Maths decline – Ministry of Education calls in Royal Society to stop NZ mathematics rapid decline

An expert panel has been called in by the Ministry of Education to improve students’ maths results, which have hit a record low.

The decision to seek advice from a Royal Society of NZ panel looks likely to foreshadow a major shakeup of the curriculum and the way teachers are trained and supported across all subjects.

The rethink is starting with maths because the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) survey found NZ students’ maths knowledge in the first year of high school is now below that in all other English-speaking countries and the lowest it has ever been.

Massey University distinguished mathematics professor Gaven Martin, who will chair the Royal Society panel, said: “If these sorts of results continue on with this trend, we’ll be looking at Third World results.”

“A lot of high-paying jobs in important sectors are going to be data- and analytically driven – at a time when we are failing to achieve at OECD levels. So there is a real disjunct there,” he said.

“Maths has this gatekeeping role to higher-paying jobs, by and large, so decisions made by teachers, by students, by parents even early in a child’s lifetime have pretty significant impacts further down the track.”

The ministry disclosed that it has called in the Royal Society after the NZ Principals’ Federation wrote to ministry head Iona Holsted last week calling for urgent action on maths.

Federation president Perry Rush said there was a “void” of leadership in maths education and schools were lost in a “soup” of competing maths programmes.

As well as the international study, he said the ministry’s own National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) showed that only 45 per cent of students in Year 8 were achieving at the expected curriculum level in maths in 2018, and only 20 per cent achieved the expected level in science in 2017.

“That is a shocking statistic,” he said.

“For us in the federation, the question really is, where is the conversation around how can we do better for young people in terms of maths, because it appears that every year we have seen a growing concern around our achievement results, and we do not have a response.

‘There is no response. We tolerate it. The question from our national executive is, where is the leadership to develop the appropriate approaches that are co-ordinated, nationally agreed and that attack this issue?”

He said teachers needed help with maths but were not getting it.

“One of the problems is the number of new [primary teaching] graduates that have made comments that they didn’t want to be teaching Years 6 to 8 because they didn’t feel that they had the maths capability to support the maths curriculum at that level,” he said.

The ministry’s deputy secretary for early learning and student achievement, Ellen MacGregor-Reid, said the ministry was concerned about “the pattern of decline” in achievement and was considering “specific actions needed in particular areas of learning including social-emotional, literacy and mathematics”.

“A priority for us this year is developing a maths strategic plan,” she said.

“We will be working with the sector this year to develop a high-level plan to support a systems approach to shifting the dial in mathematics. This will identify and address the current issues impacting on mathematics teaching and learning, so that there is a sustained improvement.

“We are currently building a strong evidence base to support this work. We have commissioned a Royal Society Te Apārangi convened independent academic paper on the mathematics knowledge and skills learners need to know, and when, and what needs to be changed in the NZ Curriculum to achieve this.

“We will also be establishing a diverse group of sector practitioners to critique outcomes evidence, including TIMSS and NMSSA data, to help us understand and respond to practice and implementation challenges.”

Martin said the 11 members of the Royal Society panel comprised “the leading people in mathematics education in the country”.

“I put together a group of names, along with suggestions from other individuals, and they were approved by the Royal Society Council, and then I approached them all and they have all said yes.”

Martin said the panel members were “purely voluntary” and would not be paid, although the ministry is funding administrative support.

“The ministry wants something by the end of April. Everybody we have spoken to has laughed when we said that. That will not happen,” he said.

“But I hope to have something around the middle of the year, perhaps slightly later.”

Mum: 'She just wasn't getting it'

Eight-year-old Holly Nightingale “just wasn’t getting it” in her maths lessons at primary school last year.

“She was really struggling with it, had a lot of anxiety,” said her mum Chanelle Ryder.

“If you talked to her about anything to do with maths, she just closed off and didn’t want to know about it, she would fight you.”

Ryder said Holly’s school in the Wellington suburb of Karori is “a really good school”. Her teacher picked up on Holly’s struggle with maths and tried to give her more one-to-one time, but when she was at home during the lockdown last year her parents realised she needed more and enrolled her at Numberworks for one hour a week.

Holly herself said the extra tuition at Numberworks has made all the difference.

“They are, like, making me feel very, very confident,” she said.

She felt it was easier to learn on a computer at Numberworks than on paper at school. But she also uses material objects such as stones to do maths at home.

“She found out she was more spatially aware,” her mum said. “Maybe the way they teach maths could be better – maybe they could cater to the kids that need the spatial counters and that sort of thing.”

The expert panel

Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin, Massey University (maths), chair.

Professor Glenda Anthony, Massey University (Centre for Research in Mathematics Education).

Professor Jennifer Brown, University of Canterbury (maths).

Associate Professor Fiona Ell, University of Auckland (education).

Associate Professor Sina Greenwood, University of Auckland (maths).

Associate Professor Joanna Higgins, Victoria University of Wellington (education).

Associate Professor Jodie Hunter, Massey University (Centre for Research in Mathematics Education).

Associate Professor Rua Murray, University of Canterbury (maths).

Associate Professor Matt Roskruge, Massey University (Te Au Rangahau Māori Business Research Centre).

Associate Professor Tony Trinick, University of Auckland (Māori-medium education).

Associate Professor Caroline Yoon, University of Auckland (maths).

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