Retired teacher calls for review of Ontario math curriculum

A Hamilton parent and retired teacher is part of a growing movement across Canada asking for a review of math curricula. They argue students need traditional math skills such as automatic recall of standard algorithms and number facts.

Hamilton's Teresa Murray says students lack solid foundation in basic skills

Teresa Murray, 58, is leading a campaign across Ontario petitioning the Minister of Education for a review of the province's math curriculum. (Sola DaSilva/CBC)

A Hamilton retired teacher is concerned that the declining math scores in the province and across Canada is frustrating for students and financially costly for parents.

Teresa Murray, 58, says the performance results are being kept artificially high since parents are paying out-of-pocket for private tutoring. She is now leading a campaign across Ontario petitioning the Minister of Education for a review of the curriculum.

“A lot of parents are struggling because their children don’t know fundamentals of math. They’re paying hundreds of dollars for a tutor and many parents can’t afford it,” Murray said.

“These are real people. I go at it from that point of view, not the test scores. I’ve had people cry on my shoulder. Real people are getting hurt financially and their children are frustrated.”

For nine years, math results across Ontario have followed a downward trend. Scores went down by 16 points from an average score of 530 points in 2003 to 514 points in 2012, according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.

The latest Education Quality and Accountability (EQAO) results show only 59 per cent of Grade 3 students in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board performed at or above the provincial standard in math testing. Grade six students fared even worse, with only 48 per cent scoring at or above the provincial standard.

Math scores declining

Students in the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board did slightly better on the standardized tests, with 67 per cent of Grade 3 math students performing at or above the provincial standard. Among Grade 6 students, 54 per cent performed at or above the average.

As a whole, in Ontario, 67 per cent of math students performed at or above the provincial standard in the subject. Ontario students’ math achievement matched the Canadian average (which is also on the decline), both overall and in the mathematical sub-skills that were evaluated.

Gary Wheeler, spokesperson for the province's Ministry of Education, says that despite the drop in performance, Ontario continues to be “among the top jurisdictions in math... But there is always room for improvement ­— and we need to help students who are struggling in math.”

Grade six is like a culmination of all the grades before that. Students can get a B plus doing this but when they get to grade nine or university, they don’t know what to do.- Teresa Murray

The province is now promising more training and support for math teachers as a way to tackle this problem. Liz Sandals, Ontario's minister of education, announced on Jan. 8 that $4 million would be invested in creating more opportunities for teachers to gain additional qualifications in mathematics.

“We are reaching out to more educators with professional learning opportunities and resources that focus on key areas, such as the mathematical concepts that underlie fractions and ratios, algebra and geometry,” Wheeler said. “Increased teacher expertise allows educators to make math more relevant to students’ lives.”

Many teachers and parents learned mathematics the old way, says Manny Figueiredo, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's executive superintendent. The HWDSB initiated a new math strategy in 2012 that will help teachers and parents understand math concepts and how to teach it to children.

'If English is not your first language you are pretty lost,' retired teacher says

“Sometimes, there is a belief that the new curriculum is just about problem solving and math concepts, but the curriculum does have a balance of both,” Figueiredo said. “We need to understand that there’s more than one way to teach math. Some students might learn using concepts like borrowing and carrying over, while some might learn better using pictures and language.”

Ontario introduced a new math curriculum in 1999 and revised it in 2005. Murray retired a year and half ago after teaching in Hamilton for 32 years. She has seen the changes in the teaching methods and disagrees with Figueiredo and the province.

“There is not much of a balance right now. I’m not saying '[Go] back to the 1950s,' but you have to have a very solid foundation,” Murray said. “All this was supposed to make it fun and engaging and interesting. The problem is the new textbooks are complicated. And if English is not your first language, you are pretty lost.”

Many younger children have difficulty understanding the questions because their reading and comprehension level may not be high enough, she says. Formerly, students were required to memorize timetables and algorithms; now, the focus has shifted to more language-based math problems and math concepts.

“You have to know how to multiply, add subtract… you need to understand fractions and you need to have it in your brain automatically.”

Murray’s other concern is that without a solid foundation, students will experience problems later on.

“The Grade 6 test is very challenging. Also, Grade 4 is like a culmination of all the grades before that,” she said. “Students can get a B-plus doing this, but when they get to Grade 9 or university, they don’t know what to do.”

Not surprisingly, EQAO statistics show that student achievement in math drops between Grade 4 and Grade 6. In the last five years, an increasing number of students who met the provincial standard in Grade 3 failed to do so in Grade 6. The figure dropped from 28 per cent who improved between Grade 4 to Grade 6 to 17 per cent.

Parents lobbying across Canada

The idea that elementary school students need to have standard algorithms and times tables memorized seems to touch  a nerve with lots of parents. Murray is just one of the many parents across Canada lobbying for the same thing.

There’s more than one way to teach math. Some students might learn using concepts like borrowing and carrying over, while some might learn better using pictures and language.- Manny Figueiredo, HWDSB executive superintendent

The Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math) in Manitoba and Saskatchewan want to see skills like “borrowing, carrying over and long division” back in the curriculum.

Murray has collected more than 1,000 signatures and says she will continue because many parents are unhappy.

“The math curriculum, method of teaching and resources need to be reviewed. It is our children who are suffering. We are the ones who see that on a daily basis. We are the ones paying out of our own pockets.”

Here are some responses Murray received on her petition:

"It is time to do away with the experiment the children of Ontario have been subjected to in learning the "new math". It is time to start teaching basic adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing and times tables in a manner that is understandable to the children and their parents."

Gerald Roach, Hamilton, Ont.

"It is beyond frustrating to be told to teach higher order thinking, reasoning and multi-step problem-solving when 75% of the students in the class can't perform basic operations, don't know their times-tables and can't remember basic formulas."

Sonia C. Caledon, Ont.

"My Gr 4 child's public school curriculum is finally reaching division, but not in any practical form. Yesterday, his math lesson instructed him to "Draw 100 squares and divide them into 10 equal groups to complete the equation '10 x __ = 100.'"

Marianne Hu, Toronto, Ont.

With files from Julia Chapman