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Brydon Pires works math exercises at Kumon in Mississauga.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Sadly, the latest testing data from Ontario's Education and Quality and Accountability Office is unsurprising: Student performance in mathematics is continuing its downward trend for the fifth straight year.

It doesn't matter whether your child attends a highly sought-after public school, or a not so stellar one: Chances are the school's math scores are declining. The provincial government has blamed teachers' weak backgrounds in math, recognizing that students need more support, but it has not retooled the curriculum.

There is an emerging and disturbing consequence. Families that can afford it are opting in record numbers for private tutoring, while those that cannot are stuck with the status quo. The result is a de facto two-tier system, though the government has undertaken to offer a quality, accessible education to all.

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The current curriculum is grounded in "discovery learning," in which students use their own learning styles to explore math. The emphasis is on problem-solving techniques, real-world applications and greater creativity. The problem is that students don't have the basics on which to build.

In Ontario, just 57 per cent of students met the provincial standard, down from 63 per cent in 2008-09. That's just not good enough in a world where so many future jobs hinge on math skills. Research shows math skills correlate strongly with future income and academic success. Can anyone blame parents for looking for a way to supplement their child's learning, when the public school system is falling so short?

Private programs, such as Kumon, an after-school math tutoring service, incorporate the kind of rote learning the public school system has veered away from. Kumon has seen a 23-per-cent enrolment increase over three years. Spirit of Math, another after-school program that uses drills to teach core math, has seen a 10- to 12-per-cent increase in enrolment year over year.

The popularity of these programs is evidence of their success. Parents whose children are lucky enough to receive extra tutoring are happy. But the government shouldn't be. The province should offer a math curriculum that allows every child the opportunity to learn math effectively. Instead, it is letting its students continue to slip toward failure.

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