Adding cost, subtracting benefits


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Prior to the Oct. 4 election, I distributed about 1,700 leaflets in my riding of St. Boniface, and two of my colleagues distributed about 300 more in the neighbouring riding of St. Vital, which is the riding of Education Minister Nancy Allan.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/10/2011 (3952 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prior to the Oct. 4 election, I distributed about 1,700 leaflets in my riding of St. Boniface, and two of my colleagues distributed about 300 more in the neighbouring riding of St. Vital, which is the riding of Education Minister Nancy Allan.

I did this to alert people to the fact that the standards for math education in this province are poor, and steps need to be taken to remedy this very serious problem.

In order to cope with the ever-weaker math abilities of incoming students, the mathematics and statistics department at the University of Winnipeg has added:

(1) a high-school-level course titled Pre-Calculus for University Access to help students fill in their backgrounds;

(2) a high-school-level course with a second-year-university numbering for students studying to be kindergarten to Grade 8 teachers, titled Math for Early and Middle Years;

(3) lab sections to courses in addition to lecture time;

(4) workshops in summer and fall to prepare students for calculus; and

(5) a tutoring centre giving individual and group tutoring.

This all costs the university money and raises the question: How many times should one pay for a high-school education?

Taxes are paid to run kindergarten to Grade 12 schools.

Taxes are then paid to run post-secondary institutions.

Tuition is then paid to take high-school-level courses at post-secondary institutions.

And along the way a parent or student may have to pay for tutoring. That’s up to four installments, just to finally get a decent high-school education.

Why isn’t paying the first installment enough?

Sadly, access courses for the most part are not accomplishing what one may have hoped for. It’s impossible to catch up in a year what was not learned or properly taught over several years. If, however, students in Manitoba got a solid kindergarten to Grade 12 math education, then that would improve access to post-secondary institutions immensely and in the most direct way possible.

Today’s crisis in math education is due, in part, to the introduction of “consumer math” (soon to be replaced by “essential math”) in high schools in the 1990s.

Consumer math was never intended for students planning to go to university; rather it was meant for those intending to pursue a career in the trades. Even for these careers, however, this course has been deemed inadequate by some trades instructors.

Nevertheless, students who have not graduated with “applied math 40S” or “pre-calculus 40S” are regularly admitted into universities in Manitoba, and some train to become teachers, no less.

It has come to my attention that some high-school counsellors are actually advising students not to take higher-level-math courses so their overall grades will remain high, improving their chances for scholarships.

Is this the way to serve the people of Manitoba who pay the taxes? Is this the way to improve access to post-secondary institutions? Is this the way to ensure future teachers have the tools they need when they step into the classroom and have to teach kindergarten to Grade 8 math?

How many doors are shut to children the moment they enter consumer math, such as careers in science, engineering, business, pharmacy or nursing?

And I’ll say it again: Consumer math even appears to be poorly serving those who pursue a career in the trades.

I think parents and teachers should have some frank and detailed conversations about how well the system is supporting teachers. I don’t think teachers get nearly enough training in the subject of mathematics at the post-secondary level. How many parents and teachers would agree with that?

I think teachers are suffering through a constantly changing curriculum designed by people who don’t consult with professionals who actually use mathematics in their work. Mathematicians, statisticians, engineers, scientists, business persons who use mathematics — and trades instructors — know very well what today’s students will need for their future work. How many parents and teachers would agree with that?

And I haven’t even touched on the issue of grade inflation or how to measure if students have actually acquired the skills listed in the curriculum. These important issues also need to be discussed.

Finally, I must say I feel I have failed to meet my responsibilities by not speaking up until now, and in the past I have not been nearly as involved in kindergarten to Grade 12 math education as I should have.

That is all going to change.

Vaclav Linek is a professor of mathematics at the University of Winnipeg and a former editor of CRUX with Mayhem, a math problem-solving journal run by the Canadian Mathematical Society.

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