When Politicians Interfere With Math Education, Teachers and Students Always Suffer

Sunil Singh
5 min readApr 16, 2023

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Today my Provincial government released an 180 million dollar plan to boost literacy and math skills. Sounds like a great initiative, right? What can be wrong with wanting to do that? Well, what the government really wants is a boost in test scores. And, the checkmate move against that comes from Kylene Beers.

Damage.

That is what governments/politicians do consistently in education. Damage it. Damage it with their shortsightedness. Damage it with their lack of understanding of education(Stephen Lecce, the Minister of Education, has no background in education. He’s a bean counter). Damage it with their appetite for superficial measurement to garner votes.

I know a lot of people in education in this Province. None of them approve of the smoke and mirror tactics of this government. They are slippery people, who are mainly interested in privatizing things. They shouldn’t be trusted with anything to do with education.

They especially shouldn’t be trusted with mathematics education.

There it is. The textbook/cliche political mantra of the mathematically illiterate — “back to basics”.

One, what does that really mean? Going backwards in a rapidly changing world seems like a pretty dumb idea. You know who also uses that phrase “back to basics”? Coaches when their team is losing.

Education isn’t a sport. Education, especially in 2023, isn’t supposed to be distilled down to taking overvalued tests, tethered to compliance, and married to competitiveness and “winning”.

But, let’s try to unpack what people like Lecce are thinking when it comes to “back to basics”.

Take a question like 1001–783.

How would the (dis)honorable Minister like students in Ontario to do this question? Can they use a calculator? Yes/No?

Yes. Well, then how is that “back to basics”?

No. Okay, so you want them to do the question without technology, as you are not interested in the speed/efficiency, but maybe some “thinking”. Fair. But, this might be the time to share this. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/all-the-mathematical-methods-i-learned-in-my-university_b_58693ef9e4b014e7c72ee248

Stephen Lecce and his PC government are dealing with obsolete ideas — and wasting tax payers dollars on archaic and anachronistic mathematical beliefs. This is a sentiment generally shared by privileged white males.

Check. Check. Check.

You have a Stanford mathematician and author of 33 books telling the world that the mathematical ideas he learned in his math degree are no longer applicable. Isn’t that ironic. That a politician who is boasting about the future, is using malfunctioning and broken philosophy.

It’s also par for the course. It’s the same playbook that Ron DeSantis uses to exploit mathematics for votes.

Back to the question. So, I am guessing Mr. Lecce you want students to use the “standard algorithm” for subtraction — as that is truly back to basics! By the way, standard for whom?

Geez. You want students to use an algorithm which is poorly explained and poorly executed — who really understands borrowing across “0's”? — to get the right answer. If the answer is really important, shouldn’t they use technology? And, why do you call it “borrowing” — you never “give it back”.

Back to basics is a dumpster fire of pedagogy that failed decades ago. Glad you are spending millions bringing it back.

Here is the way that would be completely foreign to you and the Little House on the Prairie movement in mathematics you seem to be proudly pushing. It’s also the way being done by teachers in this Province. If you ever decide to step inside a classroom, you can see for yourself.

1001 -783. Create “friendly” goal posts and add up.

783 — — 800 — — — — — — — — -1000–1001

17 + 200 + 1 = 218.

No. That is not in the back to basic playbook. I don’t think the forward pass was invented back then.

More clever is to have students demonstrate number flexibility and manipulate the question that makes the answer easier to arrive at. Subtract “2” from both 1001 and 783, preserving the “gap” between the numbers, and avoiding dealing with semi-problematic zeros.

999–781 = 218. No borrowing. Three straight-forwards subtraction moves.

This kind of thinking is critical to later on, where the flexibility will be required in both algebra and geometry.

Back to basics is an inflexible relic of the past. Cost to taxpayers $180 million

Factual fluency is mere one fluency in mathematics. Back to basics thinks it is the only. There is also procedural, conceptual, and historical.

But, I am boring you with all this, because your endgame is just about this:

The future you want teachers and students to have is really a past that was rooted in authoritarianism and producing obedient worker bees.

Stephen Lecce. You are not a mathematician. You are not an educator. You are simply a political tool who has weaponized mathematics and thrown money at it to ensure that the Province of Ontario doesn’t join the 21st century in terms of celebrating the highest quality of mathematics for the highest possible purposes — beyond external vectors of functioning in society. Which ironically, the back-to-basics ideology fails at miserably.

Let me know when you are up for a debate on math education. I will clear my calendar in 2029. That’s about how long it should take you to figure out that back to basics is a political unicorn.

Keep borrowing. Work on those times tables. Perfect your long division skills.

NASA is looking to hire — if it was 1958.

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