Nation needs a 10-year plan for maths and science

5 December 2016

A long-term plan should include measures to address how teachers are recruited, valued and respected, writes Dr Rachel Wilson in the Financial Review. 

Young students and a teacher discuss maths at a desk. Image: iStock

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report on the maths and science performance of Year 4 and 8 Australian students made for sober reading.

While these Australian students do not show declines, they have not improved since 1995, while many other countries show clear progress on these measures.

England and the US, often considered educationally inferior, now demonstrate clear upward TIMSS trajectories, surpassing Australia's performance, and competing economies in our region such as SIngapore show dramatically superior standards.

Sweden, Kazakhstan, England, Portugal, Cyprus and Slovenia all performed similarly or better than Australia in Year 4 mathematics. 

Another international assessment, PISA, paints an even grimmer picture. Between 2000 and 2012, Australian 15-year-olds have had an average decline in mathematics, equivalent to about six months of schooling. Yet it is not the international league table of performance that should attract our attention, as unsettling as it may be.

What is more important is that we heed the insights provided from this report about the dynamics in our school system.

It is a disturbing fact that the stagnation and declines are across the board, and are as evident among high-attaining students as they are among low attainers. There are also gaping disparities between students from the city and the bush, and between Indigenous and other students.

Some 30 per cent of Year 4 students and 36 per cent of Year 8 students do not meet the international intermediate benchmarks for mathematics. For science, these figures are 25 and 31 per cent respectively. Contrast this with Singapore, where these numbers are 2 per cent and 6 per cent for math.

Policymakers to date have focused on how we can improve Australia education. Instead, we need to ask where we have gone wrong and what risks we have introduced. Over a long period, we have introduced knee-jerk policies, which have imposed more demands upon teachers and students without examining the foundations of the education system.

We need a critical and ongoing analysis of the whole education sector – from early childhood through to higher education. 

This big picture analysis is needed to inform a long-term plan for education. There are some obvious areas to start on, namely funding and teacher quality. 

We need a complete account of the educational attainment and background of those entering the teaching profession, which staggeringly, doesn't currently exist. Similarly we need analysis to track teachers' specialisation within subjects, especially in the case of mathematics, if we are to ensure that in the future more than 60 per cent of our Year 7 to Year 10 students are taught mathematics by somebody actually qualified in maths education.

This points to a broader and unfortunately entrenched problem: Australia cannot have above average education if it recruits below average students to become teachers. 

We cannot have strong mathematics education without strong mathematics educators. The countries enjoying better and improving results recruit teachers from the top 30 per cent of their age group and are focused on supplying specialist teachers to meet their societies' needs.

We know much more about what is effective in education than we did a decade ago.

A long-term, 10-year plus education plan should include measures to lift how teachers are recruited, valued and respected.

It should include a strategy for ongoing monitoring and evaluation of the national system, necessitating a transparent and joined up national database that could provide rolling reporting on all aspects of education – rather than a series of reactive and politicised reviews.

Current data systems are incomplete and access for independent analysis is often difficult. It is simply not good enough for the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report to make excuses and not examine the ATAR of those in teacher education programs. The national authority AITSL is similarly unable to provide a complete profile of those going into teaching. 

Data also doesn't, for example, report on the number of graduating mathematics teachers, or the number of students being taught subjects by teachers unqualified in the subject at hand. These deficiencies feed directly into the inequity between the city and the bush, where teacher recruitment is problematic.

The plan will need to consider stop-gap as well as long-term measures to overcome the challenges here. It may be time to consider not only visa options, but direct international recruitment for highly skilled teachers in mathematics and science. Research tells us that investment in teacher quality is likely to return benefits many fold of those of reducing class sizes. In fact evidence from California suggests that reducing class sizes can lead to a drop in teacher quality. Would you rather your child to be in a small class or one with a well-qualified teacher? 

We know much more about what is effective in education than we did a decade ago. By drawing on this we can make reforms with costs in some areas offset by reforms in others. Internationally, we remain in the middle of school-funding pack. Realistically, additional funding may be required to stem the declines and equitable funding of schools is imperative. It is also true that education can be provided in a much more cost-effective manner, but that cannot be achieved by more ad hoc policies. An effective 10-year plan would consider the whole education pipeline, from early childhood through to higher education and be informed by the most rigorous evidence and international benchmarks available.

The stakes are extremely high.

Education systems are large ships to turn around and it may take decades to see results. We need a deeper and more critical reflection on our whole education system to make informed policy shifts now.

Dr Rachel Wilson is a senior lecturer in research methods, assessment and evaluation, at the University of Sydney. This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review

Luke O'Neill

Media and PR Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)