Why Can't My Child Do Math?

Is math homework a nightly struggle in your house? Have you torn your hair out helping your children to solve overly creative math problems? 

If so, it won't surprise you that EQAO, the organization that administers standardized testing for Ontario schools, recently issued a press release stating that in the last five years increasing numbers of students who had done well in math in the primary grades are struggling at the intermediate level (grades 4-6).  What's going wrong? 

Education Minister Liz Sandals blamed teachers and suggested that they should have more training in math.  Sue Ann Levy responded that it should not be beyond the capabilities of anyone who has finished high school math to be able to master and teach primary level math.  And she noted wryly that throwing money at the problem over the last decade, including offering teachers more and more time to prepare lessons, hasn't improved the situation.

A group called WISE math instead targets the "new math" which has served as the foundation of Canadian math curricula since the 1990s.  The group says most provinces have programs that devote too much time learning complicated problem-solving methods and not enough time learning basic math facts.  The failure to learn basic math facts like times tables makes learning slower and more difficult at every later stage. 

 "New math" or "inquiry math is in use throughout Western and Atlantic Canada in a program known as the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol (WNCP).  

Frustrated with the math deficiencies of her incoming undergraduate students, university math professor Anna Stokke formed a group called WISE Math to raise awareness of the problems with "new math."  Their research has shown that "Every jurisdiction under WNCP has shown steadily decreasing assessment outcomes since the introduction of the WNCP curriculum."

"Every jurisdiction under WNCP has shown steadily decreasing assessment outcomes since the introduction of the WNCP curriculum."

Ontario EQAO records show the same pattern.  PAFE surveyed records going back to the beginning, nearly two decades ago.  After the new math curriculum was brought into Ontario math scores climbed steadily for the first decade or so.  The year 2003-04 saw an impressive number of struggling students vault into the level 3 and level 4 categories.  But in the last four or five years the trend has been for increasing numbers of students in the middle years to be less promising math students than they were in the primary years.  

The folks at WISE math would have us believe with Minister Sandals that it takes experts to teach primary level math.  But most parents probably have encountered superlative math teachers who happen to be excellent communicators rather than people with math backgrounds. 

Problems appear at around the fourth grade, which is the time students are to be learning their multiplication and division skills.  This is persuasive evidence for the argument advanced by Doretta Wilson at the Society for Quality in Education, that students just aren't learning basic math facts. 

In Manitoba the Ministry of Education has initiated curricular reform with a back-to-basics approach, after WISE Math pushed for curriculum changes, writes education reporter Moira McDonald.  
PAFE suggests abandoning math textbooks such as the Nelson series that are based on the new math and using other series based on the back to basics approach and supplemented with fact drilling.

PAFE is soliciting feedback on whether you would support reforming the Ontario math curriculum to include more emphasis on mastering basic math facts.  Do you find textbooks such as the Nelson series that teach the new math difficult to understand?  Pease visit our survey to give us your thoughts: