A disturbing set of numbers

18 February 2009

Mathematics is critical to modern life and it will be essential for formulating a response to the present economic crisis. Yet Australian school children are coming out of schools not knowing that doing a calculation with pencil and paper is the way to learn mathematics. While the federal Government is ploughing money into infrastructure, we are staring at the vista of shiny new classrooms and rows of laptops with no mathematics teachers.

The international table of mathematics skills, the four-yearly Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, shows that our achievement scores in Year 8 mathematics have steadily declined since 1995. In the latest results in 2007, Britain and even the US, countries we used to beat, significantly outperformed Australian Year 8 students in mathematics. Unless we can stop the decline of well-trained mathematics teachers in our schools, this will continue.

The deepening tragedy of our education system is that this vicious cycle propagates itself. For years the numbers taking advanced or intermediate courses in Year 12 mathematics in Australian schools have steadily dwindled, and the students completing a major in mathematics at university has declined. As a proportion of total graduates, our universities now produce fewer than half as many graduates with qualifications in mathematics or statistics as other developed nations. The result is a decline in qualified maths teachers.

I now hear worrying stories of schools that have had to turn students away from mathematics classes due to a lack of qualified teachers. When jobs for mathematics teachers are advertised in Australia, surprisingly large numbers of candidates with no background or training in mathematics apply. This makes it difficult for a school to offer advanced mathematics courses, or hold enrichment classes that show students the wonderful variety, utility and beauty of mathematics.

Students also face rising inequity in the current system. There are almost certainly differences in the public and private education systems. There has been a dramatic expansion in private mathematics coaching in Australia in recent years. Businesses offering tutoring or software for school students have proliferated across shopping centres over the past decade as parents have moved to supplement school education increasingly with private tuition in mathematics. The looming economic downturn means that a much smaller proportion of families will be able to afford this.

As a mathematician and a parent, I do not understand why Australians must tolerate an education system that is inferior to that in America or Britain. Nor do I understand why we should accept a growing disparity in access to mathematics education across our school system. All Australian children deserve qualified mathematics teachers. Yet in Australia, policy-makers have either ignored the problems or taken only fragmented steps and half-measures to address them.

Consider this disturbing scenario. Over many years, consecutive Australian governments underfunded the teaching of mathematics in universities compared with other disciplines. This encouraged universities to think of their mathematics departments as a low strategic priority. As a consequence, many universities no longer have an identifiable department of mathematics. A disturbing number, particularly regional universities, no longer have a single appointment at the professorial level, or offer a three-year sequence of mathematics and statistics courses.

In 2007 the previous Australian government finally changed the higher education funding model for mathematics with apparent support from the ALP in opposition. Universities now receive a more appropriate level of commonwealth support for the teaching of mathematics and statistics. The only hiccup is that many institutions are choosing to horde their new funding within general revenue, rather than pass the benefits directly on to mathematics departments. Unfortunately our politicians appear to be too scared to tell Australia's vice-chancellors to spend this money as it is intended.

A more recent change has been the halving of HECS fees for students enrolled in science and mathematics courses. Many university students did not even notice that this had happened in the last budget. HECS debts all come later in life. It has very little effect on current life choices. In the meantime, the TIMSS results decline, students believe their new computers will be able to do the mathematics for them, good teachers leave, and Australia's next generation of workers stop being able to understand, or reason, in mathematics.

In 2004 when Britain was faced with the same problems, the Government embraced a visionary reform of mathematics education from primary through to tertiary education. Already there has been a significant rise in the numbers of students taking up advanced-level mathematics courses and a significant improvement in the performance of British students in international tests. Investment by the Higher Education Funding Council for England over just three years has seen an increase of 7 per cent in students entering mathematics degree programs.

But perhaps our prime minister has his own, even better, ideas.

Mathematics ought to be front-of-mind for him. Visit the website of his old high school, Nambour High School, open the curriculum pages for "Maths" and click on the link to "Senior Mathematics" and you will find the page is blank: there is no content. Without clear and decisive action this may eventually become a symbolic omen of the future of mathematics teaching in all but the most advantaged parts of Australia.

Nalini Joshi is head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics and the president of the Australian Mathematics Society.

Contact: Jacob O'Shaughnessy

Phone: 02 9351 4312

Email: 084a192c553a000821215705033918157d021703185612