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Students in secondary 4 math class at Ecole secondaire Mont-Royal in Montreal, December 5, 2013. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)
Students in secondary 4 math class at Ecole secondaire Mont-Royal in Montreal, December 5, 2013. (Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail)

Ontario unveils $4-million math upgrade plan Add to ...

Ontario will spend $4-million next year to help teachers upgrade their mathematics skills in a bid to battle the province’s poor test scores, but it will not be overhauling its math curriculum.

The announcement comes as a grassroots movement of parents and educators is pressing provincial governments across the country to make immediate changes to the way math is being taught.

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Education Minister Liz Sandals said Wednesday the province will help pay for more current teachers to take advanced qualifications courses in math. It will also make sure people in the new two-year teachers’ college program spend more time learning to teach math.

“Teachers are asking for more opportunities to advance their own knowledge of math and its instruction,” Ms. Sandals told reporters at an inner-city Toronto elementary school. “When we look at some of the jurisdictions that are similar to Ontario and where the results are better, what we often find is that there’s more extensive teacher training.”

She batted away suggestions, however, that the province’s math curriculum is the problem.

Asked if Ontario would undergo a curriculum shake-up, she said: “No.”

“Curriculum’s an ongoing review and we’ve already checked in with the experts to make sure that the curriculum is there,” she said. “It’s more about making sure that math is taught really well in elementary school.”

To battle poor math scores, parents in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia started petitions over the Christmas holidays asking governments to revamp curriculums so that a greater emphasis is put on basic math skills and less on discovery or creative strategies.

Recent OECD results, which measured the scholastic abilities of 15-year-olds in 65 countries, showed that an increasing percentage of Canadian students are failing the math test in nearly all provinces.

“There is indeed an urgency to this because I and many parents and educators feel that our children’s education is on the line,” said Nhung Tran-Davies, a physician in Calmar, Alta., whose petition to the province’s Education Ministry has gathered more than 1,700 signatures.

Education ministers in several provinces are re-examining the curriculum for all subjects, including math. But curriculum reform cannot happen overnight, they say.

In Alberta, the Education Ministry is revising its math curriculum, but any changes won’t materialize until March, 2016. Despite concerns from parents, the ministry contends that the curriculum does place an emphasis on addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. All Alberta students, for example, are expected to know their multiplication tables by the end of Grade 5, the government says.

In at least one province, parents have been successful in getting changes to the curriculum. After a movement led by math professors, Manitoba implemented changes this fall. Students are now taught all four standard methods for arithmetic – addition with a carry, subtraction with a borrow, long multiplication and long division.

The recent OECD results suggest that jurisdictions that teach math in a more traditional way had more success than those such as Ontario that use “discovery learning,” a method that allows for open-ended student investigations and problem-solving.

Teresa Murray, an Ontario mother and a retired elementary school teacher, started the petition in Ontario last weekend and has gathered about 100 signatures. Ms. Murray said she felt compelled to speak up after tutoring students in math who haven’t mastered basic skills.

“I see the same problems everywhere I go. Serious gaps with addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. More complex arithmetic is almost completely missing,” she said. “Any parent I have ever spoken to understands the problem, but feels helpless – that no one will listen to them.”

Math activists in the U.S. are watching what Canadian parents are doing with interest. Barry Garelick, a California-based parent advocate, math teacher and contributor to the website United States Coalition for World Class Math, said parents are further ahead in Canada. He said American parents don’t have a voice and teachers are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their jobs.

“The joke was kids could say four plus five is the same as five plus four, but they didn’t know it adds up to nine,” he said. “You see it in high school. Kids don’t know the basic facts in algebra class.”

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