Monday, April 14, 2008

maths education crisis in Australia - the long tail of underachievement

Quality of school education: Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education, September 2007, 141pp

Disappointing that this report has received so little coverage - a little from the mainstream media and almost none from the blogosphere

In this blog I'll just address the issue of the crisis in maths education in many Australian schools, what the report describes as "the long tail of underachievement". Even though the Senate committee are somewhat unclear about solutions (in part because they sit on the fence when it comes to the maths and curriculum wars) all the data is there which identifies serious problems in Australian maths education

Not many will read the whole report but if you just read sections 3.44 (page 58) to 3.62 (page 64) that will provide you with a good overview of the maths education crisis. I'll just provide a few dots points below to highlight the main points in summary:
  • the quality of aspiring teachers (in maths) is in decline, especially at primary school level
  • inadequate treatment of mathematics content during teacher training, giving new teachers neither confidence nor enthusiasm to teach mathematics
  • the consequence being that too many children are unprepared at the end of primary school to learn algebra, without which they cannot study mathematics at a higher level in Years 11 and 12
  • early tests of numeracy conducted by education faculties showed that a very large proportion of students (this refers to students studying to become teachers) cannot do grade 5 maths because they never learned a lot of maths at school
  • People who can do maths do not choose to become primary teachers - they will do something like commerce
The other parts of the report are to do with an argument between different submitters to the committee about:

(1) Curriculum - whether to pursue a "deep learning" approach advocated by the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers or whether to pursue an approach with more emphasis on basics and skill routines (Assoc. Professor Wayne Read, James Cook University)

(2) Technology - has the introduction of calculators, including graphics calculators, liberated maths from memorising and mechanical chores or have they contributed to the crisis of lack of basic understandings? This part was interesting:
In 2006 Victoria reintroduced a technology-free exam for part of the harder Year 12 subjects. It was claimed that teachers welcomed it with open arms because it meant that the students once again had to start thinking about what they were doing and be able to do things with pen and paper as well. (p. 61)
There is a war on; the committee tends towards a conservative solution without really committing to either side of the expert conflict. What they say is that the curriculum debate is a secondary issue, the main issue is to improve teacher quality.

I'd be interested in discussing this Senate report and the curriculum war issues in more detail.

curriculum reform will not improve education without quality teachers


Unknown said...

I question that there is a crisis in Australia's mathematics, if there is, it is a world crisis. Australia ranks highly in mathematics
well above the USA, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Sweden and France.

We should be careful if we are changing to models practiced in other countries.

Bill Kerr said...

Some good points there tony

Is there a world crisis? Some countries do value maths but mathophobia is also a prominent world wide trend. Secondly, could it all be done much better if we incorporated computers properly into maths ed - call that one Papert's lament. Finally, what do the PISA tests really measure? I don't reject their importance but they do have to be analysed, not just accepted.

So, from a radical perspective that maths ed could be done much better using a "one laptop per child" technology then I would suggest there is a world crisis. But of course that is not the approach taken by the Senate committee, it's my add on.

Is there a crisis in Australian maths ed? The Senate report does also discuss where maths ed is being well done in some Australian schools - a traditional model by well qualified maths teachers.

Section 3.57 (p. 61):
"The researchers identified the following characteristics of successful maths departments: having experienced staff, with a majority having degrees with mathematics majors and therefore confident of their subject and able to 'talk mathematics'; all staff believing in 'solid teaching' (see below) and organised to maximise 'time on task'; having and supporting a well-developed testing regime for the purpose of assisting learning. In addition, good maths departments are friendly and have supportive teams, even though methods vary between individuals, with a culture and reputation for caring about students and their learning."

No real crisis in these school which have these teachers and follow this traditional model.

So the crisis really refers to the "long tail of underachievement" and the fact that we as a society tolerate a situation where many primary teacher recruits don't understand grade 5 maths. I teach in a disadvantaged school and observe very poor maths skills on a daily basis. eg. some year 11 students who struggle with simple division.

Another point about the PISA tests is that Australia is declining in literacy and maths from positions that were previously higher. See here - the maths decline is particularly with girls.

Bill Kerr said...

I'm still reading the Senate Inquiry Report. I discovered has an Opposition section at the end with complaints from the then Labour opposition (now government), starting at page 123.

In relation to Tony's point about Australia's relative high rank in OECD countries, this paragraph, from the Australian Education Union is important:

"The most notable and worrying element of the Australian results was that in the 2000 results in relation to reading literacy Australia was found to have ‘high achievement, low equity’. The presence of a ‘long tail’ was caused by the comparatively wide spread of results across the achievement spectrum compared to several other countries with similar achievement levels."

I think that phrase sums up some real concerns --> ‘high achievement, low equity’

Another point made in the Opposition report is that there have been 101 inquiries into Australian education since 1979 but very little done in response to them (1.12, p. 125)

Now that the Opposition is in government we will see whether that makes a difference (sardonic).

Bill Kerr said...

more on the nature of the maths problem, how the long tail of disadvantage works itself out in maths class, from Professor Bill Louden's submission:

"We do very well with the top third of the population…If there is a black hole it is in the bottom half of the population academically and year 12, and throughout for the bottom half of kids we just do not have it right anywhere beyond years 3 or 4…In terms of standards, kids in the bottom quartile of mathematics performance at year 5 probably learn no more mathematics, although they do another five years of mathematics. Kids who are in the top quartile in year 5 mathematics—in the top five per cent particularly—become marvellously facile in mathematics, continue to learn every year and then go off to university and do university mathematics. But there are a lot of kids who are just marking time. The economy has no place for them, schools are not really organised for them and do not find them easy to teach. So that is where the standards problems are" (2.36, page 30)

I have seen this in practice in disadvantaged schools - kids doing bottom level maths year after year - and not improving at all at it, this comment from Louden is very telling:

"... kids in the bottom quartile of mathematics performance at year 5 probably learn no more mathematics, although they do another five years of mathematics"

Ethics and Transparency In Politics said...

Not a panacea, but one tool to use... the Learning Teaching Scotland trials with Dr Kawashima's Brain Training in class for arithmetic found that the most marked improvement was with the poorest students. Improving achievement AND equity. Any chance of an Australian trial?

Bill Kerr said...

here are some links to the Learning Teaching Scotland trials with Dr Kawashima's Brain Training:

Dr Kawashima's Brain Training
short video explains it quickly
Derek Robertson - Hero Innovator
In the classroom, Nintendodogs promoting learning
Effects of Brain Training programme on classroom learning
contextual information

thanks daniel, have forwarded on these links to others interested in maths education