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Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Minister of Education Mitzie Hunter were at Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute in Toronto to announce changes to Ontario's public school curriculum on Wednesday.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The math curriculum for Ontario's schools has problems, Premier Kathleen Wynne admitted on Wednesday as she outlined sweeping changes to how students learn.

The Liberals previously said the math curriculum would not be changed and that it compares favourably with those of other provinces despite the fact that students' scores on standardized tests were falling or stagnating.

But at a news conference on Wednesday at which she announced plans for a major reform to the school curriculum, Ms. Wynne said something in the way math is taught has led to disappointing results and the subject will be the first to be revamped.

"We know there are challenges with the math curriculum," Ms. Wynne said at Toronto's Lawrence Park Collegiate Institute. She added that teachers need supports to teach it, but the government will also undertake a "broader refresh" of math and other subjects to make sure students have enough of the foundational skills that incorporate problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity that are needed for a changing economy.

Anna Stokke, a professor in the department of math and statistics at the University of Winnipeg, said math scores have declined in all provinces, except in Quebec. "Ontario isn't even the worst of the provinces [when it comes to math scores]," she said. But Prof. Stokke, who is the author of the 2015 C.D. Howe Report What to do about Canada's declining math scores, added that it is one of the few provinces where the public can see how students are faring because of the standardized tests.

In her home province of Manitoba, parents know how their children compare nationally only because of international exams of 15-year-olds administered by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, she said.

Prof. Stokke, who has been outspoken about the failure of provinces to change the direction of math education, said she worries that children are exposed to discovery-based techniques in learning math and lack the basics. She said the shift in math education happened in the late 1990s, when curriculums went from learning basic algorithms to finding strategies to explain an answer that she described as "time-consuming and clunky."

"It's the same ideology that persists across the country," she said. "Parents wonder why we're doing this."

In Ontario, parents and some educators have criticized Ms. Wynne's government for not doing enough to prevent math scores from falling. The province injected $60-million into the system last year to add math-specialist teachers to every school and additional training for staff.

It may be too early to see a return on that investment, but the latest standardized test results showed no improvement year over year. For the second year in a row, half of Grade 6 students failed to meet provincial standards in math in the 2016-17 academic year, according to results released last week. That was down from 57 per cent four years ago.

Among Grade 3 students, 62 per cent met provincial standards in math, a 1-percentage-point decrease from the previous year. (The provincial standard is equivalent to a B grade.)

Education Minister Mitzie Hunter on Wednesday said the initiative to reform the math curriculum will involve public consultations with students, educators, parents and those working in the field "to reflect back on that curriculum and to [find] ways that we can improve and can strengthen Ontario's math curriculum, as well as the others, over the next three to five years." Students will see no changes this year.

The Liberals will also revise elementary-school report cards in the next academic year to better recognize problem solving, critical thinking and creative skills. The high-school report will be changed later. The government said it will look at its provincial assessment tests to make sure they measure a wider range of learning.

Math is a divisive issue. Some educators and parents say the curriculum does not allow students to master the basics in the early grades before moving on to more complex topics. Others say the standardized test is not geared to the way children are learning in the classroom, which emphasizes group problem-solving and expressing ideas in a variety of ways.

Matthew Oldridge, a mathematics teacher in Mississauga, west of Toronto, said the focus needs to be on the curriculum.

He said half of Grade 6 students are not meeting standards because some of the concepts are new and they have not had time to practice. Other concepts, he said, are too advanced for children of that age.

Mr. Oldridge said that in Grade 6, for example, students are asked to calculate the surface area and volume of a triangular prism. He said students need more work with area and then volume, as well as consolidating their skills with rectangular prisms, before moving to triangular prisms in a later grade.

He also said the curriculum could be more specific around how and when most students learn to use fractions.

"We would be well served by a new curriculum at this point," Mr. Oldridge said. "It's become a little bit outdated because we've learned a lot more about, say, what the research is saying about how kids learn fractions. The sequence of topics and the way it's laid out does need changing. I'm hoping that will happen soon."

Ontario's standardized testing data show the number of students meeting standards in reading held steady or climbed in the 2016-17 academic year. Much effort has been put into improving literacy in recent years.

Writing results showed a small decline year over year for Grade 3 and Grade 6 students.

Ontario’s next provincial election is scheduled for June 7, 2018. The province’s three main political party leaders weigh in on what they see as their biggest challenges in the 12 months before the vote.

The Canadian Press