Carol Craymer, new education columnist – and principal of Queen Margaret College – on the maths and science deficit in New Zealand schools.

Exponential Opportunities

Education IllustrationCheck out any uni­ver­sity or school pro­spect­us and you will be sure to find some ref­er­ence to edu­cat­ing ‘glob­al cit­izens’. We live and work in an increas­ingly inter­con­nec­ted world and in order to thrive and com­pete, edu­cat­ors recog­nise that young people need more innov­at­ive think­ing skills, high­er-order cog­nit­ive skills, cul­tur­al aware­ness, and soph­ist­ic­ated com­mu­nic­a­tion and col­lab­or­a­tion skills than ever before.

The Pro­gramme for Inter­na­tion­al Stu­dent Assess­ment (PISA) is a yard­stick by which coun­tries meas­ure edu­ca­tion­al com­pet­it­ive­ness. The PISA is a valu­able macro-meas­ure used by coun­tries to inform pub­lic policy. It tests achieve­ment of 15-year-old stu­dents in the core sub­jects of math­em­at­ics, sci­ence and read­ing, report­ing every three years on the out­comes. When the res­ults from PISA were pub­lished in Decem­ber last year, pre­dict­ably there was breast-beat­ing by the media in those coun­tries whose per­form­ance had slumped, includ­ing New Zealand.

How the edu­ca­tion­al achieve­ment of New Zea­l­and youth stacks up against that of oth­er coun­tries mat­ters, so it was of con­cern to learn from the PISA report that stu­dent per­form­ance in math­em­at­ics, sci­ence and read­ing had declined since 2009 rel­at­ive to oth­er mem­bers of the OECD. New Zealand’s rank­ings fell in math­em­at­ics from 13th to 23rd, in sci­ence from sev­enth to 18th, and in read­ing from sev­enth to 13th. Anoth­er inter­na­tion­al test, Trends in Inter­na­tion­al Math­em­at­ic­al and Sci­ence Study (TIMSS) 2010/2011, noted a sim­il­ar decline in the math­em­at­ic­al per­form­ance of Year 5 and Year 9 New Zea­l­and stu­dents. Only 4 per­cent of New Zea­l­and stu­dents can con­cep­tu­al­ise, gen­er­al­ise and use advanced maths in cre­at­ive ways, which is what the highest per­form­ance level in PISA requires. In com­par­is­on, the fig­ure for stu­dents in Shang­hai, the rock star of the PISA res­ults, is over 30 per­cent. Our chal­lenge is to close that gap.

Encour­agingly, stu­dents in high-per­form­ing coun­tries said that achieve­ment was mainly a product of hard work rather than inher­ited intel­li­gence. The report also draws some con­clu­sions about teach­ing approaches that raise stu­dent res­ults. This high­lights the import­ance of the teach­er in lift­ing stu­dent achieve­ment and raises the ques­tion: what can we do bet­ter in New Zea­l­and classrooms to improve per­form­ance in these core sub­jects, which under­pin all aca­dem­ic learn­ing? I have a few suggestions.

Like most schools, Queen Mar­garet Col­lege hosts and leads a num­ber of exchanges through­out the year with sis­ter schools and these provide yet anoth­er meas­ure by which we can com­pare our edu­ca­tion­al offer­ing with that of oth­er coun­tries. It is my obser­va­tion that stu­dents from Chile, Japan, China and South Korea are much fur­ther advanced in math­em­at­ics than our New Zea­l­and stu­dents, who can drop this essen­tial sub­ject after they have ful­filled what is a light numer­acy require­ment at NCEA Level 1. Numer­acy also meets New Zea­l­and uni­ver­sity entrance require­ments but is insuf­fi­cient for those rig­or­ous ter­tiary courses that require great­er math­em­at­ic­al skills. Many New Zea­l­and par­ents who are unfa­mil­i­ar with our ‘flex­ible’ sec­ond­ary qual­i­fic­a­tion or those whose exper­i­ence is from anoth­er coun­try are shocked to dis­cov­er that a math­em­at­ics course is not com­puls­ory through to Year 13, espe­cially as there is con­sid­er­able cross-over between this sub­ject and sci­ence, where we also need to lift our game.

Anoth­er point of dif­fer­ence is the spe­cial­ist know­ledge of the teach­ers. I have met many over­seas primary and sec­ond­ary teach­ers with post-gradu­ate degrees in math­em­at­ics. In New Zea­l­and, how­ever, you would be hard pressed to find teach­ers with math­em­at­ics majors – and in primary schools, where the vast major­ity of teach­ers hold gen­er­al­ist degrees, it is almost an impossibility.

If New Zea­l­and is to com­pete in the mod­ern world, a world where the power of the ubi­quit­ous digit­al envir­on­ment is a major lever to suc­cess, our weak­nesses in primary teach­ing of math­em­at­ics and sci­ence and the inad­equa­cies of the struc­ture of NCEA must be addressed.

About Carol Craymer

Car­ol has an MA in Eng­lish from the Uni­ver­sity of Can­ter­bury and has been prin­cip­al of Queen Mar­garet col­lege since 2004. Pri­or to mov­ing to Wel­ling­ton, she was assist­ant prin­cip­al at Orewa col­lege and deputy prin­cip­al at Taka­puna Gram­mar. How­ever, Car­ol is not all about ‘dotting the is’ and cross­ing the t’s’. She has also worked for Radio New Zea­l­and as an announ­cer, acted in Eng­land in a theatre troupe tour­ing schools and raised two daughters.

About Carol Craymer

Carol has an MA in English from the University of Canterbury and has been principal of Queen Margaret college since 2004. Prior to moving to Wellington, she was assistant principal at Orewa college and deputy principal at Takapuna Grammar. However, Carol is not all about 'dotting the is' and crossing the t's'. She has also worked for Radio New Zealand as an announcer, acted in England in a theatre troupe touring schools and raised two daughters.


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