Math tutoring services gain popularity as Ontario public schools struggle with scores

Tutoring companies like Kumon and Oxford Learning say they help students develop independent learning skills. But some critics say the for-profit programs are out of reach for less affluent families, while others caution they may not be the right fit for every child.

Latest results show math test scores among public elementary school students have not improved in recent years

A student works at an Oxford Learning program in Toronto on Thursday, December 7, 2017. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Four years ago, Arsheen Abbas signed her son up for private after-school math lessons because she felt the Grade 4 subject curriculum was not rigorous enough.

The Oakville, Ont., mother enrolled her son in Spirit of Math — one of several private tutoring companies operating in Ontario — in hopes of bolstering his learning at an early stage.

"They are not teaching math the same way that we used to be taught," Abbas said of the lessons her son was receiving in school.

"One of our concerns, which we've heard from many parents, is that once [students] get to high school, all of a sudden they are flabbergasted by the amount of math or kind of math they need to do."

Growing number of students using private services

Abbas' son, who is now in Grade 8 and still attends Spirit of Math classes, is among a growing number of students in Ontario using private after-school tutoring businesses to boost their math education.

The rise in enrolment at such programs coincides with a decline in math scores on standardized tests amongst elementary students in the province. 

Tutoring companies like Kumon and Oxford Learning say they help students develop independent learning skills, and Spirit of Math says it coaches already high-achieving students to greater academic heights. But some critics say the for-profit programs are out of reach for less affluent families, while others caution they may not be the right fit for every child.

Ontario's Ministry of Education wasn't able to provide data on how many students attend private tutoring programs, but Kumon, Oxford and Spirit of Math reported significant increases in enrolment over the past five years. As of October, over 28,000 students were enrolled in Kumon math programs in Ontario alone, the company said.

'Different learning styles'

Parents often come to after-school learning programs saying their child has a bad teacher or doesn't get along with their teachers, said Jason LeLiever, director of an Oxford Learning franchise in north Toronto.

"It's just that they have different learning styles," LeLiever said. "With every student learning differently, it's not always
going to gel with the way a teacher teaches." 

Some students may be better visual learners, while others may do better by listening to someone explain a lesson, LeLiever said. 

Hannah Grosman, 17, said she noticed a big difference in her attitude toward math after enrolling at Oxford Learning about a year and half ago.
A tutor works with students at an Oxford Learning program in Toronto on Thursday, December 7, 2017. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"My math marks haven't improved exponentially, but definitely my understanding of the concepts and my confidence in my math ability has improved a lot," said the Toronto teen.

She brings her math school work to Oxford and revisits in-class lessons with a tutor. After that, she tackles the work on her own. 

"I'm teaching myself at my own pace and the way I like to learn, and if I need clarification or help with a question the tutors are willing to give it," Grosman said. "At Oxford it's set up for me to succeed whereas at school, in math class, I didn't always feel that way."

Only half of Grade 6 students met standards last year

The latest results of Ontario's standardized tests, administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, show math test scores among public elementary school students have not improved in recent years.

Only half of Ontario's Grade 6 students met the provincial standards for math in the 2016-2017 academic year, down seven percentage points from 2013. Meanwhile, 62 per cent of Grade 3 students met the provincial math standards, a decrease of five percentage points from 2014.

For Grade 9 students, 83 per cent of those in the math academic stream met the provincial standard, the same score as the previous year, but only 44 per cent met the standard in the applied math course, a dip of one percentage point.

Academic courses focus more on abstract applications of concepts, while applied courses focus on the practical.

The Ministry of Education has allocated $8 million for this school year to the Ontario Focused Intervention Partnership
initiative. 

The program, delivered through schools, helps kids from Kindergarten to Grade 6 develop literacy and numeracy skills outside the classroom through before and after-school tutoring, homework clubs and other programs, said government spokeswoman Heather Irwin. 
Mary Reid, professor of math education at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, poses for a portrait in Toronto on Friday, December 8, 2017. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press)

Private math tutoring services, nonetheless, remain popular, though they come at a cost.

Kumon franchises charge a registration fee of about $50, plus a monthly fee of $100 to $150 per subject. Prices at Oxford Learning vary from one franchise to another but locations surveyed around Toronto charged between $385 and $420 per month for two hours each week. Spirit of Math charges an annual fee of approximately $2,200, entitling  students to an hour and a half of instruction per week. 

Those costs are prohibitively expensive for many families, said Mary Reid, a professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

'Achievement gap is widening'

"We're creating that divide between the haves and have nots and the achievement gap is widening because of that," Reid said. 

Racialized kids and kids who live in lower-income neighbourhoods are more likely to end up in applied math classes, instead of the academic stream, Reid said, and those same kids, who arguably need more support in math, are also less likely to receive private, out-of-class lessons.

"Before you even consider these programs, parents need to be communicating with the schools, with teachers, and asking, 'What can I do to supplement my student's math skills and what can you offer me?"' Reid said.

Others caution that not every out-of-school learning program is suitable for every child.

Parents should avoid programs that focus on speed or on rote learning and memorization, said Maggie Smylie, an instructional teaching coach with the Peel District School Board.

Teaching math should be about valuing the process kids go through to get to the solution, making note of mistakes so teachers and students can see where there's a need for more instruction, she added.   "I tell parents to do what's best for your children but make sure you're making an informed decision."