Special Report: Education

Note to Education Minister: Correlation is Not Causality

What needs changing is the way we as a province conceive of education and educators. We all-too-often value the appearance of success over actual mastery.

By Tom Shea
Published September 03, 2019

Last Wednesday, Ontario's Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced $55 million in funding for "back to basics" math programs to be implemented by 2020. His apparent hope is that this money will improve flagging EQAO math test scores. He is, as seems to be becoming a trend for Ford government Education Ministers, dead wrong about it.

First, let us consider three statements from Allison Jones' Canadian Press report, Ontario announces $55M to boost math skils.

First: According to the EQAO office, analysis of test results has shown that for most students, "their basic math skills are stronger than their ability to apply those skills." An EQAO white paper from March 2019 [PDF] confirms, "The challenge with mathematics in Ontario may be less about students "knowing" math and more about their ability to apply math knowledge and to engage in related critical thinking."

Second: Education minister Stephen Lecce announced a new "back to basics" math program.

Third: Lecce "blamed declining math scores on the former Liberal government's curriculum, which FOCUSES ON PROBLEM-SOLVING THAT GROUNDS MATH IN ITS APPLICATION." (My all-caps shouting).

To recap: our own government's data shows that students' grasp of math fundamentals is sound, but problem-solving is weak. Our Education Minister's response is to earmark money for more fundamentals, and to tear down the previous Liberal government's focus on problem solving. Lecce has misidentified the problem revealed in his own data, and then chosen a solution that actually exacerbates the problem.

This is either (you may select more than one answer):

a) stupid;

b) part of Ford's ongoing campaign to demonize and destroy perfectly good Liberal initiatives for no good reason other than they were put forward by Liberals;

c) another attempt to degrade public education in an effort to open it up to private enterprise; or

d) pandering to a reactionary base that fears "new" educational strategies because it doesn't understand them.

Further to that, Lecce had the balls to tell the public, with a straight face, that correlation equals causation. (Pro tip: it doesn't. It never does.)

"There is absolute causation," Lecce said without a hint of evidence, between the Liberal curriculum and the decline in math scores. "Concurrent to the introduction of that (Liberal, problem-solving) approach, we saw math numbers decline. So one would have to accept the premise that there is a relationship between the two. What else is the reason ostensibly for such a decline?"

Let us ignore Lecce's gratuitous use of the word "concurrent." Let us overlook his abuse of the word "ostensibly." Lecce is a small thinker with a big vocabulary; this is to be expected.

Let us even ignore for a moment the fact that EQAO test scores did not noticeably begin their decline until 2009, fully four years after Lecce's "concurrent" date.

Let us focus instead on his question. What else, he asks, might be causing a decline in math skills? What else, he wonders, has changed in society since 2005 that could possibly have such an impact?


We could talk about our wired culture (the iPhone was first released in 2007). We could talk about the rise of child poverty in Ontario (13.8% of our children still live in poverty). We could talk about [the rise of precarious labour](https://cupe.ca/precarious-work-rise0 that keeps parents tense, unstable, and unavailable to their children.

The list of ways the world is different, and childhood is different, and cultural expectations about education are different, is extensive. But - and this is important - nobody is definitively linking any of those things to declining math scores. Why? Because everybody else knows that CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION.

The province that does best on math scores is Quebec. The best guess is that that is partly because of their curriculum (it teaches fewer concepts per year than Ontario's, but in greater depth), partly because of more extensive pedagogical training for teacher candidates, partly because they still have a graduation exam in mathematical competence, but most significantly because of a preparedness philosophy that is distinctly different than that of other provinces.

The BC and Ontario systems, for example, prioritize functional skills - if you know enough to get by in the workplace, you're basically ok. In Quebec the focus is on mastery, not functionality. That's a significant difference.

Equally importantly, the Quebec system is not yet so willing to push kids along to raise credit accumulation and graduation rates. Simply put, you demonstrate mastery or you repeat the course. This expectation shift cannot be overstated.

However, this is a shift that comes from outside of the school system. It is a basic cultural expectation that cannot be changed by a shift in teaching style, a test administered to potential teacher candidates, or $55M in funding for "back to basics" math education, whatever that might look like.

Minister Lecce, in short, is barking up the wrong tree.

The teachers are fine. The curriculum is fine. The kids, as the old song says, are alright.

What needs changing is the way we as a province conceive of education and educators. We now live in a province that all-too-often values the appearance of success over actual mastery.

As long as we pay lip service to learning, test scores will not improve.

As long as administrators prioritize parental wishful thinking and anxiety over student needs, test scores will not improve.

As long as the government trash talks teachers and sabotages the educational system, there will be no buy-in to the cultural shift that would begin meaningful change in our province's math scores.

Until we re-value our public system and the idea of education in general, until we re-engage children to love learning instead of fearing tests, progress will elude us.

What needs changing is the way we as a province conceive of education and educators. We all-too-often value the appearance of success over actual mastery.

Tom Shea is a lifelong Hamiltonian. He is a teacher with the HWDSB, and spends his evenings writing music, poetry, and essays on how to improve things.


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