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Why testing teachers won't likely solve Ontario's math problems: expert

Math expert Vanessa Vakharia explains why she thinks the Ontario government's plan to test new teachers math skills won't solve the problems students in the province are having with the subject.

Teachers will need a score of 70 per cent or better to pass their math test

The number of elementary students in Ontario who are meeting the provincial standard in math has steadily declined over the past decade. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Ontario's standardized test scores for math continue to decline, according to the latest results released in August.

The Ontario government plans to address math scores, in part, by requiring new teachers to take a standardized math test as well but, according to one math skills expert, that won't solve Ontario's math problem. 
Math expert Vanessa Vakharia explains why she thinks the Ontario government's plan to test new teachers math skills won't solve the problems students in the province are having with the subject. 7:46

Vanessa Vakharia, math tutor and founder and CEO of The Math Guru, spoke with the CBC's Craig Norris about some of the problems she sees with the province's new plan. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above. 

Vanessa Vakhariamath tutor, founder and CEO of The Math Guru 

How would you say the skills of the teacher affect the math skills of the student?

It's honestly one of the biggest factors. I feel like any human can kind of relate to that idea that you loved one of your school subjects because you have an awesome teacher or you hated the school subject because you didn't. So, there is kind of that general idea. But with math what's even more interesting, I think, is a lot of research has shown that teacher anxiety is one of the greatest things that gets passed on to a student. So, if the teacher's feeling really anxious about math, the kids feel that. They absorb that.

How will this new teacher testing work?

I honestly have as much information as all of us do, which isn't that much. So, we know that 30 per cent of the tests will have to do with how to teach math. So, teachers aren't just being tested on math concepts but how to teach those concepts. We know that teachers need to get a 70 in order to pass and we know that it's all new teachers but we don't know is that a multiple choice test? Who knows? We don't know what math is on the test.

What percentage of teachers do you think would be able to pass that kind of test?

I think it's kind of unfair to be asking current teachers to do the test and they're not doing that. This is for new teachers. I'm hoping that the purpose of such a test isn't in the test itself but in the fact that it would encourage and motivate and structure teachers to prepare for the test. What are the greatest ways to overcome anxiety and to feel prepared is to actually prepare? So, in the actual years spent that means that it has. I would hope that that's really what teachers are going to gain from it.

They don't know what's on the test but I think it would probably be pretty stressful for a current teacher to think their job was on the line if they didn't pass this test that they hadn't had a chance to study.

What's the value then if the teachers who are out there teaching right now aren't required to do it?

I'm really glad you asked because that's one of my main concerns. So, if you just look at a timeline you know a teacher goes to teacher's college. They're there for two years. It takes honestly three to five years often for a teacher to land a contract job. So, we're talking close to a decade before the results of this are even felt or seen. I'm concerned about the teachers in the classroom right now who need extra resources, who need support, who need help. It looks to me like the government is actually cutting those positions that we had, for example math coaches in schools, that were there to help current elementary teachers. It looks like those positions are actually being cut and resources being allocated this way to testing new teachers and that is a concern for me because I want to know what we're doing right now right for current teachers who are struggling and feeling anxiety. 

Some teaching programs, like Lakehead University for instance, they have their own math competency exams built into their teaching degree. So does that make this test redundant?

I think that's a really interesting point because, to me, why haven't we been emphasizing this all along? I do find it interesting that some teacher training programs have a more rigorous approach to the math that their teachers leave with. And that's why it's interesting to say OK we're just going to have an Ontario wide test but I really wonder how it's going to be carried out because, again, there are issues with standardized testing and there are issues with teaching to a test.

The key things should be that in teacher training programs teachers are taught the math they need. That's what I would hope. And, I guess that's simply not happening now and there needs to be some solution. Whether this is the right solution, I'm not sure, but it is definitely important to be examining the way teachers are trained to make sure that they leave feeling prepared and that they are getting the support they need.

I also think that it's super important is for everyone out there to realize there is not one solution to the problem. Kids math scores are declining. There's an increase in math anxiety. There's a whole range of things going on inside and outside the classroom that weren't happening decades ago. And, in order to get kids feeling better and more confident and competent with that we need a lot of things. Helping teachers out is one of those things. But I worry that it's kind of a little bit of a band-aid solution to a larger systemic problem of what's going on in schools. What's happening with the curriculum and kind of deeper level things that would take longer to fix.

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