Counting the cost of New Zealand's failed maths experiment

Roger Partridge
NZ Herald
11 February, 2021

No one should doubt the importance of a sound understanding of mathematics in the future workplace. A recent study by the National Maths and Science Initiative found that 16 of the 30 fastest-growing occupations in the United States require substantial mathematics or science understanding. In a global marketplace, there is no reason to believe the position is any different in New Zealand.

An education system that fails to deliver adequate mathematics understanding to its students is setting them up for career failure – or at least foreclosing future occupational opportunities.

Knowledge of basic maths concepts is also critical to everyday life. Try understanding mortgages or KiwiSaver returns without the mathematical keys. Or even household budgeting, calculating medicine doses or even baking a cake. It is true that the 20th century provided us with calculators. But if you do not understand maths you are poorly placed to check your electronic answer.

It is little wonder, therefore, that the Ministry of Education has called for help from an expert panel to review maths teaching in New Zealand.

The latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed New Zealand students’ maths knowledge in year 9 has fallen below all other English-speaking countries. Kiwi student performance was the lowest ever recorded. And the fall was the largest since the study began nearly three decades ago.

The expert panel should not have to look far for the solution to New Zealand’s maths woes. Successive TIMSS reports have shown that students from high-performing countries score higher than New Zealand students on basic maths knowledge. The reason for this is also clear. New Zealand students spend much less time memorising basic maths facts (like times tables) than students in the top performing countries. The comparative results suggest knowing basic maths facts is a prerequisite to success with higher maths reasoning.

Sadly, none of this is news. In its 2015 report, Un[ac]countable: Why millions on maths returned little, The New Zealand Initiative documented the 15-year history of the Ministry’s “Numeracy Development Project,” a $70 million centrally planned approach aimed at “improving” maths teaching.

From the early 2000s, the Numeracy Project trained teachers to put more emphasis on teaching children a range of “strategies” for solving maths problems and less emphasis on basic maths knowledge.

Maths performance by Kiwi students was not stellar before the Numeracy Project. In the first TIMSS league tables, New Zealand year 9 students were slightly below average. However, maths performance showed signs of improvement in the late 1990s. The improved results coincided with schools adopting a range of localised teacher professional development programmes for maths teachers. But the story of maths performance since the onset of the Numeracy Project has been one of long-term decline.

The Numeracy Project’s emphasis on strategies (or “skills”) in favour of basic knowledge mirrors the approach to learning prescribed by the New Zealand Curriculum. Much vaunted as “world-leading”, the New Zealand Curriculum is a skimpy document. It manages to cover 13 years of schooling in just 67 pages.

As my colleague Briar Lipson explains in her 2020 book, New Zealand’s Education Delusion: How bad ideas ruined a once world-leading school system, the New Zealand Curriculum achieves brevity by neglecting knowledge.

Rather than ensuring all students master a basic core of knowledge and skills, teachers are encouraged by the Ministry of Education to let children lead their own learning. Teachers are told that learning-related-to-the-child matters more than the knowledge contained in traditional subject disciplines. Against this background, it should be no surprise that New Zealand year nine students have a poor grasp of their times tables.

Nor should it be surprising that educational standards have plummeted in areas beyond maths.

Despite a 32% real rise in per-pupil spending since 2001, New Zealand students have also nosedived from world-leading to poor in reading.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assesses Year 5 students’ reading attainment.  In the latest study, New Zealand's Year 5 students ranked 33rd among the 50 participating countries. And they were last out of English-speaking countries.

In New Zealand’s Education Delusion, Lipson draws on the evidence from cognitive science to explain why the Ministry of Education’s aversion to teaching children basic knowledge is harming educational outcomes.

The child-centred approach to learning favoured by the Ministry is based on ideology rather than evidence. And it overlooks three well-established principles from the science of learning. First, that factual knowledge must precede skill. Second, that it is almost impossible to become proficient at a mental task without extended practice. Third, that children are more alike than different in how they think and learn.

These propositions may seem like simple home truths. And anyone lucky enough to have their times tables drummed into their heads, will know how much easier that made higher maths.

But, as Lipson’s report shows, these three propositions are also evidence-based scientific principles. And they hold the key to reversing the long-term decline of New Zealand student performance in both maths and literacy.

Kiwi students are fortunate New Zealand participates in TIMMS, PIRLS and other international assessments of educational attainment. Without them, both parents and the wider education sector would be ignorant of the slide in student attainment. The absence of any form of national assessment before high school is a glaring omission.

But beyond this issue of assessment, the bigger issue is pedagogy - or educational approach.  No one could doubt that education should engage students and appear relevant to them. But New Zealand’s education pendulum has swung too far away from teacher-led instruction with a knowledge-based focus in favour of the Ministry’s favoured child-centred dogmas. This has undermined student attainment and contributed to New Zealand’s two decade long slide down the international education league tables.

The Ministry of Education is to be commended for calling in outside experts. It takes courage to admit you might not know all the answers. However, experts will fail to resolve this unless they identify the flaws in the Ministry’s child-centred ideology.

The good news is that if they do, their solutions for maths could also solve New Zealand’s wider educational malaise. If they don’t, New Zealand students will be painfully counting the costs for decades to come.

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