• Robert MacCulloch

Why is NZ doing so badly in maths?

The media have been reporting the poor scores that NZ school children have been getting compared to other countries in international maths and science tests. On 2 February of this year One News ran the headline "Principal's Federation criticizes Ministry of Education over declining student results". It said that "The federation's letter followed a string of poor results in a variety of tests. Last year, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study reported falling scores for New Zealand 9 and 13-year-olds, with the older children's results being their worst ever".

So I've had a chat with a bunch of our country's top mathematicians to find out why. Many of our mathematicians are very shy by nature and so would be unlikely to ever enter the cut-and-thrust of public debate on this issue in the mainstream media.

Anyhow, this is the view:

The test scores being reported are for primary and intermediate school students - so things could even be much worse in secondary schools, where most maths teachers don't have an undergraduate degree majoring in the subject. I'm told that in some other countries a postgraduate degree in maths is even required to teach it at secondary schools.

So why aren't we attracting these kinds of well-qualified maths teachers? The main reason centers around salaries. Maths graduates can get highly-paid jobs outside of teaching. However, the teachers union won't allow salary differences on the basis of subject area.

The mood of the mathematicians who I surveyed is that they can't see the union's hold on "equitable salaries" ending, meaning that the teaching profession in NZ will never be able to attract well-qualified applicants specializing in maths. Consequently they don't see much point even spending much time discussing the issue!

So much for National and Labour's dream of a high value-added, tech-based economy. It is unlikely to ever happen when the vast majority of people in the country are so weak in the subject which forms the foundation of this vision.

Good to get that matter sorted out so fast!

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