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Good start on math reforms

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It is unclear what Education Minister Nancy Allan was contemplating when she insisted it is clear that school kids should be able to do more of their math "in their heads." Ms. Allan introduced necessary changes to the arithmetic curriculum in Manitoba's public schools, which will see students doing more of the tried-and-true exercises their parents used, bending a trend away from broad adoption of methods that eschewed memorization and pencil-and-paper work.

Children will be taught to add and multiply in stacked columns again, carrying numbers from the ones to the 10s to the 100s columns, rather than, for example, in linear equations that required students to make mental leaps that often defied their parents' comprehension.

The province's results on international and national standards tests indicate many Manitoba pupils were not "getting it" in math class, either. Over successive tests in the last decade, Manitoba's ranking has been slipping against those of other provinces.

The changes to teaching methods and curricula were brought about for good cause: New ways of learning how to manipulate numbers and grasp mathematical concepts were introduced to cater to various learning styles among children. Rote memorization works well with young minds, but not for everyone, and strict adherence to computation styles of yesteryear meant children who thought outside the column lines were stifled.

But entirely tossing the times tables, for example, was a mistake. Now multiplication memory work is back, Ms. Allan says. Further, middle school students will be expected to show their work, and answers, on the page, rather than relying upon calculators.

Teaching styles ought to accommodate a variety of learning styles, which argues for employing the basic methods that worked for years along with methods that serve tactile or conceptual learners.

Ms. Allan is to be congratulated for acting on evidence that Manitoba had strayed to far in its reform of curriculum, such that many primary students were getting lost. This produced high school students who began to fail in mathematics early on. Eventually, those who fell behind were dissuaded from taking the pre-calculus classes, and were streamed into Grade 11 and 12 "consumer" math courses that did not require higher skills.

The problem starts in the primary grades, far earlier than in Grade 7, where teachers complain about having to spend inordinate amount of time reviewing multiplication and addition.

But at the core of the issue is the fact parents cannot easily follow their child's progress. Schools use report cards that obscure academic achievement -- replacing grades with a 1-4 scale that describes achievement below, at or above grade level in subjects. Further, there is a trend away from homework and tests.

The NDP government's rejection of the value of publishing the results of standardized tests and assessments has contributed to the disconnection of parents and taxpayers from the education system.

Re-engaging the public in public schools calls for greater openness and transparency. Making good data on academic achievement -- report cards, school-by-school achievement -- widely available injects accountability into the education system.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2013 A12

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