Quebec Dominates in Math, Here Is Why Ed Reformers Should Pay Attention

The Canadian and Quebec Flags
Via Wikimedia Commons (CC-By-SA 4.0)

Paul Bennett had an interesting piece in Policy Options, a public forum run by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, a Canadian think tank located in Montreal, Quebec.

He notes that Quebec dominates the rest of Canada in math and have done so for many years. In spite of that, the other Canadian provinces don’t want to emulate Quebec’s success. 

He highlights a study conducted by British Columbia’s Ministry of Education into Quebec’s success. I wanted to highlight a couple of the findings that he writes about.

The first finding is that Quebec has a clearer philosophy and sequence. Bennett writes:

The scope and sequence of Quebec’s math curriculum is clearer, demonstrating an acceptance of the need for clarity in setting out a progression of content and skills focused on achieving higher levels of achievement. The 1980 Quebec Ministry of Education curriculum set the pattern. Much more emphasis in teacher education and in the classroom was placed upon building sound foundations before progressing to problem solving. Curriculum guidelines were much more explicit about making connections with previously learned material.

Quebec’s grade 4 curriculum made explicit reference to the ability to develop speed and accuracy in mental and written calculation and to multiply larger numbers as well as to perform reverse operations. By grade 11, students were required to summon “all their knowledge (algebra, geometry, statistics and the sciences) and all the means at their disposal…to solve problems.” “The way math is presented makes the difference,” says Genevieve Boulet,a professor of mathematics education at Mount St. Vincent University with prior experience preparing mathematics teachers at the Université de Sherbrooke.

Did you catch that? A clear scope and sequence was key, but not only that, an emphasis was placed on building sound foundations before tackling problem-solving. 

Now compare that to Common Core. We’ve noted Common Core’s Math Standards:

  • Delay development of some key concepts and skills.
  • Include significant mathematical sophistication written at a level beyond understanding of most parents, students, administrators, decision makers and many teachers.
  • Lack coherence and clarity to be consistently interpreted by students, parents, teachers, administrators, curriculum developers, textbook developers/publishers, and assessment developers.  Will this lead to consistent expectations and equity?
  • Have standards inappropriately placed, including delayed requirement for standard algorithms, which will hinder student success and waste valuable instructional time.

Bennett then notes Quebec uses stronger math curriculum:

Fewer topics tend to be covered at each grade level in Quebec, but they are covered in more depth than in BC and other Canadian provinces. In grade 4, students are generally introduced right away to multiplication, division and standard alogrithms, and the curriculum unit on measurement focuses on mastering three topics — length, area and volume — instead of six or seven. Concrete manipulations are more widely used to facilitate comprehension of more abstract math concepts. Much heavier emphasis is placed on numbers and operations as grade 4 students are expected to perform addition, subtraction and multiplication using fractions.

Fewer topics, they go in depth and students are introduced right away to standard algorithms. Common Core puts conceptual understanding before they master practical skills. Barry Garelick wrote about this in The Atlantic in 2012:

Under the Common Core Standards, students will not learn traditional methods of adding and subtracting double and triple digit numbers until fourth grade. (Currently, most schools teach these skills two years earlier.) The standard method for two and three digit multiplication is delayed until fifth grade; the standard method for long division until sixth. In the meantime, the students learn alternative strategies that are far less efficient, but that presumably help them “understand” the conceptual underpinnings.

Yet Quebec does not do this.

Canadian provinces are wise to emulate Quebec’s success in math, but we in the United States would be as well.