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Ontario teachers worry about implementing new math curriculum during pandemic

Ontario teachers are denouncing what they describe as the botched implementation of the province’s new math curriculum, saying they’ve had little guidance on material they’re expected to teach in just a few weeks.

It would be a challenging task in the best of times, they said, but the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has made it untenable.

“It just seems that our plans are not where they should be, and the math is one more piece that hasn’t really been properly prepared,” said Karl Fernandes, a Grade 4 and 5 teacher at a Catholic school in Toronto. “And of all the things that we have to tend to right now, a new math program seems to be the one that you could put pause on. And yet, we seem to be told, ‘Just go right ahead.”’

Fernandes said he has yet to receive formal training in the curriculum. That will come during the three professional development days just before classes resume.

“As much as I’m looking forward to seeing more of this new math program, the idea of being able to implement it properly and be prepared for it, it just seems so unrealistic,” he said.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education unveiled the much-hyped new curriculum in late June, in Premier Doug Ford’s latest move to bolster the floundering math scores that were a key talking point in his 2018 election campaign.

The curriculum, part of a $200-million “back to basics” math strategy, incorporates learning to code, expanded learning on financial literacy, and a return to memorizing multiplication tables.

The government said students will also now only get one overall mark for math instead of separate marks for each strand.

A spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce did respond to a request for comment on the teachers’ concerns, but pointed to the minister’s announcement of curriculum details earlier in the summer, when he said the province “must take action immediately” to bolster math scores.

“I appreciate the broader challenge around us, but we must move forward with these necessary reforms to give hope to these students that when they graduate they can aspire to get a good paying job,” Lecce said at the time. “If we get this right today we can literally change the course of the workforce.”

But the head of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association said the province has been getting it wrong.

Liz Stuart said that while the union is happy to have a new curriculum, implementing such a change successfully takes “time, resources and supports” – which she said the government has been slow to deliver.

“The government’s insistence on rushing the release of a new mathematics curriculum, while we are still grappling with the uncertainty in education during a public health crisis, is foolhardy, disrespectful, and counterproductive,” Stuart said in a statement.

Mary Reid, an expert in math curriculum at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, agreed.

“It’s a really good curriculum, it is needed, and it’s got some really excellent revisions to it that will support mathematics education for grades 1 to 8,” she said. “However, the timing of the implementation of this curriculum couldn’t be worse.”

She said teachers are rightly focused on health and safety – both that of their students, and their own.

Reid said that for a curriculum to be effective, it must be properly implemented, with ongoing training.

“The research shows that if you just put it out there and give it to teachers, without real professional development support, it’s not going to be implemented successfully,” she said. “The results could be a lot of struggles, because there’s a lot of new content in the curriculum. There’s going to be a lot of frustration, there’s going to be an incoherent vision of math education.”

Jeff Hackett, who teaches a Grade 7/8 split class in Windsor, Ont., said ideally, he would have liked to get training on this much earlier so he could consult with colleagues and math experts.

“Because the document was released so late, and we’re still waiting on information as to what September is going to exactly look like, we’re juggling a lot of balls right now.”