Lack of maths prerequisites ‘leads students to drop out’

The Australian's John Ross published Lack of maths prerequisites ‘leads students to drop out,' on July 28He spoke with Professor Geoff Prince, AMSI Director, about his views:

MAKING maths study compulsory at high school could set the discipline back 10 years, a leading Australian educator says. But Geoff Prince says a move away from maths prerequisites for relevant university courses is increasing undergraduate dropout rates.

Professor Prince, who heads the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute based at the University of Melbourne, was commenting on US research findings that high school dropout rates rise when students are forced to study maths and science.

“It’s an important warning to us all that we should not plunge into these things, and we really need to think about the upsides and the downsides,” he told the HES.

Professor Prince said that while he personally opposed making high school maths compulsory, some of his colleagues disagreed. But even if it was a good idea, he said Australia did not have enough trained maths teachers.

According to a policy document released by AMSI in May, around 40 per cent of junior high school maths classes do not have qualified maths teachers and many secondary schools “don’t have a single maths graduate on the staff”.

Professor Prince said it could prove disastrous if maths was mandated before the staffing problems were resolved. “We would set maths back 10 years if we got this wrong. The public perception of maths would be poisoned.”

AMSI is campaigning for policy interventions to address Australia’s “mathematical deficit”. Its highest priority is to upgrade the skills of the current crop of “out-of-field” maths teachers, and to secure the supply of future maths teachers.

But almost as important is to reverse the decline in high school study of calculus-based maths which Professor Prince said was essential for engineers, and increasingly for biologists. He said that while some Victorian universities had maintained these intermediate and advanced maths subjects as prerequisites for maths and science degrees, NSW universities had discarded such requirements. “In NSW it’s all assumed knowledge — it’s a sort of self-declaration system,” he said.

“Kids are getting advice about maximising their scores. They are being told there’s no advanced maths prerequisite for engineering, so just do an easy maths because you’ll get a higher mark (and) have a better chance of getting into the course.

“But more often than not (they) find they have to pick up extra maths because the engineering course says if you don’t come in with the assumed knowledge, you’ve got to do it when you get there. That’s unexpected for many of them, and many of them struggle with it.”

Professor Prince said there was “concrete evidence” at the institutional level that the problem had exacerbated undergraduate dropout rates, although the figures are yet to be aggregated nationally.

But he said 80 per cent of high school students were already studying maths in some form. “That’s a healthy number and I’m sure the kids who don’t do it have got good reasons not to take it. Quite legitimate among those is (that) they don’t like maths.”

He said it would not be easy to enlist the remaining 20 per cent. “You’re looking at kids who have consciously chosen not to enrol in maths. Getting them engaged and taught properly, if you make it compulsory, is going to be much more of a challenge than teaching the ones who want to be there.”

Professor Prince said the best way to engage students in maths was to make it attractive. “If you’ve made it attractive and kids still don’t want to do it, leave them alone. They should be left alone to do what they want to do, and good luck to them.”