What is the crisis in (mathematics) education

The diametrical nature of the media often results in situations being presented as either a crisis or a non-issue. I recently posted about the performance pay for teachers not being the solution to the “crisis in education” and it resulted in far more debate than I am typically accustomed to. Consequently, I believed I full post on the so called ‘crisis in education’ prudent.

It is clear that politics is a driving factor in education. One has to look no further than the recent Gonski reforms to school funding and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “Better School’s” campaign. In 2012 the then PM Gillard announced a goal for Australia to be ranked in the top five countries in the world by 2025 for mathematics, science, and reading, based on a National Plan for schools. Targets for the national plan include ‘quality teaching’ and ‘quality learning.’ Both Gillard and former Education Minister Peter Garrett have been quoted widely saying Australian students are at risk of being ‘left behind’ in the ‘Asian century.’ Many Australians, however, are questioning the validity of these claims: are we really in crisis or is it yet another media beat-up and political grab?

I perceive there to be several pressing issues that warrant immediate action in mathematics education. These are: the decline in students studying advanced mathematics, increasingly poor performance on international testing, the rural divide, and the growing issue of teacher education.

Over the past twenty years there has been a significant decline in the number of students studying advanced mathematics and science at upper secondary and tertiary level. Between 1995 and 2007 there was a 20% decrease in students studying advanced mathematics courses (from 25,000 to 20,000). Over the same time period most OECD economies have seen increased participation in mathematics and science education. Currently, approximately 0.4% of Australian university graduates major in mathematics or statistics. The OECD average is more than double at 1%.

Decreased participation in mathematics and sciences is concerning for a number of reasons. Mathematics is a fundamental science: underpinning achievement in all other branches of science. I have previously discussed the critical nature of the sciences in ensuring the nations future prosperity (see here).

Australia’s performance in mathematics has declined in both PISA and TIMSS international tests. The OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) commenced in 2000 and assesses 15 year-old’s skills in reading, mathematics and science literacy. PISA assesses students’ ability to apply skills to real-life problems and does not test curriculum knowledge. Between 2003 and 2009 the portion of Australian students scoring in the top band (Level 5) declined from 19.9% to 16.5%. Australia’s relative ranking declined over the same time period.

The impact of socio-economic status (SES) appears to impact more significantly on achievement of Australian students compared to five of the six countries that ranked higher than Australia on PISA. Whilst our schooling system may be considered to be high quality, issues of equity are concerning. Rural students performance on PISA has been significantly lower than metropolitan students on 2003, 2006, and 2009 PISA tests. Students from the lowest SES quartile are eight times more likely than the top quartile to have failed to meet the most basic levels of proficiency in TIMSS and PISA testing.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Student (TIMSS) tests the factual and procedural knowledge of year 4 and year 8 students in the science and mathematics curriculum, providing data concerning trends in mathematics and science achievement. TIMSS has been held every four years since 1995, with 425,000 students from 60 countries participating in 2007. Whilst the performance of Australian students has not changed significantly since testing commenced, many other countries have improved substantially, decreasing Australia’s relative ranking.

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) determined a 78-point discrepancy in mathematical literacy scores between the students from highest and lowest socioeconomic backgrounds. The average difference in achievement for Indigenous students was even more significant at 80 points. However, when analysing distinction in achievement between students from high and low SES it is prudent to acknowledge the remote nature of the Australian landscape. Many countries that rank higher than Australia on international tests are significantly more urbanised.

In Australia, less than 10% of students achieve at the highest benchmark in TIMSS testing. By comparison, over 30% of students in Singapore achieve in the top band. Between 7 and 11% of Australian students achieve less than the lowest benchmark (compared to less than 5% in Chinese Taipei, Japan and Korea). Essentially, Australia is doing a great job of educating students to an average standard.

The chronic shortage of mathematics teachers is well-known and widely reported. However, few meaningful steps have been taken to ‘raise the bar’ on teacher training: a 2005 AMSI survey of university websites discovered only 4 of 31 universities surveyed stated they required any type of mathematics as a prerequisite.
A 2006 report prepared for the Australian Council of Deans of Science investigated the preparation of mathematics teachers in Australia. The report found that 64% of mathematics teachers had studied mathematics to at least third year level at university, and one in five had not studied mathematics beyond first year. Alarmingly, teachers under the age of 30 were most likely not to have majored in mathematics at university: over 60% of mathematics teachers aged 20-24 (compared to around 30% for teachers aged over 35). Considering the aging population this is particularly concerning, as a huge staff turnover is expected in coming years. Without a supply of adequately trained young teachers we will be left in a dire situation.
The decline in student enrollment in advanced mathematics is directly related to the quantity and quality of mathematics teacher recruitment and retention. Minimum standards for mathematical content and pedagogy should be set to increase ensure quality. However, this could exacerbate issues pertaining to recruitment and retention.  

The quality of an education system will never exceed the quality of its teachers. Issues of teachers training and recruitment need to be addressed immediately in order to halt the downward spiral.
Perhaps labeling education in Australia as being in ‘crisis’ is a little extreme. Perhaps we have not reached ‘crisis levels’ yet. However, if current trends of disengagement and decreased enrollment are to continue crisis in inevitable. The decline in students’ studying advanced mathematics compounded by issues pertaining to teacher preparation is deeply concerning. A clear national plan to ensure future growth of science and mathematics is imperative for national prosperity.

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About madelinebevs

Mathematics teacher and researcher. Runner. I'm excited by mathematics education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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3 Responses to What is the crisis in (mathematics) education

  1. none says:

    >Consequently, I believed I full post on the so called ‘crisis in education’ prudent.

    There’s a bigger crisis in English literacy.

    • madelinebevs says:

      My background is as a maths teacher, as is the focus on my research – I try to stick to talking about what I know, hence I didn’t address the issues surrounding English literacy.

  2. Pingback: Equity is the real issue of PISA 2012 | matthitude

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