A reform gone bad? Math in Canada (Study)


A new study by Haeck et al. published in Economics of Education Review examines the results of a large reform of math education in Quebec, the second most populated province in Canada. The reform was ambitious and universal and implemented in the early 2000’s on children’s mathematical ability throughout primary and secondary school.

The researchers describe the reform as follows:

“The Quebec education program (MELS, 2001, 2003, 2007) relied on a socio-constructivist teaching approach focused on problem-based and self-directed learning. [emphasis added] This approach mainly moved teaching away from the traditional/academic approaches of memorization, repetitions and activity books, to a much more comprehensive approach focused on learning in a contextual setting in which children are expected to find answers for themselves.”

And the reform was massive:

“…the reform had to be implemented in all schools, and that the resources and training was not tied to individual school characteristics. Whether private or public, English speaking or French speaking, all schools across the province were mandated to follow the reform according to the implementation schedule. This implies that all children in Quebec were treated according to same timeline, and that parents were not able to self-select their children into or out of the reform, except by moving out of the province which they did not.”

But the researchers found that the results are negative, their conclusion is clear:

“We find strong evidence of negative effects of the reform on the development of students’ mathematical abilities. More specifically, using the changes-in-changes estimator, we show that the impact of the reform increases with exposure, and that it impacts negatively students at all points on the skills distribution. . . . Students from the lower end of the distribution do not seem to be in a better position to successfully complete their schooling. Mathematical abilities are strongly related to school attainment and labor market outcomes, and for lower performing students they are at best equivalent post reform, but most likely lower.”

I also found an earlier version of the report as a discussion paper here, and similar research here.

Highlights of the study:

  • We evaluate the effects of teaching method reform on math scores in grades 2–10.
  • Evaluation based on a natural experiment implemented in the early 2000’s in Canada.
  • Impact estimated for the distribution of scores and mean scores.
  • Strong negative effects estimated on all points of the distribution and means.
  • More negative effect obtained in the later grades of high school.

Abstract of the research:

We investigate the impact of an ambitious provincial school reform in Canada on students’ mathematical achievements. It is the first paper to exploit a universal school reform of this magnitude to identify the causal effect of a widely supported teaching approach on students’ math scores. Our data set allows us to differentiate impacts according to the number of years of treatment and the timing of treatment. Using the changes-in-changes model, we find that the reform had negative effects on students’ scores at all points on the skills distribution and that the effects were larger the longer the exposure to the reform


4 thoughts on “A reform gone bad? Math in Canada (Study)

  1. What was the scoring mechanism? Traditional math exams or independent problem solving? Or the probability of success in later life?

    1. “We use the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) for the analysis, which provides students test scores in mathematics.”

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