The number one step

Dr Rachel Hodder
Insights Newsletter
28 April, 2017

Treating symptoms without diagnosing the disease can provide temporary relief but is not the best way to find the cure in the long run.

So it is with medicine, as it is with policy. It is difficult to solve a problem with policy if you do not know where the root cause of the problem lies.

New Zealand students are presenting with symptoms of ailing numeracy. At The Initiative, we want to diagnose the underlying cause so we can prescribe the best policy remedy to raise results in the short and long run. In particular, we wish to investigate whether teachers' numeracy abilities may be a contributing factor.

New Zealand’s flagging numeracy may come as a surprise to those who have been following recent news about soaring NCEA pass rates. Unfortunately, it seems that this NCEA success does not translate into student ability.

On international scales, the maths performance of New Zealand school students has been slipping. And many in the tertiary sector will attest to the poor maths ability of incoming students.

It is a troubling trend that warrants a policy response. However, knowing how to respond requires some understanding of the underlying cause. There are several possible contenders. Many commentators have blamed changes to education policy. But ultimately, if the teachers do not have a firm grasp of a subject, tinkering with different methods of teaching is unlikely to make much difference. 

This is not to say that a teacher needs to be a maths genius to teach students how to add and subtract. However, it is troubling that a third of New Zealand primary teachers are unable to correctly answer simple maths questions like adding fractions.

The Initiative is embarking on a series of education reports to help improve New Zealand’s education landscape. In our newest research project, we will be using data to see what has happened to the numeracy ability of teachers over time. If highly numerate people are being put off choosing teaching as a career, this should be a concern to the Government.

For a prosperous New Zealand, quality education is vital. Especially numeracy education. Curing our poor numeracy performance will require a dedicated treatment plan. Diagnosing the cause is the number one step.

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