Ontario’s Math Curriculum Fiasco Should Serve as a Cautionary Tale to All Politicians

July 15, 2021 Updated: July 19, 2021


In 2018, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives won a resounding majority in the Ontario provincial election. This gave them a strong mandate to implement their campaign promises.

One promise was to overhaul the provincial math curriculum. Specifically, Ford promised to scrap “discovery math” and replace it with a strong “back-to-basics” curriculum.

Ford’s pledge was both clear and unambiguous.

Unfortunately, Ford and his ministers are finding out the hard way that managing education is a lot harder than campaigning. Despite rolling out a new math curriculum with some notable improvements, Ford’s government has found itself caught in a trap laid by his opponents.

These opponents, however, were not the usual suspects—opposition politicians, hostile journalists, or organized lobbyists. Rather, the Ford government was tripped up by its own department officials and a bevy of education consultants. Judging by the language used in the new curriculum, the curriculum writers weren’t on the same page as the government.

For example, the Grade 9 math curriculum contained bizarre statements about the allegedly racist nature of traditional mathematics.

“Mathematics has been used to normalize racism and marginalization of non-Eurocentric mathematical knowledges, and a decolonial, anti-racist approach to mathematics education makes visible its historical roots and social constructions,” it stated.

Specifically, the curriculum said it is important to take an “anti-racist” and “decolonial” approach to math instruction. It even challenged the belief that mathematics is an objective discipline. Obviously, statements like these made a mockery of Ford’s back-to-basics pledge.

After substantial negative publicity, Education Minister Stephen Lecce had these statements removed from the Grade 9 math curriculum. Unfortunately, the damage was already done. Progressive educators are furious at the Ford government for taking the statements out, while traditional conservative supporters are upset that they were approved in the first place.

It’s the ultimate lose-lose situation, and the Ford government has only itself to blame. Either Lecce knew what his curriculum writers were doing and did nothing to stop them, or he was woefully ignorant of what was happening in his own department. Neither option looks good for the minister.

Of course, this problem should not have come as a surprise. Not only is there strong support for discovery math among the Ontario education establishment, but there is also a significant push towards incorporating the tenets of critical race theory in previously objective subjects such as math.

This sentiment is certainly not limited to Ontario or even to Canada. Earlier this year, the Oregon Department of Education sent an email to its teachers urging them to enrol in a virtual course titled “A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction.” This course told teachers to stop equating mistakes with “wrongness” and suggested that a focus on getting the right answer will “perpetuate white supremacy culture.”

Thus, what started out as a well-meaning but misguided discovery approach to math instruction has morphed into an all-out assault on the very nature of mathematics. It’s tough to fight for including the standard addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division algorithms in the curriculum when those same algorithms are dismissed as relics of white colonialism.

The reality is that the Ford government can’t trust its own department officials to write a new math curriculum that would reflect the government’s own priorities. If real change is to happen, the Ford government is going to have to look outside the education establishment.

Fortunately, there are math experts who could help the Ford government. For example, the Western Initiative for Strengthening Math Education (WISE Math) was founded a decade ago by several math professors in Western Canada. WISE Math’s website has plenty of freely available resources that the Ontario government could use.

Another helpful organization is JUMP Math. Founded by mathematician John Mighton, JUMP Math produces K-8 math resources that effectively combine a back-to-basics approach with lots of creative problem-solving. Despite its documented success at helping students learn math skills, it has long been dismissed by progressive educators.

Ford and Lecce have a decision to make: Either they keep entrusting the math curriculum to their current department officials and education consultants, or they turn to experts who actually agree with their government’s back-to-basics priorities.

Ontario’s math curriculum fiasco should serve as a cautionary tale to all politicians across the country. Either you take charge and run your education department, or the department will simply run you.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”