next 5 years.   As well, we have set up a task force of volunteers to lead this work.

A systematic review of education is the kind work that needs to be done early in a government’s mandate.  Will everyone agree – maybe not but there is no time to waste. For instance, our national math scores have fallen, with Nova Scotia dragging the average down.

Math is everywhere; in the patterns we see in nature, the melodies we listen to, the tax bills we pay and in every business that has a product or service to sell.  Unfortunately for our secondary school students this math – a very real aspect of our lives – isn’t as clearly understood as it should be, as it needs to be. In fact, some might say it’s a little fuzzy.

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA – recently released a new set of education rankings. The Canadian results are not good.  For the first time ever, Canada has fallen out of the top ten to 13th among the 65 OECD jurisdictions.  With a national score of 518, we are above average, but well below Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan and Switzerland. Shanghai scored 615, almost 100 points higher than Canada.

Should we be worried?  John Manley (former Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Council of Canadian CEOs) is.  He called it a national emergency.

The reality is Canada has been on a steady decline. That is a problem.  But digging deeper into the problem is how we’ll gain insights, understand the scope of the problem and how it impacts us right here in Nova Scotia.  The truth is Nova Scotia brings the national score down and all provinces except one are seeing negative trends in their PISA math scores.  Quebec is the only province to hold its own year after year, with a 2012 score of 536, a full 39 points ahead of Nova Scotia’s 497.

Why is that “full 39 points” so dramatic?  The OECD identifies 39 points in a PISA score to be approximately one year of formal learning. That means Quebec secondary school students emerge from high school with the equivalent of a full year more of formal learning in math than Nova Scotia students.

Are you concerned now?  If not, how about the insight that high school students in Shanghai emerge from high school with the equivalent of almost THREE more years’ worth of math than your average Nova Scotia student.

If you look at the provincial numbers, the top three outside of Quebec are consistently British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.  But they’re worried too.  Ministers of Education are on record criticizing curriculum, parent groups are petitioning for change (in all three of those provinces), and in early January, Ontario announced $4 Million in extra funding just to help teachers learn how to teach math better.

Can they learn from Quebec? It is the only province in Canada to be steadfast in its commitment to teach basic math drills and scientific facts, in contrast with the discovery learning approach in use elsewhere.  Known colloquially as “fuzzy math”, the focus of discovery learning is on creativity in problem solving, not memorization.  The United States adopted fuzzy math broadly in the early 1990s, but swung back to traditional methods a decade ago. The U.S. remains even further below Canada in their PISA scores.

It is a complex issue;   attempting to improve math outcomes is not as simple as deciding to be fuzzy or not.  Education consists of three important dimensions:  Curriculum (what is taught), Methodology (how it is taught) and Competence (who teaches it). The province’s education review panel will have to make bold recommendations if it wants to improve all three.

Should we be worried?  Absolutely.  Can we organize to change?  Absolutely.  Are we up for it?  That seems fuzzy.

Mark Fraser is the Chair of the Halifax Chamber of Commerce’s Skilled Workforce Task Force and is T4G’s Executive Vice President in charge of Pursuit.