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.
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.
On Wednesday, Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals announced the province will spent $4 million this year to help cover the costs of courses that will train people how to better teach math.
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."
With a report from Adrian Morrow