Four years ago, Arsheen Abbas signed her son up for private after-school math lessons because she felt the Grade 4 subject curriculum was not rigorous enough. The Oakville, Ont., mother enrolled her son in Spirit of Math — one of several private tutoring companies operating in Ontario — in hopes of bolstering his learning at an early stage.
“They are not teaching math the same way that we used to be taught,” Abbas said of the lessons her son was receiving in school. “One of our concerns, which we’ve heard from many parents, is that once (students) get to high school, all of a sudden they are flabbergasted by the amount of math or kind of math they need to do.”
Abbas’ son, who is now in Grade 8 and still attends Math classes, is among a growing number of students in Ontario using private after-school tutoring businesses to boost their math education. The rise in enrolment at such programs coincides with a decline in math scores on standardized tests amongst elementary students in the province.
Tutoring companies such as Kumon and Oxford Learning say they help students develop independent learning skills, and coach already high-achieving students to greater academic heights. But some critics say the for-profit programs are out of reach for less affluent families, while others caution they may not be the right fit for every child.
Ontario’s Ministry of Education wasn’t able to provide data on how many students attend private tutoring programs, but Kumon, Oxford and Spirit of Math reported significant increases in enrolment over the past five years. As of October, over 28,000 students were enrolled in Kumon math programs in Ontario alone, the company said.
Hannah Grosman, 17, said she noticed a big difference in her attitude toward math after enrolling at Oxford Learning about a year and a half ago. “My math marks haven’t improved exponentially, but definitely my understanding of the concepts and my confidence in my math ability has improved a lot,” the Toronto teen said.
The latest results of Ontario’s standardized tests, administered by the Education Quality and Accountability Office, show math test scores among public elementary school students have not improved in recent years.
Only half of Ontario’s Grade 6 students met the provincial standards for math in the 2016-2017 academic year, down seven percentage points from 2013. Meanwhile, 62 per cent of Grade 3 students met the provincial math standards, a decrease of five percentage points from 2014.
For Grade 9 students, 83 per cent of those in the math academic stream met the provincial standard, the same score as the previous year, but only 44 per cent met the standard in the applied math course, a dip of one percentage point. Academic courses focus more on abstract applications of concepts, while applied courses focus on the practical.
The Ministry of Education has allocated $8 million for this school year to the Ontario Focused Intervention Partnership initiative.
The program, delivered through schools, helps kids from Kindergarten to Grade 6 develop literacy and numeracy skills outside the classroom through before and after-school tutoring, homework clubs and other programs, said government spokesperson Heather Irwin.
Private math tutoring services, nonetheless, remain popular, though they come at a cost.
Kumon franchises charge a registration fee of about $50, plus a monthly fee of $100 to $150 per subject. Prices at Oxford Learning vary from one franchise to another, but locations surveyed around Toronto charged between $385 and $420 per month for two hours each week. Spirit of Math charges an annual fee of approximately $2,200, entitling students to an hour and a half of instruction per week.
Those costs are prohibitively expensive for many families, said Mary Reid, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
“We’re creating that divide between the haves and have nots and the achievement gap is widening because of that,” Reid said.
Racialized kids and kids who live in lower-income neighbourhoods are more likely to end up in applied math classes, instead of the academic stream, Reid said, and those same kids, who arguably need more support in math, are also less likely to receive private, out-of-class lessons.
“Before you even consider these programs, parents need to be communicating with the schools, with teachers, and asking, ‘What can I do to supplement my student’s math skills and what can you offer me?’ ” Reid said.