Let Them Eat Dreck

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.

37 Replies to “Let Them Eat Dreck”

  1. Would it have been possible for me to facilitate the participation of some of the kids at my son’s primary school in the AMC? I honestly had no idea. His school does the ICAS (because a teacher takes time to organise it). Out of around 250 students, I think only a handful participate. Next year he will be in Year 6, I hope I remember to see about helping.

    On the topic of the post: I don’t know what more can be done than just showing people how messed up it truly is, and convincing them that staying quiet will only make it get worse. But saying screw you probably doesn’t hurt either.

    1. Thanks, Glen.

      It is nontrivial, and intrinsically clunky, for an outsider like you or me to administer the AMC for a school. I had an in, because I also teach some extension classes at the school, and run a Maths Club (instigated by Polo Grammar, amusingly enough). Of course getting the agreement and logistics for the extension classes was also nontrivial. I can talk to you more about it via email if and when you’re thinking about giving it a go.

      As to what can be done, I don’t know. Maybe nothing. But certainly nothing unless AMSI and AustMS and AMT and AAS get off their collective asses and begin fighting, loudly.

      I don’t know that my yelling “screw you” helps, but I don’t care. This bimodalling of education, and mathematicians’ “let them eat cake” response, has pissed me off for a long time. But my having to work so damn hard for the one public school while hundreds of kids at Polo Grammar can simply waltz into much much better treatment really really pissed me off.

  2. Perhaps you might enjoy the good company of your star students just a little less, “and and” you might pat yourselves on your backs just a little less, and you might stick out your necks just a little more.

  3. Doing this competition when I was a new immigrant to Australia as a 15 year old may have well changed my life (just a bit). At the time, my new public school made everyone do the AMC. Big hall, old school exam set up. Even then, it felt more like real maths than the maths we did in class. The next year we did it again and somehow it led to my teacher encouraging me to apply to be invited to a maths camp …there, I discovered my tribe and went on to ditch all my teenage dreams of becoming a lawyer to study maths at Monash where I met a quirky, often barefoot, teacher who stuck his neck out all the time. His name was Marty.

    1. Thanks, beany. Clearly these competitions can have a significant effect on a student, and it can be very difficult to guess who might be so affected. Which is why …

      Your comments about your weirdo lecturer are very kind.

  4. I teach in a 7-10 government school and have been there for only a couple of years. The AMC is promoted as heavily as other comparable activities in the school, all of which depend on willing staff members to put their shoulder to the wheel. This year we are short of staff across the board. The teacher who leads the effort found a much better response rate by asking parents rather than students. I use questions from past AMC events to prepare my students so that at least they will have some idea of what the test looks like.

          1. Most, but not all, students have a working computer; we need to have a venue that all students can use; the library has a few computers, but the gym does not have any.

            In my short experience, I can expect that 10% of my students do not have a computer that is not flat, not being repaired, not being used by a sibling, not left at home, or not stolen recently.

                1. Same price per student whether they do it on computer or paper.

                  If paper, the AMC coordinator has to scan all the answer sheets (batches of 20 or so to keep to file limits) and upload them manually.

                  Will be interesting to see if schools have to print their own certificates as well…

                  Good questions again this year. Q30 on the junior paper started a nice class discussion about why 0 is divisible by 3.

                    1. You can scribble on a paper test. I’m guessing students get working paper for the computer test as well, but re-drawing diagrams might be a chore.

  5. BTW, another useful source from Australian Mathematics Trust is a bank of problems named “Problemo”.

  6. I believe that UKMT math competitions are somewhat similar to AMC, although I might be wrong. One of the commenters on this blog is a very knowledgeable UKMT person and can provide a lot of interesting about ‘State of Affairs’ on this side of the pond.
    Otherwise very interesting post and I think very similar to what is going here in the UK.
    (Also nice use of idish in the headline. My grandmother’s would have been proud and happy, Marty. )

    1. Youare licky to be dealing with “compliant Principal”. In my kid’ s school i managed to twist some arms for junior maths challange. AMC … one of the best in the world is ignored.
      I know that my former student, now in charge in a small school, is running it for his students.
      But it seems to me “the last kohort” is just sustaining it.
      For school teachers, if they did not have an inspirational teacher they will not carry on with it. Plus all new compliance requirements PDs , time for documenting everything happening at school… no time for frills like amc

      1. I don’t find PD requirements particularly onerous. In Victoria, teachers must do 20 hours/year. The only mandatory PD exercises can be done online; recently the Dept mandated 5 such units; each one took me about an hour, and I did them over a couple of days during the mid-year break; (total = 5 hours); in addition, our school mandated 4 whole-school, day-long, PDs spread over a year; each took 6 hours (total = 24 hours); and I did many other PD things as well; I document it all on the VIT portal (total > 50 hours/year).

        1. The DET mandated PD on-line modules (such as the spell-binding “Slips, Trips and Falls Prevention”) could be done so much faster until recently. There is now a built-in minimum time limit you are required to spend on each page before you can move to the next, and you have to click on all the ‘More information’ links. Prior to 2023, you could do each module in about 5 minutes – skip to the questions, use common sense, get the required score on the MCQ quiz and don’t waste time checking your inbox for the certificate.

          Despite DET forcing users to spend a minimum time on each module, 1 hour per module sounds too conscientious. And doing them over the midyear break is definitely too conscientious. Terry, you could sell some hours on Gumtree. I use school mandated day-long PD’s for marking (fantastic practical PD, I get to tick boxes like getting to know my students etc).

          The fact is that much of what teachers do outside of the classroom counts as PD. Meetings, assessment writing and proof reading, marking, lesson planning, reading blogs and making comments etc. Put it all in a diary.

    2. The competitions in the UK and Australia are similar; I use both in my lessons as well as problems from competitions in other countries; last week I used a past-paper from Aus, next week I will use one from UK.

      I emphasise that that purpose of the AMC is not to select champions – but some do emerge; after all, there are some pretty clever students participating! Every participant receives a certificate which can be used in your resume; potential employers *ought* to be impressed as will be your parents; at an assembly, the principal distributes certificates to students who did exceptionally well – a few minutes of fame for mathematics.

      The school pays the entry fee for each student.

  7. Anecdotal, but I’m a year twelve student at a ‘decent’ VIC public school this year. When I was in years 7/8, the AMC and other similar competitions were pushed heavily onto us, and we were distributed practice problems to do, which is probably the most prep that I could expect from an average public school.

    This year, I had no idea the AMC had even run yet until I saw this post. My teachers all know that I, and at least a few other students, would have taken interest in participating, but no one gave us the option. No one at the school made any announcement, and I doubt we even ran it this year.

    This is just symptomatic of the further gutting of mathematics education at my school, however. In recent years, the highest level of year ten maths – which is a de facto prerequisite for doing Specialist Maths at our school – was moved to an after school program, meaning that almost everyone who wanted to do spec would have to stay back after school just to do maths. All of my Specialist Maths peers and I agreed that there’s no way we would’ve voluntarily stayed back after school in year ten to do maths, because it’s hard to enjoy maths enough to use your time after school for it when your only experience of it is the dull curriculum of P-9.

    As a result, there aren’t enough students enrolling in Specialist Maths to run a class, so the few students that do are forced to enrol in VSV, which, as some friends have told me, is absolutely terrible. Consequently, there are even less students genuinely interested in any form of maths, and even less students willing to participate in competitions.

    I can’t speak for anywhere else, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of pattern is being seen in a lot of other public schools across the state and country.

    1. I would stay for after school cool maths. Esp if it was the only option. I did in my school years. It was sometimes Sunday morning . For a year or two.

        1. Saturdays were (shorter) school days those days.
          Some time ago I read “confessions” of a mathematician, nothing extraordinary was happening in his mathenatical life until equivalent of Aus y9, when his teacher noticed something, then the school principal sent him to a university town (2 hours each way) for Sunday session with maths academics, every fortnight. He admits that without it he would not have chosen maths path, and his credentials I would say are comparable with A Wiles.
          All because his teacher challanged? him , or at least noticed something
          Not offering programs like amc to students is a mathematics education crime

    2. At my school, the Extension Mathematics class (1/week) is on at the same time as one of their normal mathematics classes. The students to be extended come out of their normal class and take an extension lesson with me. The teachers from the normal lessons don’t mind – in fact they support the system.

    3. Sorry, Bugle, but it doesn’t sound like a ‘decent’ VIC public school to me. At least, not ‘decent’ when it comes to mathematics. Feel free to quote me on that.
      Ultimately it’s the fault of our dictators, not the school.

  8. Hi,

    For those who want to see how lucky some American High School students are?

    Check out the problem sets from Madison Wisconsin where all the high schools in the State get the opportunity to try out the graded talent search problem sets on this link set by the State University each year.

    Around fifty schools competed this year


    the questions get progressively more difficult over the year and are designed to make the students think rather than just press the CAS buttons eg

    Click to access Talent22-5q.pdf

    Steve R

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