When the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released its international student achievement rankings in December showing Canada had slipped to 13th place in math, it prompted much hand-wringing about the dire need for more math in our public schools. Former deputy prime minister John Manley said the results, which show that the math scores of Canadian 15-year-olds have dropped 14 points in the past decade, were “on the scale of a national emergency.” In Windsor, Ont., a local school superintendent called for “math, math and more math.”
Judging by the steady downhill slide in Canadian math scores, it’s natural to assume that our schools might be suffering from a lack of math. But a closer reading of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment shows just the opposite: since 2003, the amount of time Canadian high school students report spending in math class has risen to more than five hours a week, a jump of 90 minutes.
According to the OECD, Canadian students now spend more time in math class than any country in the Western world. At 75 minutes on average, Canadian class periods are also the longest in the world. The result is that Canadian students now spend significantly more time in math class than their counterparts in countries that outperform them at math. Our students spend twice as much time in math class as students in Finland, a country that slightly outranks Canada on math scores, and significantly more time than other top-performing countries such as the Netherlands and Japan.
The Canadian school year has traditionally been compared to that of other countries, but over the past several years Canadian schools have added to the already long hours students spend in the classroom. Some have begun experimenting with year-round schedules in hopes of preventing students from losing skills over the summer break, while others have extended the school day. Last year, Saskatchewan mandated a 950-hour school year in hopes of boosting student achievement in a province that scores below the Canadian average in math. The change required some school boards to add as many as 50 hours to the school year. New Brunswick lengthened its school day by 30 minutes a decade ago in hopes of improving its academic performance, and in recent years some school districts ended “potato break,” a two-week break that allowed students to work during the fall potato harvest. As a result, the province now has the longest school year in the country, at more than 1,000 hours for high school students, according to Statistics Canada. Yet its students scored below average among Canadian provinces on the most recent international math tests.
The push for more time in school is expensive, and the evidence from global comparisons that longer classes can boost student performance is weak, says Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s deputy director for education. “You can improve your results by adding more time,” he says. “But you can make a quantum leap by actually focusing more on quality, and that’s clearly what we see from international comparisons.”
Similar debates abound in Asia, he adds, where Japanese students perform as well as their Korean peers at math despite a drastically shorter school day. In high-scoring countries like Finland and the Netherlands, Schleicher says the focus is on getting the best teachers into the worst schools, and on highly individualized academic support for students. Finnish high schools typically have just four 45-minute classes a day, with 15 minute breaks. Teachers typically get two hours of professional development time each day. “Having ‘too little’ instructional time is a problem that I never imagined having,” Tim Walker, an American teacher who moved to Finland, wrote on his blog when he discovered he was expected to teach his Grade-5 students seven subjects in an 11-hour school week, an amount equivalent to just two school days in the North American education system.
Supporters of longer school days argue that more time in school means more opportunities to learn and lowers the risk that students from poor backgrounds, who don’t have access to private after-school lessons, will fall behind their wealthier peers. In the U.S., President Barack Obama has warned that a shorter school year is harming American students. States such as New York and Tennessee recently added 300 hours to the school year in an attempt to improve student achievement. Last year, U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove pledged to cut summer holidays and extend the school day to 4:30 p.m. in order to emulate the success of top-performing Asian countries, where students often spend long hours in after-school and weekend classes.
In a report published last year that was widely cited by supporters of a longer school day, University of Chicago economists studied the school environment and test results of 47,000 students in 72 countries and found spending more time in class did in fact boost student test scores slightly. But buried in the coverage of the study was that the only students who seemed to benefit from more classroom time were those who went to schools that were safe and well-disciplined. In problem schools, more time in class made no difference to student performance, and very long classes appeared to make things worse.
“If the school isn’t good, if the curriculum isn’t good, if the teacher is not effective, if the kids aren’t well-behaved and focused on learning, then the benefit you’re going to get from additional class time is probably very, very small,” says study co-author Steven Rivkin. “You’re much better off spending your efforts on trying to get a better curriculum, improving the quality of instruction of the teachers and doing things to improve the focus and richness of the classroom environment.”
Not surprisingly, critics of the Canadian school system often point out that more time spent in class is only useful when it’s actually spent learning the right material. One frequent critique is that widespread changes to provincial math curricula over the past decade have strayed too far from teaching essential math formulas, encouraging elementary students to draw pictures of math problems rather than learn fundamental concepts like multiplication or long division. “We have a situation where we’re not focusing on the basics, we’re focusing on everything else,” says Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba high school teacher and research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. “The issue is not how much time you spend in school, the issue is how efficiently you’re using it.”
Under the new curriculum, introduced about eight years ago, more class time is taken up learning fewer concepts. On top of that has been the move toward a “spiral curriculum,” in which the same concepts are taught repeatedly over multiple grades. The idea is to reinforce fundamental concepts year after year, but critics say in reality the changes mean teachers often end up passing students who are struggling to understand the concepts, because they’ll learn them again in the next grade. “The teachers might start teaching multiplication in Grade 3, but if 50 or 60 per cent of the class doesn’t get it, they say, ‘Who cares?’ because they’re going to see it again next year,” says Anna Stokke, a University of Winnipeg math professor who has become a vocal education critic after researching the math lessons her two daughters were learning in school. The OECD’s Schleicher disagrees that new “inquiry-based” math curricula adopted by many Canadian provinces over the past decade are to blame for the country’s sliding math scores. Such programs are part of a broader global education movement focused on getting students to understand the concepts behind math rather than simply memorizing specific formulas, he says.
More concerning to Schleicher are changes to high school curricula in many countries, including Canada, which allow struggling students to enrol in a “consumer math” stream. Such financial literacy courses, which teach students how to do their taxes or read a mortgage, became popular a decade ago as provinces were looking to lower high school drop-out rates. Allowing students to earn math credits while learning how to budget for groceries seemed a promising way to keep them in school and studying math all the way through Grade 12. But when OECD officials tested students on their math and financial literacy skills, it found that those who had studied academic math tended to also score well on financial literacy, while those who had only taken consumer math courses scored well on financial literacy but still struggled with basic math skills. “They didn’t understand the underlying concepts like probability and risk,” Schleicher says. “That’s really what math is about. So getting people to focus on those concepts makes people capable of applying them in a real-world context.”
While policies aimed at keeping students in math class for longer, such as easier courses and longer school days, are popular with policy-makers and the public, they also mean cash-strapped governments aren’t able to put their limited resources into changes that have actually proven to increase student performance, such as investing in teacher professional development, more effective curricula, more individualized support for students and safer and more orderly schools, he says. Ultimately, pouring resources into making sure Canadian students are spending hours each week in math class might seem like a good idea, but if it’s not actually making them better at math then it becomes a waste of money—and a waste of time.