Media release: $70m maths teaching methods failing kids

4 June, 2015

Wellington (4 June 2015): If your child is falling behind in maths, it could be because they are learning too many methods for solving maths problems, and are not spending enough time on the vital basics.

That is a key finding of Un(ac)countable: Why millions on maths returned little by Rose Patterson. The New Zealand Initiative report covers the history of the Numeracy Project, a programme rolled out across most primary schools 15 years ago. It changed the way maths is taught, at a cost of $70 million, but led to deteriorating maths performance in young children.

The report shows that the lack of emphasis on the basics such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, and using traditional written methods, is holding children back from developing mathematically, and that maths performance has been in decline since the programme was introduced.

“Learning basic mathematics takes concentration and effort at first, but with practice it becomes automatic. You have to be fluent with the basics in order to get really good at maths” says report author Rose Patterson.

Yet the programme brought with it a disdainful attitude towards some of the more traditional methods of maths teaching. According to the Initiative’s report, both the traditional and modern methods are important, but the pendulum has swung too far.

The public policy think tank says there has been no accountability for the $70 million Numeracy Project.

"A shocking amount of taxpayers' money has been spent on what can only be described as a failed experiment on our most precious resource, our children. I sincerely hope that parents, teachers and the Ministry of Education will read, reflect and act upon this report” says Dr Audrey Tan, acclaimed mathematics tutor at Mathmo Consulting.
The most concerning finding of the report is that too few primary school teachers have adequate levels of maths to teach the subject. The report cites a 2010 study which found that a third of new primary school teachers could not add two fractions (7/18 + 1/9) together.
Commenting on the report, the Initiative’s Executive Director Dr Oliver Hartwich says: “Teacher proficiency in the subject is absolutely essential for student achievement in maths. You can’t teach maths if you don’t know maths.”
The main solution proposed by the think tank is that the Education Council of Aotearoa New Zealand (Educanz), due to replace the Teachers Council on July 1, should develop a Certificate of Maths Teaching Competency. Professional development and training would align towards helping teachers gain the skills required for certification.

“Teachers are motivated to see their students succeed. They are the key to solving the maths problem” says Dr Hartwich.

Education Minister Hon Hekia Parata and Heartland Bank chief executive Jeff Greenslade will be speaking at the launch event for Un(ac)countable in Wellington on Thursday 4 June.

Please click on the following links to download the report and supporting materials:


Dr Oliver Hartwich is available for comment.

About the New Zealand Initiative

The New Zealand Initiative is an evidence-based think tank and research institute, which is supported by a membership organisation that counts some of the country’s leading visionaries, business leaders and political thinkers among its ranks.
Our members are committed to developing policies to make New Zealand a better country for all its citizens. We believe all New Zealanders deserve a world-class education system, affordable housing, a healthy environment, sound public finances and a stable currency.
The New Zealand Initiative pursues this goal by participating in public life, and making a contribution to public discussions.
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