Dear Minister Parata,
I write in response to your speech at the launch of the New Zealand Initiative’s report “Un(ac)countable: Why millions on maths returned little” on 4 June 2015.
With respect, the Crown’s recently released National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement has NOT shown that the system is failing a minority of students. To quote: “The curriculum expectation at Year 8 is that students will be working solidly at Level 4. About 41 percent of [approximately 2000] Year 8 students achieved at Level 4 or higher on the KAMSI assessment.” In actual fact, the system is failing the majority of primary school students in New Zealand, not a minority.
It is incorrect to suggest that the Un(ac)countable report continues the age-old debate in education between those who believe in rote learning and those who place a higher value on critical thinking. By doing so, you have precisely proved the report correct: “Rather than striking a good balance between instrumental learning and relational learning, and enabling the two to build on each other, they tend to be falsely dichotomised. They should work in tandem.”
Looking at the graphs, we can see that Year 5 student performance in TIMSS has been on the decline since 2002, Year 9 student performance in TIMSS has also been on the decline since 2002, and PISA 2012 showed a sharp decline in the performance of 15-year-old students in mathematical literacy, in stark contrast to the OECD average. To say that New Zealand student performance in these international assessments has “declined slightly in recent years” is something of an understatement.
Striking the right balance between the practice and mastery of basic skills and developing higher-order thinking is much easier than you claim, and should be guided by evidence. A report released last month, written by mathematician Assoc. Prof. Anna Stokke for the C.D. Howe Institute in Canada, explains that “studies consistently show direct instruction is much more effective than discovery-based instruction, which leads to straightforward recommendations on how to tilt the balance toward best instructional techniques.”
Your commitment to raise the quality of maths teaching in New Zealand is welcome. However, the Un(ac)countable report shows that teacher quality is unlikely to have changed over the last 15 years, and the true reason for the decline in New Zealand student performance in mathematics is the loss of emphasis on the basics. Until the Ministry acknowledges the overwhelming evidence and addresses the deficiencies in curriculum content and delivery, throwing more money at professional development for teachers will, sadly, have little effect. That is why I have decided to share this letter, so that parents, teachers and principals can also examine the evidence and make appropriate choices for the children in front of them. By working together, I am confident that we will bring back column addition to New Zealand’s early primary maths curriculum.
Dr Audrey M. Tan