• Maths scores have been declining since 2002, with National Standards figures showing one in four are behind in the subject by the time they leave primary school
• Ministry of Education says it has a "serious achievement challenge in mathematics"
• Reports show teachers lack confidence and subject knowledge
• Part of the problem is that NCEA allows students to drop out of science and maths too early
• Educators say it would take the country 20 years to break the cycle

Serious ongoing issues with children's mathematics results has experts pushing for radical changes to primary schooling, including the wide-scale introduction of specialist subject teachers.

That could mean the end of primary teaching as we know it, where currently one generalist teacher takes the class for every topic.

Maths scores have been declining since 2002, according to OECD data. National Standards figures show a slight climb in the past three years, but say one in four are behind in the subject by the time they leave primary school at Year 8.

A national monitoring study from 2013 had even lower results, with just 41 per cent of students at the expected level when they leave primary, despite the majority achieving well just four years earlier.

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The drop-off after Year 4 - when students are aged 9 to 10 - is a trend across all subjects, but in mathematics it is particularly significant.

"International studies and national data provide clear evidence that we have a serious achievement challenge in mathematics," a Ministry of Education maths plan said.

"We have very good evidence about what leads to effective mathematics teaching and learning. But putting this together in the classroom and making it possible across the system is challenging and complex."

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A series of reports over the past decade have identified a range of underlying causes including teacher confidence and subject knowledge; decisions around professional development and training; and students' self-confidence and perceptions.

Professor John O'Neill, the director of Massey University's Institute of Education, called the problem a "chicken and egg" scenario.

He said because many students dropped maths - and science - part way through high school, teaching students often lacked subject knowledge in those areas.

"In the past, you could fill students' gaps in learning at teachers' college. But whereas 10 years ago students would get several hundred hours in a learning area, now they might only get 50. It's not enough," he said. Teachers then lacked confidence, their students got a raw deal, ended up not liking maths, and the cycle began again.

Some educators believed the answer was shifting teaching to masters level to raise entry levels, but even then graduates could come through with limited maths and science ability, Mr O'Neill said.

"Part of the problem is with NCEA, in that it allows too much choice. It's a very good system but it allows students to drop out of science and maths too early."

He said the Government needed to be "courageous enough" to recognise it would take the country 20 years, a sophisticated policy response and a long-term funding injection to break the cycle.

The Ministry of Education has already added a suite of maths acceleration programmes and professional development to support underachievement in maths, at the cost of $20 million per year.

One is a 15-week intervention for struggling students, the other a programme that supports teachers to undergo extra training to become Mathematics Support Teachers over two years, during which time they work with small groups of high-needs pupils. They eventually help other teachers in their classrooms too.

In a plan sent to the Herald, it outlined further proposal to lift results, including restricting teacher entry to those with NCEA Level 2 maths. The Education Council is yet to decide if that will go ahead.

However, some believe an entry test alone will not be enough. A group of deans from seven universities have recommended teachers be required to undergo extra education in either English, maths, science or te reo Maori, with the view that subject specialty may become compulsory in the future.

The Herald understands some deans believe the best way would be to have one subject specialist per school, or school cluster, who helped design interventions and build expertise among teachers.

Professor Stuart McNaughton, chief education scientific advisor, said he thought the better option was to have the experts teaching in classrooms after Year 4 - when evidence showed achievement growth slowed.

"My view is that we are requiring primary school teachers to cover too much, especially by the middle years," he said.

"These are very complex areas to teach and the question is whether our highly skilled and knowledgeable primary teachers can develop even more expertise across the board."

Mr McNaughton would not limit the specialist roles to mathematics, instead extending it to other curriculum areas especially te reo Maori and science. A similar programme was underway in Singapore, where primary teachers would be required to have a pairing of specialist subject areas as part of their teaching degrees from this year.

Principal of May Road School Lynda Stuart, expressed reservations about the idea, saying that with just one teacher it was easier to reinforce learning across subjects.

"If you had a specialist for science who just came in the afternoons for example, do they know what the kids have been learning in maths?" she said. "The single teacher model ensures a flow across the curriculum."

However, others also believe there needs to be an incentive to upskill a larger number of teachers in maths.

Associate Professor Roberta Hunter, from Massey University, said she supported a specialist qualification, but it should be postgraduate level and needed to be available for current teachers as well as new graduates.

Any training should also include cultural awareness, she said. Dr Hunter, who runs a cultural competency programme in maths, said many teachers weren't connecting with their Maori and Pasifika students and therefore, those children weren't engaged.

Data showed a lag for Maori, Pasifika and low-income students, which widened as they headed towards high school.

"There's an assumption those students don't know numbers. But maybe they can count to 10 in their own language," she said. "Or they might have different knowledge - they might know about patterns and space - how many plates go on a table, or how many mattresses fit in a marae. But we don't recognise those things."

Low-decile schools already struggled to attract and retain quality generalists, meaning there would also need to be ways to get the specialist teachers in to hard-to-staff places, such as pay incentives, she said.

The Ministry of Education said schools were currently able to employ specialist subject teachers from their operational budgets, and it supported that. It said the new Communities of Learning would also give schools more ability to lift their teaching practice in particular subjects by sharing best teaching practice.

Education minister Hekia Parata said there was a need for greater maths experience in years four to eight.

She said Communities of Learning were designed to share teaching expertise. She did not say if she would support a move to specialist teachers, but said the Education Council was looking at ways to strengthen the profession.

The sum of the problem

• International studies and national data provide clear evidence that we have a serious achievement challenge in mathematics. Results have been declining since 2002, according to PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment).

• Many primary school students are not making enough year-on-year progress to achieve expected levels.

• The majority of Year 8 students (59 percent) are achieving below expectations in mathematics, according to a 2013 National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement report. This is despite National Standards showing 69 per cent judged "at or above" by teachers in 2014.

• Yet, most Year 4 students are achieving in-line with curriculum expectations.

• Teacher confidence in maths is mixed. At Year 5, around three-quarters of teachers felt confident in answering their students' maths questions, while just under half did not feel very confident in providing challenging tasks for capable students.

• In our classrooms, the maths curriculum is not being covered as intended. Our achievement in some areas, such as geometry, is below the international average, according to PISA.

• Student confidence and knowledge also appears problematic, with teachers of Year 5 students indicating their ability to teach maths was sometimes limited by students' lack of sufficient prerequisite mathematical knowledge and skills.

• New Zealand students' confidence and perception of themselves as learners of maths had a strong relationship with their achievement. Fewer middle primary students were confident in maths compared with many other countries, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study reported.

- Source: Ministry of Education

Making maths cool

Maths teacher Sheela Stanley with student Alyssa, 6, at Rosebank School in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring
Maths teacher Sheela Stanley with student Alyssa, 6, at Rosebank School in Auckland. Photo / Doug Sherring

Teacher Sheela Stanley has created something a little bit special at Rosebank School - she's made maths cool.

"Everyday I have students coming up to me asking if they can be in my maths club," Ms Stanley says. "All the children are eager to join."

As if to prove a point, the children arrive in her classroom and swoop on the maths resources - some doing counting on the whiteboard, others using computer tablets to solve problems, or playing maths games.

Ms Stanley is the school's specialist maths teacher. Initially employed in the classroom, she was one of the first cohort to take up a Ministry of Education programme for Maths Support Teachers.

Over two years, she studied two postgraduate papers in mathematics and took small groups of children who were struggling - some of them up to two or three years behind in their learning.

Once the intervention finished, the school realised it was helping lift results and tried to work out a way to keep Ms Stanley on.

"I persuaded the board it was making a significant difference," principal Heather Bell said. "We were building children's confidence, they're engaged. There's a stronger impact, and they're excited."

She said Ms Stanley was particularly talented in getting the children to examine what they were doing, and in thinking up initiatives like "maths club" that raised the profile of maths in the school.

Now, Ms Stanley takes small groups for maths three days a week, and helps relieve the other teachers for the rest of the time. She also works with the staff, and across a cluster of schools, to help other teachers with their proficiency.

"At our school we feel there's a moral purpose, to raise achievement," Mrs Bell said. "To do that we have to enhance staff capability, and to do that we need to have a professional learning environment."

Ms Stanley said although studying and teaching at the same time was hard work, it was worth it. The community of expert teachers was growing, with 15 in West Auckland having completed the Maths Support Teacher training so far.

"I think having a specialist teacher role in every school is really good. You've already got reading recovery and ESOL, so why not maths?"

The series

• Day 1: National Standards: A failed crusade?
The trouble with NZ's primary schools
Is the $250m policy working?
Quality of school report cards a 'lottery'
• Day 2: Measuring the success of Early Childhood Education
Have kids got the skills they need to start school?
• Day 3: Teacher quality: How to raise the status
Our secret teacher's report - What it's like to tell parents their six-year-old is failing
• Day 4: The problem with maths
• Day 5: Peace, war and reading