Ontario government has failed to fix math education in the province

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Appeared in the Hamilton Spectator, January 18, 2023
Ontario government has failed to fix math education in the province

It was one of the most straightforward promises made during the 2018 Ontario election campaign. Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford pledged that, if elected, his government would scrap discovery math and implement a back-to-basics approach to math education.

Ford’s promise resonated with parents across Ontario who were frustrated with the lack of emphasis on the academic basics and with the ongoing use of textbooks such as Pearson Education’s “Math Makes Sense,” which, contrary to its name, does not help math make sense. Instead of showing students the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, these textbooks encourage students to invent their own ways of solving math problems. Hence the derisive label “discovery math.”

And while Ontario still performs relatively well compared to other jurisdictions, the province’s math scores on international assessments have steadily declined over the last 20 years. Clearly, Doug Ford was right to make the quality of math education a key issue in the 2018 election campaign.

The good news is that the Ford government has made some progress in this area. In 2020, the province rolled out some much-needed changes to the provincial math curriculum. Most notably, students are now required to recall number facts and memorize the multiplication tables up to 12 times 12. These sensible changes were a welcome step in fulfilling the government’s campaign pledge to abolish discovery math.

There’s also a newfound emphasis on financial literacy. Grades 4 and 5 students now learn about various payment methods (e-transfers, for example) while Grade 8 students focus on balancing budgets and the perils of compound interest. Financial literacy is important for everyone and it makes sense to learn about these concepts in school.

Now the bad news. The Ford government has also made some serious missteps along the way. Most notably, the initial draft of the new math curriculum was infused with bizarre social justice statements. For example, the preface to the Grade 9 math curriculum stated “Mathematics has been used to normalize racism and marginalization of non-Eurocentric mathematical knowledges, and a decolonial, anti-racist approach to mathematics education makes visible its historical roots and social constructions.” The curriculum also included references to “anti-racist and anti-oppressive teaching and learning opportunities” and to “the colonial contexts of present-day mathematics education.” Of course, these things have nothing to do with mathematics.

While the government quickly removed these statements from the curriculum after public outcry, it raises the question of why it included them in the curriculum in the first place. Perhaps the politicians ceded too much control over this file to their education bureaucrats. One thing we’ve seen over the years is that education bureaucrats often undermine the well-intentioned reforms of their political bosses who won elections promising change.

Sadly, Ontario school boards have gone even further with pushing social justice in math classes. The Toronto District School Board’s Mathematics and Numeracy Department, for example, takes an “anti-oppressive” lens to math instruction. Jason To, TDSB’s coordinator of secondary mathematics, wants to lift the “veil of objectivity” from mathematics.

If any subject should be free of politics, it’s math. One plus one will always equal two, regardless of which two things are being added up. There’s nothing oppressive or racist about learning long division or memorizing the correct order of operations. Inserting politics into an objective subject such as math is one of the fastest ways to undermine parental support for public schools.

Doug Ford has a lot of work to do if he’s serious about improving math education in Ontario. Tinkering around the edges is not enough. It’s going to take a lot more than a few minor curriculum revisions to root out the woke rot that’s taken hold of Ontario schools.

It’s time for the Ford government to get serious about improving math education. This is one campaign promise that must be kept.

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