# Australia falls behind in mathematics

Australia’s mathematical performance has reached its lowest level in 20 years, writes BRUCE McDOUGALL

*This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph. By Bruce McDougall.*

Australia is falling steadily behind other countries in mathematics — and it could be years before measures to lift standards take root.

The top 10 per cent of Australia’s year 4 students now perform at the same level of maths as the top 40 per cent of students in Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong, education experts say.

By year 8, the top 10 per cent are achieving at the same level as the top 50 per cent of students in Chinese Taipei, Singapore and Korea.

Chief executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research Professor Geoff Masters says Australia has seen a 15-year decline in the standards of its 15-year-olds in reading and mathematics — with the greatest fall among higher achieving students.

Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham has revealed the nation’s performance in mathematical literacy in schools is the lowest in 20 years.

“Of the countries tested in 2003 only five significantly outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy, but by 2012 we were outperformed by 12 countries,” Senator Birmingham says.

“Clearly, we can, and need to, do better.”

But the warning bells were ringing loudly seven years ago when Professor Anthony Dooley from University of NSW told The Daily Telegraph much more cash was needed to increase the number of specialist maths teachers and improve skills.

Even then Australia’s percentage of mathematics and statistics graduates was well below the OECD average and it no longer led Britain and the United States.

“The reason is a combination of things but students are not getting so turned on by maths at school now and we need more and better-trained teachers,” Prof Dooley said

Fast forward seven years and education authorities are still grappling with plummeting numbers of students taking advanced maths and a serious shortage of qualified maths teachers in Australian schools.

Successive governments have committed extra funds in a bid to stave off the looming crisis, but at the start of the new school year there is little evidence that the foundering ship can be righted in the short term.

According to some estimates, the number of students not studying any maths subjects has trebled in the last decade and those taking intermediate and advanced maths subjects has halved.

Chief executive of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority and former maths teacher Rob Randall says it is not the curriculum that needs fixing.

“I do think that across the country we have a good suite of senior secondary maths courses,” he says. “Higher level maths is a little out of fashion — it is not talked up as much.

“I would always encourage young people to take a more demanding mathematics course as a challenge because there is going to be a return on it, whether it is university study or in later life.

“Maths is a good arrow in your quiver to have, even if you do not use it directly — the effort, the thinking and the analysis that come from doing a challenging and demanding maths course pays off.

“In an increasingly technological and information and data-driven world everyone needs a high level of numeracy beyond junior school.

“Young people should stop and think about the long term — it is absolutely clear that the skills and discipline that a mathematics course brings are very helpful to people.

“If you have a choice between a more demanding or slightly less demanding maths course, then go for the more demanding course.

“We know that setting and following high expectations is an absolutely important thing in education.”

While the decline in maths performance is most pronounced at secondary level, much of the future effort to lift standards will be concentrated in the primary school years

Traditionalists decry the declining emphasis on rote learning of key disciplines such as the times tables.

Although the catchcry today is on engaging students and making learning interesting for them, many teachers still incorporate aspects of rote learning in their programs.

Chief executive of the Australian Tutoring Association Mohan Dhall is an unabashed supporter of rote learning, especially in the early years of schooling.

“There is a very important role for rote learning in teaching,” he says.

“The transfer of basic knowledge from short term to long term memory requires practice and repetition. The loss of rote learning from the teaching of basic numeracy does two things: Undermines the skills of students and also undermines their confidence.

“When teaching maths to students I find the default position even for very basic multiplication is to reach for a calculator. The inadvertent message is the student has no self confidence to perform even basic numerical functions (this also applies to addition and subtraction).

“There is also a very low overall capacity for students to estimate and thus test the veracity of calculations performed on a calculator.

“Rote learning should be encouraged in the formation of foundational numeracy skills. The more subtle aspects of mathematics later on will not be hampered by routine tasks.

“Short-term memory, widely used in mathematics for tiered (two or three step) calculations is required.

“If the thinking is stuck on basic or routine calculations, then often the actual focus on what a problem is asking is lost.”

For these reasons, rote learning should be encouraged in the early years, as a supplement to play-based and kinaesthetic modes of learning.”

The Tutoring Association believes flatlining Naplan results show a new approach is required.

“It is not uncommon for parents to tell tutors that they have no faith in the way maths is taught in primary and secondary schools,” Mr Dhall says. “The best aspects of education encourage critical and creative thinking. So it seems to me that this approach needs to be brought to our education sector with a radical rethink of how best to support the children most in need.”

Prof Masters believes too many of Australia’s most able students are being allowed to coast at school and not achieve their true potential.

“Rather than being stretched and extended many very able students achieve year level expectations with minimal effort,” he says.

“Very able students often disengage when material is so easy that it fails to challenge them — just as students often become disengaged when given difficult material on which they have little chance of success.

“It is worth asking whether we have been so focused on ensuring that all students meet minimum standards that we have neglected the needs of our most able.”

With the shortage of maths specialists hampering efforts to improve standards, experts agree the key to the future will be investing in effective and highly qualified teachers.

### What your children should be learning

**KINDERGARTEN**

- Connect numbers, their names and quantities up to 20
- Count numbers in sequences up to 20, continue patterns and compare lengths of objects
- Use materials to model problems, sort objects and discuss answers
- Group and sort shapes and objects
- Connect events with days of the week

**YEARS 1/2**

- Describe number sequences and locate numbers on a number line
- Represent simple fractions using pictures
- Learn about Australian money
- Describe and draw shapes and objects, and use units to measure length
- Learn to tell the time from an analogue clock, and use a calendar to determine the date
- Describe the outcome of a chance event
- Collect and investigate data collected from simple problems

**YEARS 3/4**

- Choose strategies to add, subtract, multiply and divide
- Represent the value of money and make simple calculations
- Recall multiplication facts
- Represent fractions on a number line
- Explore addition, subtraction and multiplication number patterns
- Measure temperatures, lengths, shapes and objects
- Solve problems involving time, and read maps
- Create symmetrical shapes and classify angles
- Construct graphs and list a likelihood of events

**YEARS 5/6**

- Place positive and negative numbers on a number line
- Add and subtract fractions and decimals
- Compare and interpret statistical graphs
- Convert between 12- and 24-hour time and interpret timetables
- Continue and create sequences, involving whole numbers, fractions and decimals, and describe rules
- Measure length, area, volume, capacity and mass, and calculate perimeter and area of rectangles
- List outcomes of chance experiments
- Apply fractions, decimals, percentages, angles and measurements to solve problems
- Explain mental strategies for calculations
- Pose appropriate questions for statistical investigations

**YEARS 7/8**

- Connect the known properties of arithmetical with the study of algebra
- Develop simple logical geometric arguments
- Find estimates of means and proportions of populations
- Compare prices of products packaged in different quantities
- Represent simple algebraic relations by graphs
- Calculate areas of shapes and volumes of simple solids
- Apply ratios and interpret statistical graphs
- Calculate accurately with positive and negative numbers

**YEARS 9/10**

- Compare simple and compound interest
- Model practical situations involving surface areas and volumes
- Solve problems involving right-angled trigonometry
- Calculate areas of shapes and volumes of simple solids
- Apply ratio and scale factors to similar figures
- Formulate geometric proofs
- Interpret and compare data sets in statistics
- Explain the use of relative frequencies to estimate probabilities

Source: The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority