Students’ decline in Maths & Science performance no surprise

Why am I not at all surprised to learn of our school students’ decline in Maths and Science performance?

I am a retired High School teacher, with over 40 years of experience, many as Head Teacher Mathematics, and I have witnessed the decline in teaching standards in the classroom over the past 20 years. Why? What are the problems and what are the solutions? Teacher remuneration. In order to attract our brightest HSC students into Maths and Science teaching, we need to offer pay rates commensurate with what is available outside. The State Government must take on the NSW Teachers’ Federation, which has blocked previous suggestions of different pay rates for teachers of different subjects. Maths and Science teachers must be paid at a higher rate.

Teacher training. The quality of graduates entering the teaching profession is generally below par. Some years ago, I was supervising a college practice teaching student who was clearly incompetent in Maths. When asked why he had taken up Maths teaching, he replied that “I didn’t get a high enough HSC score to get into PE (Physical Education) teaching.” While I was teaching in a casual capacity after retirement, I was asked to give a demonstration lesson to a Year 11 Maths class at a local high school. Their regular teacher was PE trained, and she was a long way out of her depth in Maths, despite her earnest endeavours. She had had no training whatsoever in the teaching of Mathematics.

One of my brothers was a Science Head Teacher at a high school south of Sydney, before his retirement. In the 10 years prior to his departure from teaching, he became bewildered by the number of incompetent teachers who were sent to his school to teach Science. He had the impossible task of trying to teach them how to deliver a lesson, as well as teaching them subject matter which they did not possess. If we are going to better utilise the time in the classroom to effectively teach Maths and Science, the teacher must have more control, the students need to be disciplined, and parents and their offspring need to value competence in these subjects. Just ask the many teachers who go on exchange in order to teach in overseas locations such as Singapore. There, students actually respect the teacher, listen to what is being taught and strive hard to achieve success. Compare this with our classrooms, where teachers have to contend with endless interruptions and lack of respect from both students and departmental decision makers.

Two years ago, I wrote a letter to the editor about the value of corporal punishment, which was an important tool in an effective learning environment. I taught both before and after the cane was banned, and I saw the effect on teacher morale. Teachers must be allowed to teach, without the endless distraction of badly behaving children, who are told, “don’t be naughty”. You can imagine what effect that has on classroom discipline. Political decisions are vital to change. I have mentioned teacher training, teacher remuneration and decisions which effect classroom teaching. Too much time is demanded of teachers to evaluate their teaching, to write copious comments on student progress, (what was so wrong with a percentage mark and position in class) and to attend in-service on irrelevant matters. Classroom teaching and improved results should be the number one priority.

Promotion in the teaching ranks used to be gauged by competent subject inspectors. In today’s world, you can accelerate your promotion by getting out of the classroom and undertaking training and development in such diverse topics as student welfare and the environment. The question: “How effective is your classroom teaching?” takes a much lower priority than how well you can sell yourself, backed up by the evidence of involvement in ‘mickey mouse’ courses outside the classroom. While the solutions to students’ poor performance in Maths and Science are varied, it would take radical change in the administration of the NSW Department of Education, and, most unfortunately, I do not anticipate that any state government has the courage to instigate effective reform.

Email, May 9 John Smyth, Ourimbah