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Struggling students multiply demand for tutors

Pandemic, lack of supports, bloated class sizes blamed for diminishing test scores

More of St. Albert’s young learners are getting help from tutors and out-of-school educational programs, say local educators.

“The demand is greater than I've seen it, possibly ever,” said Jackie Cairn, an educational consultant for Sylvan Learning centres in St. Albert, Edmonton and Sherwood Park.

Some parents aren’t sure why their children are struggling, while for others the answer is obvious.

“Sometimes they say, ‘I definitely know it's because they missed stuff during the pandemic years,'” Cairn said.

Students can find themselves behind in a number of areas, but issues with reading and math are particularly alarming because the subjects are critical as a foundation for further learning, according to Cairn.

“If you've missed important prerequisite skills from earlier curriculum levels it can be a challenge, and it's really frustrating,” she said.

Math is a particularly weak subject for students coming to Sylvan Learning, she said. In Canada, 15-year-old students' scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) dropped by 15 points compared to 2018 scores. The 15 points represent roughly three-quarters of a year of learning lost.

Now some tutoring services focus exclusively on math.

That’s the case for Mathnasium, a tutoring franchise that originated in the U.S., but now has three locations in Edmonton and recently opened its first location in St. Albert.

St. Albert’s Mathnasium gained 15 students in its first month. That’s well above the eight to 10 student average that other Mathnasium locations have attracted in their first 30 days, according to Harold Voong, owner and director of the St. Albert Mathnasium.

“Across all the Mathnasiums, they're finding students being two, three, maybe four grade levels below where they should be,” Voong said.

He’s noticed students seem to be having a particularly rough time with reducing, adding and multiplying fractions.

“We're talking about kids in high school who can't do that,” he said.

Voong said Mathnasium aims to make learning math “fun and light.” Students can collect “star cards” (points) for completing assignments and trade the points in for prizes. They also play learning games, and Voong likes to introduce them to interesting and strange historical facts about mathematicians.

He suspects the fault for many students’ math deficits lies with COVID, but attitudes towards the subject could also be playing a role.

“Neil deGrasse Tyson says something about that: We get laughed at if we're illiterate, but if our math skills are not the best, that's something that we can just brush off and say, ‘Oh, well, I'm not good at math. It's not a big deal,’” he said. “That's what we're trying to change, is really bring out the passion for math students, and showing them how amazing the world of mathematics really can be.”

While COVID-19 disrupted learning for many students, falling test scores and the increased demand for tutoring services may have more to do with bloated classroom sizes and underfunded schools, said Jonathan Teghtmeyer, an Alberta Teachers' Association spokesperson.

“I think that we should take the growth of tutoring as an indictment of the ways that supports for schools have been eroded in recent years,” Teghtmeyer said.

Falling PISA scores should be understood in the wider context that grades are falling globally, and Alberta still ranks high when it comes to international testing, he said.

Math has always been a tough subject for students, said Teghtmeyer, who was once a math tutor in St. Albert.

However, Alberta has the largest gap of any province in educational performance between students living in poverty or relative poverty, and students from wealthier families.

When education funding is cut and teachers lack resources, “those parents with the means will then seek outside ways to support their students better,” he said.

“Frankly, we should see that as a concern, and we should react to it by changing the level of funding and making sure that our schools have what they need, so that parents don't have to look outside of the public education system.”

About the Author: Riley Tjosvold

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