Submission by AMSI Management Committee 1: Mathematics and statistics education in schools and colleges

Janine McIntosh
Schools Project Manager

The full AMSI management submission can be viewed here.

Theme 1: Strengthening the supply and support of teachers of mathematics and statistics

It is generally accepted that there are too few trained secondary mathematics teachers in Australian schools and that the decline in advanced mathematics enrolments in senior secondary schools has both to do with the quality and availability of trained teachers.

Relevant AMSI policies:

  1. The national system of accreditation must act as an instrument to improve the Australia’s stock of trained secondary mathematics teachers
  2. Minimum requirements need to be set which transcend the type of pre-service education qualification currently held by teachers.
  3. AITSL’s accreditation system needs to be revised to reflect current best practice and rectify the features of some existing programs known to produce under prepared primary teachers.
  4. A specialist panel should perform full audit of qualifications, age profile and length of service statistics of those teaching mathematics in Australian schools. This panel is to advise Australian governments on policy development and implementation. The UK experience in this regard should be examined.

The key message is that the entire pipeline from primary school through secondary school to tertiary study must be dealt with in order to correct the chronic and acute shortage of mathematics teachers. This is because the shortage of mathematics teachers is perpetuating itself through the degraded experience of students in schools.

The Number of Teachers
The number of students choosing mathematics teaching as a career is diminishing each year. With less qualified secondary mathematics teachers available, more and more teachers with other specialisations and those with primary teaching qualifications are being asked to teach mathematics in secondary schools. Around 30% of those teaching maths in years 7/8 -10, and around 40% of those teaching maths classes in years 11-12 are not fully qualified to teach mathematics.

Higher level mathematics classes are not offered in some rural, regional and remote areas, diminishing student access to the subjects and further reducing the potential pool of mathematics teachers, mathematicians and mathematically capable professionals. Remote region schools also find it difficult to recruit qualified mathematics teachers.

The rising age profile of mathematics teachers is also an issue. This will have a significant negative impact of the numbers of qualified mathematics teachers in the years to come.

Teacher Quality
It is recognised that the biggest classroom-based influence on the learning outcomes for a student in an Australian school is the discipline specific knowledge of their teacher. This is particularly true of mathematics, where such teachers have the potential to increase student participation rates in mathematics and increase interest in mathematics teaching as a career. Currently, many primary and secondary teachers do not have sufficient university mathematical experience to exhibit such an influence in their classrooms.

Secondary Teacher training
As with many professional qualifications, a coherent route to becoming a secondary mathematics teacher must be obvious when entering university. Students should be able to register for a four-year program when they begin study, with an established connection between the science undergraduate degree and diploma of education.

We believe that the proposed introduction of mandatory two year postgraduate pre-placement training for secondary teachers by AITSL will have a significant detrimental impact on supply. We have not seen evidence that the duration of the current one-year diplomas is inadequate.

Pre-service Primary Teacher Training
There are a significant number of primary school teachers who are weak mathematically or who do not have confidence in their own mathematical abilities. Minimum requirements need to be set which transcend the type of pre-service education qualification held by teachers. The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) accreditation system should reflect current best practice and rectify the features of some existing programs known to produce under prepared primary teachers. See AMSI’s vision for pre-service training standards, as laid out in our recent submission to AITSL.

Professional development
The initiatives outlined above do not address the large number of teachers already working in classrooms with varying degrees of comfort in their mathematical abilities. AMSI has found that a teacher professional development program based on the following factors were regarded as successful by teachers and school administrators

  • Collaborative development of carefully prepared whole of school plans,
  • Observation and feedback about current practice,
  • Developing teacher content knowledge and
  • Understanding of the curriculum.

Teachers teaching ‘out of field’ in secondary schools require special and focused support to teach mathematics. It is imperative that a program of professional development be introduced to bring these teachers ‘up to speed’.

Marketing the profession
Secondary teacher training is undertaken at postgraduate level through a postgraduate diploma. Unfortunately, this creates a number of marketing problems in terms engaging prospective teachers at the very beginning of their tertiary education.

Strong anecdotal evidence suggests that very few primary and secondary school teachers, including mathematics and careers teachers, know much about mathematics in its research and application context. In particular there is wide ignorance about the use of mathematics and statistics by professionals. Professional development is urgently required for both mathematics and careers teachers that help them understand the mathematics needed in a variety of careers.

There is evidence to show that well-constructed careers programs that target the importance of mathematics to the community can be very effective. Such ventures in the past and overseas have been immensely successful in securing the increasing uptake and participation of mathematics.

Theme 2: Closing achievement gaps in mathematics and statistics

Student results are in decline. An extensive review of international comparisons showed that many students in Australia, as in other countries, complete the compulsory years of school with only minimal levels of mathematical and scientific literacy.

A steady, statistically significant, decline can be seen in the PISA mathematical literacy scores around Australia between 2000 and 2006. TIMSS results also show that Australian student outcomes have been declining relative to other nations.

Equity in access to mathematical education is also increasingly an issue; the difference in the mathematical literacy scores between students in the lowest and highest quarters of the distribution of socioeconomic background is profound. On average Indigenous students had mathematical literacy scores significantly lower, than that of non-Indigenous students.

Theme 3: Increasing the numbers of students studying advanced mathematics and statistics at senior secondary school

A huge challenge to the health of the mathematical sciences in Australia is the long-term decline in enrolments in calculus-based mathematics subjects – often referred to as intermediate or advanced, at year 12. This decline is both a consequence and a cause of:

  • Widespread tertiary course realignments to cope with increasing numbers of less mathematically literate students,
  • These subjects not being taught in many rural, regional, remote and low SES areas,
  • Reduced graduation rates in the mathematical sciences and stagnating interest in engineering and sciences courses,
  • Reduced intake into teacher training programs (primary and secondary) of mathematically qualified graduates,
  • Reduced numbers of qualified secondary school teachers teaching at all levels, especially in rural, regional, remote and low SES areas, leading to fewer students in calculus-based mathematics subjects at Year 12,
  • A significant reduction of the number of institutions offering mathematics and statistics majors with a consequent reduction in staffing.

This decline creates a structural impediment to meeting Australia’s galloping demand for mathematics and statistics graduates and it puts a brake on the national productivity growth enjoyed by other OECD countries which have no such impediment. The number of schools able to provide advanced mathematics subjects at Years 11 and 12 is steadily declining and with this the number of students studying advanced mathematics. Without qualified mathematics teachers there will not be the supply of students studying mathematics and statistics at the tertiary level.


Priority 1: The creation of a nationally coordinated scheme to qualify as mathematics teachers the many secondary teachers teaching mathematics out of field

Strategy to address Priority 1:
Introduce retraining modules through mathematics departments in universities. Teachers may use these as in-service or as credit toward a postgraduate qualification such as masters. Upgrade out-of-field teachers starting in low SES and regional areas and with those teachers needing least discipline content (e.g., biology graduates with some maths/stats). Identify qualification/content providers from amongst the universities. Utilise the National Partnerships. Make the subjects HECS free. Utilise NBN for online provision. Involve ESA. Set 5-year targets. Provide a “Golden Welcome” for teachers completing their upgrade qualification.
Re-training of existing teachers as mathematics teachers will help fill the immediate need. We cannot wait until the measures to entice new undergraduates into teaching take effect.

Priority 2: Nationally agreed minimum standards for mathematics content knowledge in the pre-placement training of primary school teachers

Strategy to address Priority 2:
Set a 70% pass standard for a mathematics subject (not the lowest of the four on offer through the Australian Curriculum) for prospective primary teachers. Improve and standardise relevant mathematics content in pre-placement training for primary teachers over the next 5 years. The program itself must contain 2 subjects of mathematics content, identifiably tailored to the knowledge requirements of primary teachers, at least one of which must be taught in the first year. These subjects should be delivered in conjunction with the provider’s mathematics and statistics discipline centre and are the subjects referred to in the paragraph above. In addition, the program should contain 3 subjects of mathematics pedagogical content knowledge.

Priority 3: A national mathematics careers awareness program

Strategy to address Priority 3:
This campaign should highlight the importance of school mathematics studies for a wide variety of careers and trades and encourage the provision of effective advice on subject choice at secondary and post-secondary levels. Include professional development for both mathematics and careers teachers. Such a campaign is at the top of AMSI’s agenda and has been endorsed by the Chief Scientist. It is at the core of the current Australian Mathematics and Science Partnerships Project (AMSPP) bid by AMSI and its membership in partnership with Australian secondary schools.

Priority 4: Increase the number of students studying mathematics and statistics at undergraduate level

Strategy to address Priority 4:
Nationally coordinated measures, with enrolment targets, to increase participation in intermediate and advanced mathematics subjects at year 12. Include government incentives to study mathematics and statistics. Reinstate universal Year 12 mathematics prerequisites for science and engineering degrees commencing 5 years after the introduction of the senior Australian mathematics curriculum. DEEWR incentives to do so. HECS-free places in those first year university subjects designed to bridge mathematically under-prepared students into programs requiring mathematics and statistics.

Priority 5: A full audit of the qualifications, age profile and length of service statistics of those teaching mathematics in Australian schools

Strategy to address Priority 5:
This audit is to be conducted by a specialist panel which should also advise Australian governments on policy development and implementation. AITSL to undertake.

Further reading:
Barrington, F., 2011 Year 12 mathematics student numbers (2012)

Vasagar, J., A-levels boom in maths and science credited to ‘Brian Cox effect’ (2011)

Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Research Workforce Case Study (2011)

Mathematics Promotions Unit, Trends in Mathematics Education 2000-2010 (2010)

Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, Professor Celia Hoyles on Improving Maths in the UK (2010)

Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, Submission to the AITSL proposal National system for the accreditation of pre-service teacher education programs (2010)

Council of Australian Governments (COAG), National Numeracy Review (2008)

Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, Maths, Why Not? (2008)

Joshi, N., A Disturbing Set of Numbers, (2008, 02 18)

Australian Council of Deans of Science, The preparation of mathematics teachers in Australia: Meeting the demand for suitably qualified mathematics teachers in secondary schools (2006)

Education and Training Committee, Parliament of Victoria, Inquiry into the Promotion of Mathematics and Science Education (2006)

Government of Victoria, Maths Multiplies Your Choices (1980)

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