NZ Initiative's Martine Udahemuka says a viable maths solution will require an equation that puts the horse before the cart

NZ Initiative's Martine Udahemuka says a viable maths solution will require an equation that puts the horse before the cart

By Martine Udahemuka* 

Just over a week ago, the OECD released its two-yearly economic report card for New Zealand.

At first glance, New Zealand looks picturesque according to the 2017 Economic Survey. The report points to our strong economic growth supported by our thriving tourism sector, strong migration policy settings, and robust monetary policy.

But the Survey also does a solid job pointing out areas that require urgent attention. It notes that productivity has slowed, the housing crisis has worsened, and our remoteness continues to limit our ability to trade internationally.

The OECD also calls New Zealand to action over another persistent pain point. In fact it is one that was also highlighted in the 2015 Survey. And that is our dismal competency in basic numeracy.

Basic numeracy and literacy skills have become increasingly crucial as the trend towards high-skilled and highly-automated jobs continues. Research also shows that differences in these abilities are important predictors of countries’ long-term economic performance.

Improving the maths ability of primary and secondary school students matters. A lot.

To lift numeracy standards, the OECD recommends supporting teachers’ maths pedagogy, using evidence-based teaching, and raising entry requirements into teacher training programmes as well as the quality of that training.

There is cross-sector agreement that a problem exists. The Education Council has put out a consultation document in which it considers higher entry standards into teaching programmes.

The Government has too redesigned the teacher professional development framework to include maths teaching as a core area. It also supports Teach First NZ, a relatively new teacher-training programme that fast tracks top maths, science, and technology graduates into a teaching career.

Clearly New Zealand is not short of solutions to the maths equation. But herein lies the problem. How do we know that these solutions will indeed improve our dire situation?

Albert Einstein once said “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” And he makes much sense.

What if we reframed our thinking and start treating poor maths performance as a symptom of other problems rather than the problem in and of itself?

Shifting our focus from solution to problem definition could for example show that teacher numeracy skills are on par with other graduates. Such an insight could mean that raising entry standards into teacher training may not to solve the maths concern. But we just don’t know.

We need to know what we know about the problem and what we don’t know.

Starting with what we know: Over the past twenty years New Zealand’s performance in international benchmarking tests has been consistently below the OECD average. We have one of the highest proportions of students unable to answer basic maths questions and the proportion has grown for since 1995.

In 2011, our 9-year-olds were bottom equal among developing nations in the science and maths test. In 2013, our own national monitoring study found that less than half of our 12-year-olds were working at the expected level in maths.

Many point to anecdotes of poor teacher quality in primary schools as the reason. Anecdotes can be powerful, but if we want to make lasting changes, a few war stories should only encourage us to dig deeper for evidence.

We are aware of the unintended consequences that can result from assuming the wrong problem.

In 2001, the government implemented the Numeracy Project to pioneer a new way of teaching maths and solve the maths issue once and for all. Instead the project cost $70 million yet our eight and twelve year olds are no better at maths than they were a decade ago when compared internationally.  The programme that was meant to solve what was thought to be the problem is now widely blamed for worsening matters.

But there is plenty we do not know.

To begin, we actually don’t know how numerate our primary school teachers are. We do not know if to be a good maths teacher you need to be good at maths. We also do not know if being good at maths necessarily means you will be good at teaching maths.

In fact the Education Council says that while it has anecdotal information that some teachers do not have adequate numeracy or literacy levels to teach, there is limited evidence about how widespread the issue is.

What if we found that those who scored relatively low in numeracy when they were 15 years of age were also more likely to choose teaching as a career compared to those who scored higher in maths?

Our qualifications framework allows students to gain numeracy credits in subjects other than pure maths.  Could it be possible that those who choose to get into primary school teaching generally gain their numeracy credits through non-traditional maths subjects?

Luckily, these are questions that we can start to unpick.  And there is a vault with information that can help piece things together.  

The Integrated Database Infrastructure hosted by New Zealand Statistics enables vetted researchers to link anonymised data on every individual in New Zealand, with their subject choices in high school, their results in those subjects, and their post-secondary pathways and outcomes.

It is difficult to improve anything if you do not know why it is the way it is in the first place. We need to separate the root problem from the symptoms. If we do not, it is only a matter of another two years and the numeracy crisis will resurface in the OECD’s report card.

*Martine Udahemuka is a research fellow at the NZ Initiative. This is the Initiative's fortnightly column for

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Even if mathematics abilities were increased in the working population it still wouldn't be enough. People also need creative skills. Mathematics is good for abstraction but you need to be creative with it as well.

I've found that a lot of teachers are obsessed with making good workers. We need good workers but we also need to encourage those that are capable of being leaders, managers and business owners. The education that people receive is not very broad at high school and a lot of people become contractors who never expected they would. I see quite a few designers and artists complaining about having no training in basic business activities such as issuing invoices.

People seem to be ill-prepared to be functional citizens upon leaving high school.

Maths is a Eurocentric subject, made outdated by technology. Not enough is being done to educate our children about different genders. Some progress has been made in removing the shameful practice of giving grades, but there still exists a stigma for those not yet 'at standard' these people are already struggling enough, doubly so if they are Maori of Pacific suffering from oppression because of white privilege, these people need to be given extra credit just for taking part.

Looking at local primary and secondary schools (you could even say the populace in general) The focus is primarily on those who are struggling.

Resources are then disproportionately allocated to try and address those struggling.

While this is admirable (you could even say moral and ethical) to try and move the bottom of the curve upwards. You are always better to advance the entire curve.

How do you do this?
I have no definitive answer, but some suggestions would be:

- Equal funding per student/school, rather than targeted funding (i.e. deciles, and their successor).

- Requiring better teachers. Two undergraduate degrees should be a minimum. A teaching degree (i.e. how to teach) and a subject degree (i.e. what you teach). HODs should require Post Graduate degrees.

- Doing what works for the majority. I.e. stop focusing on specific ethnicities, genders, or backgrounds. Rote learning may not be trendy, but it is proven to work for the majority. Get everyone to know the answers first, then those with the aptitude/inclination can learn the why's hows.

- Incentivise and reward success.

- Accept that not everyone is equal. Some will always do better than others.

I'd approach the resourcing issue differently. Separate out the ones and the top and bottom for a proportion of the time. The ones at the bottom of the class either need targeted help, or they realise the school system is a joke and they don't want to put in any effort. The ones at the top of the class should be taught diverse subjects so they don't become complacent or bored.

Then take all the average students in the middle and put them in special education. How can someone only half understand something? Either there's an issue with the students, the teachers, or grading to a normal distribution. Whatever the problem is it needs to be eliminated.

The system calls failing Not Achieving. Fix that and it would be a good start.

Everyone needs to learn to fail, and learn from it. Some of my best learnings have been from monumental fails.

There are two issues that get treated as one: there is arithmetic and there is mathematics. The former could include numeracy. You are doing maths when you are doing calculus and almost understanding it.
Others may propose algebra as being maths but I rather treat it as part of 'problem solving'.
The introduction of computers has made arithmetic less important but numeracy more important. Especially the ideas relating to big numbers - it seems as if we are OK up to a million and then everything is just lumped together as big.

It should be pretty simple to organise a bit of a maths test to see where teachers are at.
If you have school age kids in NZ I'd be sending them for extra tuition or at the least using a third party for an assessment of them.......

Lack of basic numeracy skills means lack of ability to handle money, and concepts relating to it.The lack can give a sense of inferiority and seriously limit your future options; and problem solving ability.
Math is really a lingua franca; the language of everything.

An excellent article raising questions over the quality of teaching in NZ. As a Mathematics teacher of 16 years I have seen some interesting developments among the students coming in at Year 9 (3rd form) through to Year 13 (7th form).
Either they have incredible knowledge, backed up with succinct skills in basic facts ready to engage in their learning and enthusiastic about Maths or they are strugglers, unable to motivate themselves due to successive failure through their prior schooling.

The pathways for both ultimately reach NCEA Level 1 and then something interesting happens:
The high-fliers (often accelerated) begin to lose motivation due to the increasing amount of assessment (Internals) and begin to focus more on obtaining credits than what they're actually learning. There are a few who continue to strive for scholarships (your 5%) but even that number appears to be on the decline.
Many of these talented young students in Year 9 and 10 often fall well below expectation in Year 12 where they're unable to cope with the demands of assessment after assessment across 6 subjects.

Ironically, the students in the Junior school who struggled are often carried/assisted through NCEA Level 1 to achieving Numeracy (effectively 10 credits) also UE once they reach the age of 20. Those 10 credits can be eeked out through 'low achieves' and resubmissions and re-sits plus, as alluded to, through other subjects with a numeracy content.
They then complete similar courses (mostly, if not all Internal assessments) through Year 12 and 13 and some gain 14 credits in at least three subjects at NCEA L3 which allows them entrance to University (though not to become Statisticians or Mathematicians). Personally I don't have an issue with this.

Now comes the question of the quality of those teaching the subject - in most Secondary Schools you would have 6-15 teachers in the Maths department. Less than 50% would have a Maths degree/honours/masters/PHD in the subject. In many smaller schools (rural) they often reply on 'someone' to teach Maths because there is no-one else.

Still, in reality the profession does not lend itself to attract the scholars of Mathematics. Salary being one.
Start on 47k and reach 75k after 7 years.
Secondly, the curriculum and NCEA itself has taken away individuality and creativity around it's teaching. I was teaching Level 2 Trig and never found the time to take the class outside on a surveying exercise (due to time and assessment constraints). What's more the attitude of the students is "if it's not worth credits, it's not worth learning". Sadly, more of us in the profession are fast becoming factory workers - churning out students and gauging success on the number who achieve the required number of credits.

From a Primary perspective - National Standards and assessment after assessment (GLOSS, ASTTLE etc) has created a similar problem for children's learning. Teachers are so concerned about appeasing parents with grades that investigative learning around mathematical ideas and concepts are being lost.

The model of education in New Zealand is broken and I'm tired of it, so are many of my colleagues and friends in the profession. To the point many of us are prepared to throw it all in.

My daughter teaches Math and Chem. She did an eng degree at Canterbury but dropped out after a few years. Loves teaching, she moved to Sweden to get a degree without the loan, and applied for a relief teaching position at secondary school, they interviewed her and asked lots of questions, she got the job, they now want her full time.
I doubt she would be eligible to teach in NZ or even whether she would be prepared to teach here. She tells me the same thing, NZ ed needs a full revamp.

I enjoy teaching, for the most part. I may end up teaching Internationally in Europe in the very near future. I'll be interested in how the system compares to NZ and the UK where I have spent my career equally.

I believe much of what we're doing is politically motivated - targets at Primary and 85% at NCEA Level 2.
These targets at NCEA have been recently dropped but I'm sure schools with the competitive modelling of education will continue to use them to attract high achieving students and teachers.

I find it interesting that some independent schools openly advertise their school with 100% success at NCEA Levels 1,2 and 3....Hmmmm.

The thought of making $50k in New Zealand not so appealing given living and accommodation costs?

Particularly for those living in the big smoke. Even 75k is testing your ability to afford your own home in the regions.

In 2009, I was earning a good salary in the UK and still couldn't afford to buy a studio flat on the South Coast. I always, at least back then, knew I could afford my own home when I returned to NZ. As we did in 2012. Five years down the road, I would feel like I did back in the UK.

Remember my son aged 9 or10 ; showed him how to divide and was amazed he'd not been taught yet.
They soon got some Division homework and my son got distressed as was told he'd got it all wrong.
Realized that he'd given answers correctly in decimals or fractions rather than "two and three left over" format!!
Told him to tell his teacher that Dad said he'd got them all right.
Nek Minnit 2 teachers discovered in side room trying to figure out how to use a calculator to get the boy's answers!!!!!!
Intermediate school 2 years later was set addition with the question"what is the product of the following"!!!
At this stage primary teachers were seeking pay parity with Uni lecturers IIRC

I read somewhere that 'streaming' needed to be brought back into secondary education. As I read between the lines of what you're saying, it sounds like a possible solution, given the NCEA style of assessment suits the laggard learners but is detrimental to those already ahead of the game.

Overworked teachers with under performing students, Just another symptom of High immigration.

Pauline Hansen under fire in Aus for suggesting that autistic children should not be mainstreamed.
I'm far from an expert,but based on a short period i spent as a teacher aide,many years ago,any disruption in class curtails the ability of a teacher to do her job.This was certainly the case in the classroom i was involved with.I left shaking my head with the knowledge that our education system needed a shake up.
As i said ,no expert but concerned all the same.

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