All Teachers Should Know How to Do Basic Math

December 22, 2021 Updated: December 27, 2021


Math is timeless and it is useful. No matter what historical period, students were invariably learning about topics such as adding and subtracting, fractions, the order of operations, long division, and place value.

There is no question that math skills are important for everyone. Whether you need to make change in the store or figure out how much lumber to purchase to build a new fence, math is a big part of our day-to-day lives.

Even the ubiquitous calculator has not eliminated our need for basic math skills. People don’t have time to pull out their phones every time they add another item to their grocery carts, nor do they want to be totally dependent on technology to answer simple math problems.

Simply put, technology will never take the place of human reasoning.

Given the importance of learning math, it’s not surprising that parents want teachers to teach it well. But this is where we run into a problem. Some teachers lack the ability to teach math to their students because they have poor math skills themselves. It’s the ultimate example of the blind leading the blind, or, perhaps more aptly, of the innumerate teaching the innumerate.

This is why the Ontario government introduced the Mathematics Proficiency Test in 2019. Any prospective teacher must receive a passing grade on this test to be eligible for teacher certification. The questions on this test assess whether teachers know and understand the Ontario math curriculum. They also reveal whether prospective teachers can do basic math themselves.

To be clear, there is nothing new about a math proficiency test for teachers. Lakehead University in Sudbury has long required all its primary and junior education students to successfully complete a math competency exam as part of their degree program. The Ontario government’s test merely standardizes this requirement across the province. Now all Ontario teachers will need to demonstrate basic numeracy skills, regardless of which university they graduated from.

Unfortunately, not everyone likes the idea of a math proficiency test. For example, the Ontario Teacher Candidates’ Council (OTCC) was founded in 2019 largely in response to this test. According to the OTCC’s website, the Mathematics Proficiency Test is “not equitable, fair, justified, or backed by data.” The OTCC also believes that the test was developed too quickly and that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Given its strong opposition to the Mathematics Proficiency Test, it’s not surprising that the OTCC decided to challenge the use of the test in court. In their submission to the Ontario Divisional Court, the OTCC asserted that the test violates Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it disproportionately impacts racialized students and unfairly keeps them out of the teaching profession.

Surprisingly, the court ruled in favour of the OTCC and concluded that the Mathematics Proficiency Test was unconstitutional. It also ordered the Ontario College of Teachers to grant certification to all teacher candidates who failed the test but met all other certification requirements.

Of course, the problem with this decision is it assumes that the disproportionate impact of the Mathematics Proficiency Test on racialized candidates is proof that the test is discriminatory. However, there is nothing inherently racist about math itself, nor does it make sense to assume that a person’s race should have any bearing on their math skills.

It’s far more likely that the teacher candidates who struggled to pass the test received inadequate math instruction when they were students in school. Instead of lowering the standard for entry into the teaching profession, it makes far more sense to raise the quality of math instruction that all students receive.

As for the current teacher candidates who are struggling to pass the Mathematics Proficiency Test, they already receive multiple opportunities to write the test. Remedial instruction can be provided, and they should obviously take the time to study for the test and practise important math skills. Letting them enter the teaching profession with inadequate math skills is a disservice to both the teachers themselves and the students in their classrooms.

If we are serious about helping students learn math, we need to ensure that all teachers know how to teach it effectively. Expecting them to pass a math test before being certified is a perfectly reasonable requirement.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”