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Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals says the province will invest $60-million to increase mathematical instruction time.

Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Ontario's elementary school students will receive at least 60 minutes of mandatory math instruction daily under a new education strategy that targets declining test scores but sticks to the much-debated "inquiry-based" curriculum.

The $60-million plan, which rolls out in the fall, will bring up to three math specialist teachers to every school, and provide math training to all staff and additional supports for parents at schools where standardized results are particularly poor.

"We're obviously concerned that we've seen some declines in the scores," Education Minister Liz Sandals said in an interview after announcing the mandatory mathematical instruction time for Grades 1 to 8 students.

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This marks the first time the government is stipulating how many minutes elementary school instructors should allocate to a core subject. That task is usually left to schools and classroom teachers.

Math has emerged as a challenge for Canadian educators as standardized test scores have been steadily falling in every province except Quebec, where teacher training in math drills and problem-solving is more intensive. Parents have been appealing to education ministries to take a back-to-basics approach to teaching math, emphasizing repetition and drills before problem-solving.

Alberta and Manitoba bent to pressure from parents and educators in recent years by setting expectations around arithmetic and memorizing math facts.

There was no indication in Ms. Sandals's announcement that the government would change its math curriculum. Inquiry-based math involves having students break down problems into smaller parts as a way to work through them, or using physical materials to boost their understanding.

There were also concerns about what subjects will lose time in the classroom because of an increased focus on math instruction.

"We've got concerns about this because we see it as yet another bureaucratic layer being put into the system to address concerns from a test that is held one day a year," said Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. "For me, this is simply throwing more money at a problem that I don't think has been really thought through."

Math scores in Ontario have been falling as more and more students struggle to meet provincial standards, according to test results.

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Ms. Sandals had previously called the results "a problem," and pointed to a decline in the proportion of Grade 6 students who meet provincial standards – falling from 61 per cent to 54 per cent over the past five years.

Over the same time period, results from the province's Education Quality and Accountability Office showed that the proportion of Grade 3 students who meet provincial standards on math tests also dropped, from 71 per cent to 67 per cent in 2013-14, the latest figures available.

Scores in reading and writing, meanwhile, have been climbing steadily.

Some Ontario students already receive four to six hours a week of math instruction.

As with most other provinces, Ontario's school curriculum requires students to know the multiplication tables – although it does not specifically state that they must memorize them – and solve problems using a variety of strategies.

Provincial governments have been staunch defenders of inquiry-based discovery math – also called discovery mathinquiry-based – arguing that it gives children broader problem-solving skills and encourages them to use open-ended methods of breaking down equations. But many parents and some educators are demanding reform, and say children are lost without a strong grasp of traditional formulas and unable to recall multiplication tables quickly.

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Teresa Murray, an Ontario mother and a retired elementary school teacher, started a petition in Ontario two years ago and has gathered about 3,000 signatures demanding the government revamp the curriculum so that a greater emphasis is put on basic arithmetic and less on discovery or creative strategies.

Ms. Murray said more time on math instruction in the classroom is necessary, but "without a curriculum rewrite, it is fairly useless."

But Jennie Creeggan, who co-chaired the school council at her children's school in Stouffville, Ont., said she and other parents have been pushing for as much time devoted to math and science as there has been to reading and writing. "We felt our kids didn't have enough time to prepare for a future that will be mostly technology-based," she said.

"It's a welcome change and something we pushed for," she said of the government's announcement. "We constantly expressed our concern to school principals and our trustee but felt we were not being heard."

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