Math Curriculum Doesn’t Add Up: New education techniques failing students

Commentary, Education, Joseph Quesnel

A recent national study concludes Manitoba students are near the bottom of the heap when it comes to math education.

The Pan-Canadian Assessment was conducted in the spring of 2010 among Grade 8 students by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada. Manitoba also comes near the bottom on science and reading.

This is obviously concerning parents who want their children to be prepared for the future, especially as it pertains to math and reading — the basic skills required for life in modern society.

Michael Zwaagstra, a Manitoba high school teacher and educational researcher for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, put out a study recently which criticized the problem of math education nowadays. This study provides clues as to why our students are failing and what can be done to remedy the situation.

Zwaagstra argues current curricula and textbooks focus on discovery-based instructional techniques that are popular despite being ineffective. The problem, he says, is not enough time is being spent on basic math skills like simple addition and subtraction, along with standard multiplication tables. He says mastering standard algorithms should be central to the curriculum, but it is not.

Studies show students need to have math problems broken down into smaller steps and each step must be mastered before moving onto the next one.

Instead of teaching basic math skills that students need to prepare them for post-secondary education or for many careers, they are given an educational philosophy called constructivism that encourages students to come up with their own understanding of the subject at hand.

Now, I admit I am out of my element as math was one of my most challenging subjects, but I continued in it as far as I could in high school.

I am thoroughly convinced of the importance of this subject in so many parts of daily life as well as aspects of my own work.

Zwaagstra noticed university professors taking note of declining math skills in entering post-secondary students.

I don’t think I would be going out on a limb to say the problem is increasingly misguided curriculum reforms emphasizing self-esteem, not solid achievement.

Nowadays, we read about schools that are far more concerned about whether students are wearing scary Halloween costumes than ensuring parents and students are being served by the system.

For all the propaganda teachers unions put out against private schooling and even public charter schools, one would think they would give their heads a shake and realize these options are popular because public schools are failing.

This is not to unfairly target many public schools who are doing their job well and care about students. The answer is for provincial education ministries to get over failed, feel-good, hokey curriculum methods and return to a system focusing on good, solid, basic skills and an expectation of excellence.

It’s encouraging a group of professors at the universities of Winnipeg, Manitoba and Regina are banding together to promote traditional math instruction. Called the Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math, they can be found online at

They encourage parents to sign their petition.

It’s time parents took back education from bureaucrats.