A push for more maths education really adds up

Op-ed piece by the AMSI Director Professor Geoff Prince 
appearing in The Australian Financial Review, Thursday 26 June 2014 

Article can be viewed at The Australian Financial Review website (subscription required)


What do breast cancer and red meat consumption, criminal court DNA evidence and financial competence share? Their understanding by adults is often crucial, but a level of mathematical literacy is needed that many of us don’t have and our children are less likely to have. Australian women should be able to listen to Norman Swan on Radio National’s Health Report and understand the statistical basis for claims about over-consumption of red meat and breast cancer. Anyone serving on a jury should be able to understand the difference between the probability of a DNA match assuming innocence and the probability of innocence given a DNA match. And we should all be confidently organising our mortgages, superannuation and HECS debts.

The mathematical sciences play a pivotal role in today’s knowledge economy. It has a significant presence throughout the education system with flow-on effects to our lives, employment, research, business and government. But the latest Discipline Profile of the Mathematical Sciences published by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) paints a picture of a nation whose mathematical competency is under threat. Around 40% of Years 7-10 maths classes are taught out-of-area by non-maths teachers; advanced and intermediate maths enrolments at Year 12 continue a 20 year downward trend -- a 33% fall in advanced maths numbers since 1995; low levels of adult literacy with women behind men by as much as 30% in some age groups. Ironically it comes at a time when Australia’s research performance in this area is at an all-time high.

Is this just the market place passing its judgement? Take the maths teacher shortage. The Commonwealth’s universities graduate them and the State, Catholic and independent schools employ them. No school principal wants the local community to know there are no maths teachers, let alone a maths graduate. No State minister wants to admit to the 40% teacher shortfall, and no Federal minister wants to take responsibility, the Commonwealth does not even track maths teacher graduations. Worse, our schools are fully staffed so there is no room for the missing teachers even if we could magic them up. Aspiring teachers are choosing biology over maths. Why? Because their own biology teachers are young, female and qualified while their maths teachers are not. Sadly, this is happening at a time when the role of mathematics and statistics in biology, genetics in particular, is huge. Here’s another aspect: students in well-to-do schools are generally taught by enthusiastic maths graduates, and many take advanced maths, but teaching is not their career choice. Less well-off schools have far fewer maths teachers and yet their students are much more likely to become teachers. Is it any wonder there is a shortage of maths teachers? Market forces aren’t operating here but there is a lack of leadership. Would we let this happen to the supply of nurses, police or military personnel? Of course not!

But does this matter? Well, the big end of town thinks so. They see the unrelenting decline in intermediate and advanced maths numbers at Year 12 as a threat to their future workforce. Analysis of risk is at the heart of modern business and this isn’t for maths dummies. Many industry studies cite productivity concerns over innumeracy in the trade areas. Mathematics is often thought of as enabling but the flip side is that mathematical illiteracy is disabling. We should understand health statistics and the correlation versus causation issue. We should be confident that our juries, lawyers and judiciary can understand conditional probability. And we should be able to help our kids with their maths homework. Charles Darwin likened maths to an extra sense. Access to it should not be restricted by gender or socio-economic status.

AMSI has identified three priorities for attention: the teacher shortage, the free-fall in intermediate and advanced numbers and the gender imbalance in study and employment. We are urging all jurisdictions to get behind the professional development of the out-of-area teachers. And we are proposing a national, 5 year campaign to improve public understanding of the role of advanced maths and the necessity of mathematical literacy in 21st century Australia, especially amongst women.

Let’s not be the mathematical underperformer in the international classroom.


AMSI's reports can be downloaded here:
Discipline Profile of the Mathematical Sciences 2014 
Policy measures to reverse the mathematical deficit