The Manufacture of the Math Crisis in Alberta

May 28, 2016 Stephen Murgatroyd

Let’s be clear from the start: Alberta does not have a crisis in the teaching of mathematics or in the ability of students to achieve success in mathematics. Full stop.


What we do have is a clever politically motivated trick. Using standardized test data – PISA and Provincial Achievement Tests – we can see changes in results in mathematics when one period of time is compared to another. Math PISA scores for Alberta are down slightly between the last two test periods. If this is a crisis, then the forest fires in Northern Alberta are Armageddon.


Let us understand two things:


  • First, the key thing that standardized test scores measures is poverty and social class. Teachers have almost no significant impact on the test scores of students on such tests. Anyone who claims that they do is being disingenuous – we have known what they measure for over thirty years.
  • Second, Alberta’s student population is changing very quickly. Indeed, according to the OECD data, Alberta has classrooms which are among the most complex in the developed world – a range of cultures, skill levels, literacy skills and social backgrounds that require differentiated instruction. Between one set of measures and another, this demography gets more complex.


So we are measuring poverty with different cohorts. Makes little sense.


What the manufacturers of this crisis have done is looked at changes in outcome measures over time and “guessed” at why this has occurred, without taking account of these two statements of fact. It's rather like saying that there is a correlation between the films in which Nicolas Cage appears in and deaths by drowning or the age of Miss America and the number of murders by steam or vapours (these are actual correlations). They suggest that the “cause” of the crisis is “modern maths” and “constructivist teaching”. This is said in the complete absence of evidence – one of the things we might teach through modern mathematics is that evidence is the starting point for exploring understanding.


The idea of current teaching is not to be able to remember and recite tables, formulae, and solutions but to understand mathematics as a language and means for problem-solving. What the purpose of this work can be said to be is to enable students to look at a problem and use a mathematical understanding and language to solve that problem.


Think for a moment. If I were to say that I spoke six languages but didn't understand any of them, what would you think? You wouldn't ask me to do anything like translate a document or guide you through Puglia or the Ardeche. Equally, if I said I knew my times table but I had no idea why these multiplications were useful or what I could do with this knowledge, you would think me equally inept. But this is what the “back to basics” movement is all about. They want our students to test better, not to know how to think like a mathematician.


So the “math crisis” (sic) is an invention based on a half truth (a very nonmathematical way of thinking). But there is more.


When we ask who benefits from this manufactured crisis the answer soon becomes clear. The first group are government bureaucrats who can extend their control by focusing on testing, curriculum management and harassing teachers with new reporting mechanisms. They love a crisis. It makes them feel important. It also gives them something to do.


The second are commercial vendors of tests, textbooks, curriculum materials, technology and “apps”. They like stirring this crisis up since it helps sell product. With all of these kind of issues – follow the money. Who will win the money prize here? You can bet it will not be teachers.


A side benefit of the manufactured crisis is that it provides some – notably those infected by the neo-liberal GERM – with an opportunity to demoralize and belittle teachers. One might think that this would be wholly inappropriate kind of behaviour, but it is actually relished by some, especially neo-liberals with investments in the commercial entities who stand to benefit from the “crisis”. The maths crisis, they claim, is the fault of teachers who do not know enough mathematics using progressive methods to confuse students. Not only is this insulting (which is a part of their intention), it is not based on substantial evidence.


So let us stop seeing the performance of students on tests as anything more than what they are: a snapshot of the implications of inequality.




Written by Stephen Murgatroyd - contact stephen.murgatroyd@shaw.ca for permissions.

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