Yesterday, we wrote about the Maths Battles at Adelaide’s Prince Alfred College, but of course, the big, nationwide maths battling took place last week, with the holding of the annual Australian Mathematics Competition. Administered by the Australian Maths Trust, the AMC was undertaken by ballpark 200,000 school kids from around the country and overseas.
The competition is excellently done. We arranged and administered the comp for kids at our daughters’ primary school, and for such an everywhere undertaking the process was remarkably simple and human. Moreover, for the clueless such as ourselves, AMT’s email help was great: quick and clear and friendly. More importantly, the competition questions are excellent, clearly written and clever and well-chosen, progressing from very obvious to very not obvious (even at the primary level). The AMT, including strong mathematicians, and including a few of our friends, work very hard to get this competition right. And, to those mathematicians, particularly our friends, we offer these two words: screw you.
We have trouble keeping friends.
OK, we’re joking. Mostly. The bit about trouble keeping friends is true. And we’re genuinely pissed off.
To begin by stating the obvious, the Australian Mathematics Competition is an excellent thing. To have a couple hundred thousand kids around the country take part in a maths comp means something. And sure, large numbers of those kids are not competing seriously, in the sense of having practised problems and mastered mathematical techniques, but many kids have. And even those kids who had not prepared were still able to participate in a real, large-scale maths thing, centred around real, good maths. So what could possibly be the complaint?
First, some perspective. 200,000 sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that Australian has about four million school kids. “But this is a maths competition”, we hear you argue, “and you can’t expect millions of kids to do a maths competition”. Maybe not, but maybe not maybe not.
A little more perspective. Thirty years ago, in 1993, half a million kids participated in the AMC. When the competition was only held for secondary school students. When Australia’s population was about two thirds of what it is now.
So, what happened? Where did everybody go? It is obvious and it is obvious.
What happened was that in the 90s the decline of Australian education, including mathematics education, kicked into overdrive. In particular there began the destruction of an excellent public school system. And so a mathematics competition? Why bother? What does that have to do with the real world, and interest rates and stuff? And our kids, they’re not that great with fractions and counting arguments and the like. They’re not really into that esoteric kind of maths.
It is absolutely clear that it’s the public school numbers that have evaporated and that the AMC is now dominated by private schools. This year, as every year, Polo Grammar would have competed in an industrial manner, with a gym set up for hundreds of their kids to participate in the AMC. But for any given public school the clear odds are that they wouldn’t have supplied enough kids to fill a phone booth. The kids are there, of course, but the time and the mindset and the motivation and the money are not. Our daughters’ public school participated only because of a compliant Principal and because of a really persistent, really annoying mathematician-parent who was also willing to take on the administration. That story is obviously repeated pretty much everywhere: unless there is a strangely dedicated teacher or a really whiny parent, and there’s a Principal with enough of a clue, a public school will offer little or nothing in the way of the AMC.
“But”, we hear you argue, though not strongly, “most of those half million kids in 1993 wouldn’t have really been into the comp. It’s the students that take the competition seriously and practise that matter more.” Sure. And which schools, also then but much more now, are mostly like to have decent extension classes and to have kids do practice tests and to work through them properly? It ain’t Shitkicker High. However you microscope it, the private school kids, and even more so the elite private school kids, are now the overwhelming beneficiaries of the AMC, and AMT’s other excellent competitions and programs.
Is this AMT’s fault? Of course not, and of course we’re not Harrison Bergeroning this, we’re not remotely arguing that AMT should cease offering its excellent programs. Yes, AMT playing kissy kissy with ACARA was a greasy move, but it probably had no effect. And obviously AMT is not responsible for the general decline of Australian maths ed. Indeed, AMT is about the only Australian maths ed-ish institution that does not bear significant responsibility. But we cannot see that AMT is making any serious effort to address this educational decline, or even to acknowledge it.
ACARA and their fellow maths ed travellers dress up their mathematics curriculum as being a curriculum for everyone, and of course that is nonsense. It is a curriculum for no one. The curriculum is so thin on any genuine mathematical thought, and so thin on any proper processes to develop the knowledge and techniques to properly enable such thought, that the majority of kids, even the majority of private school kids, are doomed to mathematical mediocrity. Meanwhile, in the gated communities, the kids can learn, or at least they have a decent shot at it. The kids not only participate in the AMC, they get to practise, to learn from that practice. They can feast, or at least eat decently. And what of the outside masses? Let them eat dreck.
All the great opportunities that AMT provides only magnifies this disparity because the vast majority of kids are never even offered these opportunities, and certainly not in any sustained, properly educational manner. If AMT cares about this, if AMT has any concern that they are now overwhelmingly feeding the rich, we’ve seen no indication of it.
And what of you mathematicians, and in particular our friends? Perhaps you might enjoy the good company of your star students just a little less, and you might pat yourselves on your backs just a little less, and you might stick out your necks just a little more. Perhaps you could declare publicly, or even privately, to the educational powers that be that the system sucks balls. Perhaps you could acknowledge that the AMT, for all the great work it does, is also a convenient smokescreen to obscure a thoroughly degenerate, thoroughly evil system. But you’re not likely to do that are you? So, dear mathematician friends, you are doing invaluable work and, nonetheless, screw you.
We’re only joking, of course.