Ford's plan to scrap 'discovery math' won't solve declining test scores, educator says

The Ontario Progressive Conservative's plan to scrap the province's mathematics curriculum isn't the answer to declining test scores among elementary school-aged children, a Toronto educator says.

Math, sex ed curriculum have drawn frequent criticism from the PC leader

Standardized math test scores among elementary school students have been steadily declining for almost a decade in Ontario. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

The Ontario Progressive Conservative party's plan to scrap the province's mathematics curriculum isn't the answer to declining test scores among elementary school-aged children, a Toronto educator says. 

"This is a very nuanced conversation and I think it gets really heated," said Vanessa Vakharia, founder and CEO of The Math Guru, a math and science tutoring service based uptown, on Wednesday morning. 

"I think it's really easy to want to point to one thing and to place blame," she continued, referencing PC Leader Doug Ford's opposition to what is often called "discovery math."

The concept, which places an emphasis on experimentation and problem solving rather than rote learning, is at the core of Ontario's curriculum. It has come under increasing scrutiny as standardized test scores in math have steadily declined in Ontario in the last decade. 

In a campaign speech on Tuesday, Ford said a PC government would develop a curriculum focused on "getting back to basics" in the areas of reading, writing and math. 

"Kids used to learn math by doing things like memorizing a multiplication table, and it worked. Kathleen Wynne scrapped that. Instead, our kids are left with experimental discovery math," he said.

"That hardly teaches math at all. Instead, everyone gets a participation ribbon and our kids are left to fend for themselves."

Vakharia agrees that declining test scores and frustration among parents with evolving homework demands have fuelled discontent with the curriculum, but adds that students struggling with math is hardly a new phenomenon.

"Doug Ford says, 'It worked, it worked, we taught multiplication tables.' Well, I'm sorry, but there has always been a problem with math in schools," she said in an interview with CBC's Metro Morning

"I would have to say there are many elements which factor in" to declining test scores, Vakharia continued. Among the biggest impediments is that the discovery math curriculum is "not being implemented properly" by elementary teachers that may not have much experience teaching math. 

Metro Morning spoke with a math educator and a sex ed educator about Ford's promises

The answer, according to Vakharia, is not to return to antiquated approaches to teaching, but rather, "to start fresh.

"We need to create a new curriculum that is balanced. Yes, our kids need to know their times tables, and that's a problem if they don't. But they also — in the current climate that we're in — they need critical thinking skills. They need to know how to problem solve. So we have to find a way to balance the two."

PC Leader Doug Ford has promised to completely overhaul both the math and sex ed curriculums in Ontario. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Ford promises sex ed overhaul

During his remarks on Tuesday, Ford also took aim at Ontario's recently modernized sex ed curriculum, a frequent target of the social conservative wing of the PC party.

"Many parents I hear from think Kathleen Wynne's sex ed curriculum is too much and too early. And sadly, these parents were never ever consulted," Ford said in vowing to repeal and replace it, while offering few specifics on what exactly he wants changed. 

Insufficient consultation is among the tack taken most frequently by critics of the curriculum. Similarly, much of the controversy is centred on when particular material is taught to students. 

Lyba Spring, a sexual health education consultant who worked for Toronto Public Health for three decades, argues that it's a myth that parents weren't given a chance to voice concerns about topics included in the syllabus. 

The modernization process began in 2007, and was initially slated to be completed by 2010. However it was not introduced in Ontario's schools until 2015. Spring said it was a "comprehensive consultation" that included input from parents, teachers, health professionals and even clergy. 

"There is very clear documentation that parents were consulted. You can Google it," she said. 

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has previously voiced support for the upgraded curriculum and characterized Ford's perspective on the issue as regressive. 

For her part, Vahkaria much of the criticism is rooted in disinformation. Further, she believes that in some instances, the current curriculum delays discussion of some topics for too long.

"When it comes to age appropriateness, you have to understand what kids are exposed to right now and what we need to respond to."

Spring and Vakharia, while specialists in different subjects, agreed that any changes to the education system should avoid "going back" to a different time.

"It's 2018. Kids learn differently, they process information differently, and they are exposed to different things. So whether it is sex ed or math ed, we need to be working within the framework of what kids know, what they perceive, and how they learn," said Vakharia.