We’ve sat on this one for a long time. We weren’t sure what to make of it, and we’re still not sure. It seems appropriate to write on it, however, and inappropriate not to.
First, some background. Back in June-July, there was some minor but notable social media activity in the maths ed world; there was encouragement for people to make submissions on the draft curriculum to ACARA before the cut-off date. That’s fine, of course, even if they had been advocating to submit in support of (or in opposition to) the draft, which did not appear to be the case. It felt, however, that there was something coordinated about it all, which if true is still fine, but telling. As well, some such encouragement came from people tied to ACARA, which felt significantly closer to the line.
We didn’t give this social mediation all that much thought. But obviously a major aspect of the writing of the draft curriculum, and why it has turned out to be so utterly ridiculous, is ACARA’s closeness to the maths ed world, and ACARA’s Pluto-distancing itself from anyone resembling a competent and critical mathematician. The insularity was and is stark, and the farcical results were entirely predictable.
ACARA’s closeness to the maths ed world was clearly also a critical component in the creation of the absurd joint statement, a preemptive strike in support of the draft, seemingly instigated by AAMT and signed onto by MERGA and ATSIMA. This closeness also appears to have been critical to AAS’s notably dodgy signing onto this statement. And, the real power in the joint statement came from having AAS and AMSI as signatories,1 giving the (false) impression that mathematicians were supportive of the draft curriculum.
Which brings us, finally, to the Australian Maths Trust. The AMT is in its own world in regard to all this, and generally. Through its competitions and other excellent projects, AMT has significant contact with teachers and students, but AMT also has significant contact with and support from active mathematicians. Although not remotely an academic institution, AMT has a justified reputation for a high level of mathematical expertise. AMT is also unique among Australian education institutions in being competent; AMT is improving Australian mathematics education rather than making it worse.
AMT like to do their own good thing, and have not made any public statement about the draft curriculum.2 Still, we had noticed some weirdness emanating from AMT which, along with the above social media activity, made us curious. In late June we contacted AMT, enquiring about their contact with ACARA:
“I am interested in the draft mathematics revisions recently proposed by ACARA. In particular I was interested to know whether AMT had been specifically invited, by either ACARA or any representative of ACARA, to provide a submission on the proposed revisions.”
We received a speedy, friendly and informative reply from an AMT representative.3 Including a second, clarifying email, the substance of their response was,
.”.. AMT has been working with ACARA for some time on the proposed changes to the curriculum. AMT was consulted late last year initially and then key staff were invited to a meeting early this year with ACARA to explain the changes just before they were released …
We were also invited [by a named ACARA representative] to make a Direct Response to [the ACARA representative] in the form of a document outlining in more detail our concerns and congratulations ….
… we are essentially making two submissions, one through the survey link … and one via email direct to [the ACARA representative].” [emphasis added]
We thanked the AMT representative, did not take up their offer of a phone conversation, and left it at that. To be frank, we were somewhat stunned into inaction.
There are three troubling aspects here. First of all, it is interesting that ACARA consulted AMT, which is fine in and of itself, although the seeming cosiness is notable and the “AMT” would benefit from clarification; who, exactly, was consulted is highly significant. More clearly of concern, our understanding is that AMSI and the Australian Mathematical Society were not consulted; if true, this is not close to fine, and the contrast would be damning.4
The second, very troubling aspect is AMT sending “congratulations” to an ACARA representative. For what, exactly? It is not clear whether the “congratulations” was indicating a highly positive stance on the draft curriculum or was referring to a more personal message, but neither would seem to us remotely acceptable in this context. Moreover, we know mathematicians associated with AMT; none were of a mind to send congratulations to ACARA.
All this smells of the AAS debacle. Of course AMT was not acting publicly and so, unlike AAS, AMT has no professional obligation to make a (still non-existent) public clarification.5 But it appears to us very likely that AMT’s submission to ACARA did not properly reflect AMT’s mathematicians’ opinion. We also believe it likely that the nature of AMT’s submission has accordingly been misrepresented within ACARA, as possessing an unwarranted level of mathematical expertise.
The third troubling aspect is also somewhat AAS-ish: what is an ACARA representative doing extending invitations for written submissions? And, why was this submission seemingly to be delivered directly to an ACARA representative in such a familiar manner? To be clear, anyone was able to email a written submission to ACARA. We are not aware, however of other institutions, and certainly of no mathematician institutions, being extended such personal service.
Much of this, of course, was better addressed to ACARA, and we promptly did so. Without naming AMT or any specific person, we emailed ACARA, asking them essentially the same question that we had of AMT:
“… I was interested to know whether ACARA or any representative of ACARA had invited particular organisations or particular people to provide a submission on the proposed revisions.”
ACARA responded quickly and in a friendly manner with their answer: an unqualified denial that ACARA or any of its representatives had engaged in any such behaviour.
Again we were stunned. It was possible that ACARA’s “invitation” to AMT was a more casual clarification, or something of the sort, but it certainly didn’t appear so on its face. Rather, it appeared that AMT’s and ACARA’s responses were in direct contradiction.
We decided to leave the matter. We weren’t sure how to write about it, and it seemed unlikely that further contact with either AMT or ACARA would clarify anything. There was plenty else to get on with. Still, it irritated.
In late July we presented ACARA with both sets of correspondence, pointed out the seeming contradiction, and requested comment. At the same time, and again in late August, we approached AMT in a similar manner. Both organisations responded with politeness and, we think it is fair to say, with a high degree of misdirection. Neither organisation clarified a thing or, it seemed to us, expressed an ounce of interest in the issues raised by the correspondence. If either organisation batted an eyelid, it was well out of sight.
Which is where it stands. How either organisation is content for it to stand there is simply beyond us. We also have no idea how to get it to stand elsewhere. We’ll leave it, and people can make of it what they will.
1) It is still a mystery to us how AMSI came to sign the joint statement. In any case, AMSI had the courage to admit the error and to publicly change course.
2) We do not know if AMT was approached to sign the joint statement.
3) We have chosen to not name the AMT representative, or any of the people quoted or referred to. Although we believe that it would have been fair and reasonable to have done so, our primary concern is with institutional behaviour. That is more easily done without reference to individuals. The buck stops with ACARA leadership and Board, and AMT leadership and Board.
4) Not that “consultation” with ACARA is worth the time of day if ACARA does all the talking, and perhaps anyway. We plan to write plenty more about this.