A PISA Crap

The PISA results were released on Tuesday, and Australians having been losing their minds over them. Which is admirably consistent: the country has worked so hard at losing minds over the last 20+ years, it seems entirely reasonable to keep on going.

We’ve never paid much attention to PISA. We’ve always had the sense that the tests were tainted in a NAPLANesque manner, and in any case we can’t imagine the results would ever indicate anything about Australian maths education that isn’t already blindingly obvious. As Bob Dylan (almost) sang, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing.

And so it is with PISA 2018. Australia’s mathematical decline is undeniable, astonishing and entirely predictable. Indeed, for the NAPLANesque reasons suggested above, the decline in mathematics standards is probably significantly greater than is suggested by PISA. Greg Ashman raises the issue in this post.

So, how did this happen, and what are we to do? Unsurprisingly, there has been no reluctance from our glorious educational leaders to proffer warnings and solutions. AMSI, of course, is worrying their bone, whining for about the thirtieth time about unqualified teachers. The Lord of ACER thinks that Australia is focusing too much on “the basics”, at the expense of “deep understandings”. If only the dear Lord’s understanding was a little deeper.

Others suggest we should “focus systematically on student and teacher wellbeing“, whatever that means. Or, we should reduce teachers’ “audit anxiety“. Or, the problem is “teachers [tend] to focus on content rather than student learning“. Or, the problem is a “behaviour crisis“. Or, we should have “increased scrutiny of university education degrees” and “support [students’] schooling at home”. And, we could introduce “master teachers”. But apparently “more testing is not the answer“. In any case, “The time for talk is over“, according to a speech by Minister Tehan.

Some of these suggestions are, of course, simply ludicrous. Others, and others we haven’t mentioned, have at least a kernel of truth, and a couple we can strongly endorse.

No institution we can see, however, no person we have read, seems ready to face up to the systemic corruption, to see the PISA results in the light of the fundamental perversion of mathematics education in Australia. Not a word we could see questioning the role of calculators and the fetishisation of their progeny. Not a note of doubt about the effect of computers. Not a single suggestion that STEM may not be an antidote but, rather, a poison. Barely a word on the “inquiry” swampland that most primary schools have become. And, barely a word on the loss of discipline, on the valuable and essential meanings of that word. What possible hope is there, then, for meaningful change?

We await PISA 2021 with unbated breath.

AMSI’s Brain Teaser

Last week, AMSI released yet another paper on the issue of school mathematics being taught by “out of discipline” teachers. It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that we have many issues with AMSI’s paper. Here, we’ll focus on just one aspect.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s report on AMSI’s paper begins:

Fewer than one in four Australian high school students have a qualified maths teacher …

That statement is, of course, utter nonsense. By any reasonable definition, a much higher percentage of secondary students are taught by formally “qualified” teachers. It is concerning that an “education reporter” would lead with such an implausible claim, but SMH was not alone. The news.com.au report was titled:

Only 1 in 4 high-schoolers are being taught maths by qualified teachers

The Australian’s barely comprehensible sentence, courtesy of another education reporter, appeared to suggest that matters are even worse:

Fewer than one in four students are taught by a qualified maths teacher — one with at least a university minor in the subject — at some stage between Years 7 to 10.

So, what is the source of all these inflated declarations of educational doom? It would appear to be on page 2 of AMSI’s paper. In the first of the paper’s eye-catching Key Points, the authors write:

The extent of the problem [with the supply of qualified teachers] is illustrated by the estimated amount of out‐of‐field teaching occurring with less than one in four students having a qualified mathematics teacher in each of Years 7 to 10.

That reminds us: we must buy AMSI a box of commas for Christmas.

The above sentence, which turned out to be the grabber of AMSI’s paper, is like an optical illusion: you think you’ve got the meaning, and then it slips around to mean something entirely different. It is no wonder if reporters misinterpreted.

What did the AMSI authors intend to convey, and on what basis? It is difficult to tell. A linked endnote in AMSI’s paper refers to a 2017 AMSI publication. The page reference to this second document is clearly incorrect, but it appears that the intention is to refer to page 4, which has its own list of key points, including:

At least 26% of Years 7–10 maths teachers are not fully qualified.

This is an admirably clear statement and, if true, one may (or may not) regard it as a relatively major problem. The statement, however, is not remotely supportive of the educational catastrophe that AMSI’s garbled 2019 statement led gullible reporters to declare.

Also puzzling, it is not clear how AMSI’s 2017 statement, or any other AMSI declaration that we could find, leads reasonably to any natural interpretation of AMSI’s 2019 statement. This is the case even if one ignores that “not fully qualified” does not clearly equate to “not qualified”, and that 26% of teachers does not equate to 26% of classes, nor to 26% of students. Even with the most liberal assumptions and generous interpretations, we still cannot determine the basis, any basis, for the 2019 statement. The reader is invited to give it a go.

There are plenty more serious issues with AMSI’s paper which, though raising some very important issues and suggestions, also connects some distant and very disputable dots. It probably doesn’t matter, however. We worked hard to read AMSI’s clumsily written paper. It seems unlikely that many others will do likewise.

AMSI to the Rescue

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute has just released its Report on Australian Year 12 students’ participation in mathematics from 2008 to 2017. The Report indicates, of course, that the percentage of girls doing a “higher level” maths subject is lower than the percentage of boys. (One headline trumpets that “Less girls are studying maths than boys”, proving only that fewer journalists are studying grammar.) More generally, the overall participation in higher level maths is reportedly the lowest for 20 years.

Gee.

Who would have thought that a boring and aimless curriculum, and lousy texts, and the crappy training of teachers by clowns who have in turn had crappy training, and the belittling of Mathematics by the S and the T and the E of STEM, and the faddish genuflection to technical gods, and decades of just plain dumbing down would have pissed off so many students?

AMSI’s Report of the bleeding obvious doesn’t consider the causes of the decline in participation. Fair enough. The Report is seriously flawed, however, in failing to note that the meaning of “higher level mathematics” is not a constant. The “higher level mathematics” of 2017 is significantly lower than that of 1997, which is lower again than that of 1977. The problem is much, much worse than AMSI’s Report suggests.

AMSI is not just reporting on the decline in participation, they are supposedly working to fix it. AMSI’s new director, Tim Brown, has been out and about, discussing the Report. Professor Brown is reported as saying that the reasons for the decline are “varied”, but of these varied reasons, he appears to have indicated just two to the media; first, “a shortage in qualified maths teachers”; second, “teaching from the textbook” rather than “active learning”.

Really? With all those plump targets, AMSI chooses these two? Yes, the lack of qualified teachers is a problem, and a problem AMSI apparently enjoys talking about. And yes, the current textbooks are appalling. But such low-fruit targets are not the substantive problem, and false fixes of second order issues will do little or nothing to improve matters. The real issue is one of systemic cultural decline.

We believe Professor Brown knows this. The question is, will Professor Brown drag AMSI, finally, into waging the genuine, important fights that need to be fought?