The Formula for Fixing Canada's Math Curriculum

01/15/2014 12:14 EST | Updated 03/17/2014 05:59 EDT

In most of Canada, math scores are down and parents are up in arms about the way their children are being taught. They are signing petitions, writing scathing comments and letters to the newsletters, calling in to radio shows, blogging, and so on. Even former deputy prime minister John Manley is calling it a national emergency.

In response to all the commotion, the Manitoba government has brought in immediate curriculum changes that require teachers to start teaching math basics right away. The governments of the other provinces, however, are for the most part expressing satisfaction with their own province's math programs while allowing that you can always make a good thing a bit better.

BC is actually moving in the opposite direction, favouring a "more personalized experience" over the present "highly prescriptive" curriculum. Alberta is promising minor curriculum changes but not until 2016. Ontario is promising $4 million for teacher professional development and a website to help parents teach their own children.

No one, including the BC, Ontario and Alberta ministers of education presumably, actually believes that these feeble tweaks will make a bit of difference. In fact, it's politics as usual: appear to be doing something and hope to slide through unscathed to the next election.

But why are the ministers of education so reluctant to bring in the meaningful changes parents are asking for? Surely the ministers would be delighted if students were learning more in school.

The problem lies with the type of things that parents are asking for -- things like direct instruction and drill; clear, well-laid-out math textbooks; and a more rigorous curriculum that includes mastery of basic skills.

Now it's not as if it would be difficult or costly or time-consuming to bring in these reforms. Direct instruction and drill could start tomorrow if the ministers gave their teachers permission to use them. Decent math textbooks could be in classrooms next month if the ministers added them to the list of approved textbooks. And a more rigorous curriculum could be developed in a couple of months (just ask Manitoba).

No, the problem is that things like mastery of basic skills, direct instruction and drill, and well-organized textbooks are anathema to today's education leaders. Unfortunately, the prevailing education ideology insists on extensive use of calculators, discovery learning and a focus on "higher-order thinking". Fuzzy math teaching and calculators and confusing math textbooks are like a religion to most education leaders. It would be really quite difficult to overstate how fervently they believe in this stuff.

The ministers of education are naturally loath to go up against the education leaders. I mean, after all look what happened to Ontario's minister of education John Snobelen when he tried to stand up to them (he lost his credibility, his effectiveness, and his job in that order). Right now, the various ministers are caught between a rock and a hard place. As things stand, they fear the education establishment more than they fear the parents. But they may be making a miscalculation.

Parents are really fed up. They are sick of paying for Kumon, sick of struggling with ridiculous homework assignments and nutty textbooks, and -- most of all -- tired of seeing doors slammed in their children's faces because they can't do math.

In Ontario, an election is coming soon. There are more parent voters than educator voters, and so it is possible that the Ontario minister of education will begin more and more to see the merits of the parents' arguments the closer the election gets.

For sure, the louder the parents yell, the more easily the minister will be able to count up the votes.