A new report has revealed declining standards in children’s numeracy and sparked criticism and controversy about the way Kiwi kids are taught maths.

The report, Un(ac)countable: Why millions on maths returned little, produced by independent public policy think tank New Zealand Initiative, found that  children are learning too many methods for solving maths problems at the expense of the basics, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and using traditional written methods.

The report highlighted international studies such as PISA and TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) and NEMP (New Zealand’s National Education Monitoring Project) which have all shown a gradual decline in New Zealand students’ mathematics performance since 2002.

The Un(ac)countable report, authored by Rose Patterson, an education policy research fellow for New Zealand Initiative, blames the declining performance on the Ministry of Education’s Numeracy Project. The project, rolled out across primary schools 15 years ago at a cost of $70 million, is said to place too much emphasis on relational learning and neglects the basics. Its introduction coincides with the point in which performance began to decline according to the international studies.

However, the New Zealand Principals’ Federation (NZPF) president Denise Torrey questioned the report’s conclusions.

“It’s a huge leap to conclude that there is a causal link between an international league table ranking and the failure of a numeracy project, decline in the standards of mathematical teaching competence and decline in children’s knowledge of basics,” she said.

“It is much more likely that the removal of specialist expert maths advisors has impacted on students’ maths results, not the removal of learning basics by rote,” said Torrey.

Minister of Education Hekia Parata said she accepted the need to “do a better job of giving our young a solid grounding in mathematics”. However, she was not convinced that a return to rote learning was the way to achieve this.

“The truth is that basic subtraction, addition, multiplication and division should not be a barrier to solving more complicated mathematical problems,” said Parata. “But we also need to help our students develop problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. In today’s world it is not what you know that is important, but how you apply that knowledge that has value. The trick is striking the right balance between rote learning and higher order thinking. That is not easy.”

Primary teachers’ union NZEI Te Riu Roa president Louise Green agreed that rote learning of basic facts should not replace modern teaching methods in mathematics.

However, some maths tutors are finding students progress is limited by a lack of basic knowledge and skills. Christchurch maths tutor Audrey Tan said not knowing the basics is getting in the way of students progress with secondary level maths.

The report also found that many primary school teachers lack proficiency in maths to teach the subject.

“Teacher proficiency in the subject is absolutely essential for student achievement in maths. You can’t teach maths if you don’t know maths,” said New Zealand Initiative’s executive director Dr Oliver Hartwich.

The report has proposed that the Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand (Educanz), due to replace the Teachers Council on July 1, should develop a Certificate of Maths Teaching Competency to help raise the standard of mathematics teaching.

Louise Green said initial teacher training courses have long been mixed in their capacity to provide adequate training in maths. She said there is also a long-standing lack of professional development training for teachers.

“The underfunded education system means teachers are not getting the professional development support that they need for optimal maths teaching,” said Green.

Minister Parata said the Government is investing in professional development and successful maths programmes.


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