What about the children?

Over the past two weeks, there has been a flurry of public discussion about primary maths education in New Zealand.  Two reports, released within a week of each other, came out with the same message: our primary school children are performing very badly in maths.  Not exactly news, but it’s good to see the nation talking about it.

Releasing the Crown’s National Monitoring Study of Student Assessment on Mathematics and Statistics (2013?!) late on a Friday before the long Queen’s Birthday weekend was a possible reason for the muted response to the latest depressing statistic: only around 41% of approximately 2000 Year 8 students in 2013 met the expected level of achievement.  Our primary school leavers are struggling with decimals, fractions and percentages, and don’t I know it…

But what really got people riled up was The New Zealand Initiative’s report, “Un(ac)countable: Why millions on maths returned little”, written by Rose Patterson.  As the Minister of Education said herself, it provided a “fresh perspective” on New Zealand’s maths learning woes.

Now that the media hullabaloo is settling down, let’s try to set the record straight.  The report investigated and established the failure of the Numeracy Project by:

  • providing evidence of a decline in student maths performance that aligns with the roll-out of the Project;
  • debunking the myth that it’s not such a bad thing that Kiwi kids don’t “know” anything anymore because their strength lies in the higher-order areas of “applying” and “reasoning”, unlike their east-Asian rote-learning counterparts. Sorry, but it turns out those east-Asian kids are not only better at “knowing”, they’re also better at “applying” and “reasoning” because they’ve actually got some knowledge to work with.

The report also investigated maths teaching quality in our primary schools, citing a study in which a significant proportion of 125 student teachers were unable to answer some basic primary-level maths questions.  Personally, I feel this raises some serious questions about the quality of the Bachelor of Education degree.  Is it not reasonable to expect that all graduating primary school teachers should be able to do primary school maths?

Critics called it unfair, but Rose Patterson was professionally compelled to examine teacher quality after interviewing curriculum writer Vince Wright and maths education researcher Jenny Young-Loveridge.  Both interviewees prefer to blame the failure of the Numeracy Project on its poor implementation by teachers rather than its flawed ideology.  It really wasn’t the Herald’s finest moment when it accused the report, and by association the Minister of Education because she agreed to launch the report, of criticising teachers.  Not one single journalist mentioned the report’s actual conclusion: that teacher quality was unlikely to have changed over the past 15 years, and that the decline in student maths performance was due to the Numeracy Project’s multiple strategy approach to numeracy and the loss of emphasis on the basics.

I am pleased that I had the opportunity to speak publicly in support of our teaching workforce.  Frankly, it is shameful that the people who are supposed to be looking after our teachers chose to not defend them.  Instead, the NZEI Te Riu Roa president said underfunding for teacher professional development (PD) was to blame for the poor results, even though the report pointed out that New Zealand spends a lot of money on maths PD – more than most other countries, in fact.  Even after the Minister of Education responded to the “maths problem” by promising to raise the quality of maths teaching through more PD, the NZEI president still wasn’t happy, saying things would only improve if the training was better than what’s currently available.

Sigh. Result. By the way, has anybody thought about the children lately? When political and professional pride get in the way of helping our kids, it is really sad.

Had certain things happened or not happened, the political response to the Un(ac)countable report might have panned out quite differently.  But, having been to Wellington and heard with my own ears the Minister of Education’s response, it is clear there is more work to be done.  Nobody could have held the Minister accountable for the mistakes of past governments.  In her own words, the Numeracy Project “was in line with international thinking at the time”, so she missed a great opportunity to renounce it and become the public hero.  Instead, everything’s gonna be alright now that we’ve got National Standards.  Erm, would these be the same National Standards that her Ministry just deemed as lacking dependability?

What has been truly heartening, however, is the public’s response.  The Herald’s suspiciously unoriginal editorial and the unrepentant curriculum writers’ opinion editorial have been met with mockery akin to the Emperor’s New Clothes.  It’s good to see the public ain’t buying it any more.

I am proud of this campaign’s role in bringing the debate to this point, but merely talking about it won’t help our children.  A shocking amount of taxpayers’ money has been spent on what can only be described as a failed experiment.  By allowing it to continue, we are failing our children.  From here on, we are all accountable.

Dr Audrey Tan, Mathmo Consulting
June 2015

One thought on “What about the children?

  1. You are bang on in your assessment – very well said. How is it that the policy makers can sit back and say “not my fault” when they continued to allow funding to flow into this failed experiment? How is that the teacher’s fault?!? Those in charge need to be held accountable when a system fails, even more so when it involves hundreds of thousands of CHILDREN. Their futures are at stake, and as such, they need to receive, at the very least, a minimum expectation of skills in order to prepare them for adulthood and the complexities which are part of everyday life. The educrats have failed them for this eventuality. Shame on them. Fix this. Get rid of strategies that overwhelm young minds in the classroom, and use proven successful methods so kids can learn their fractions and times tables. Maths is hard, but incredibly vital to our own survival. So best we listen to the mathematicians here and those who know how to fix the problem, to determine what is best for our kids.

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