23 May 2024

New teachers fail to make the grade on maths and science knowledge - study

9:22 am on 23 May 2024
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The study found 58 percent of new primary school teachers fell short at level 1 science. File photo. Photo: 123RF

Large numbers of recently-appointed primary teachers lack the most basic school qualifications in science and maths, new research shows.

The Institute of Economic Research says the results of its study - which analysed the school qualifications of primary teachers who started work between 2017 and 2022 - are alarming.

It found a quarter attempted one or more NCEA level 1 maths standards, but did not get the 14 credits required for an endorsement, the benchmark required to "pass" a subject.

It said 58 percent fell short at level 1 science, while 14 percent of those studying level 1 English did not get 14 credits.

"In maths, an average of 25 percent of new teachers employed between 2017 and 2022 had failed to gain an Achieved level endorsement at Level 1. This means, on average, a quarter of all new primary school teachers who attempted could not pass at a basic level, the compulsory maths required of 15-year-olds in New Zealand," the report said.

"If that result is concerning, then the science results are alarming indeed: people who were new primary school teachers between 2017 and 2022 had failure rates in Level 1 science, averaging 58 percent. That is, most new primary school teachers who attempted failed to pass at a basic level the compulsory science required of 15-year-olds."

The institute said level 1 was a "low standard that most New Zealanders would want to know primary school teachers have reached".

The institute's deputy chief executive Sarah Hogan told RNZ that teachers needed to know a subject well in order to teach it effectively.

"If there's really only a very basic knowledge of maths and science, teachers will be very limited in what they're able to offer children.

"But we also know that if they have only a very basic knowledge they tend to have quite low confidence and a lot of previous research has shown this and so they might avoid certain areas of the maths and science curriculum that they find more challenging," she said.

A long-brewing issue

Hogan said it was likely a similar problem affected earlier cohorts of teachers, because earlier research had found problems with teachers' maths and science knowledge.

"There's research from 20 years ago showing that new teachers had low level of ability in maths and low confidence," she said.

Hogan said the government was on the right track tightening the curriculum, so that it was clear to teachers what they must teach.

But she said they would still need a lot of support.

"Teachers shouldn't be pulling their hair out trying to design lesson plans, trying to design resources for kids to use in school. That kind of stuff should be standardised so every teacher up and down the country has access to really quality resources and really good support," she said.

Hogan said the institute also recommended schools copy the health sector and move to a model where specialists did the work that generalists could not.

She said expert maths and science teachers could help the pupils who needed it most, support less-confident teachers, or take over responsibility for teaching the subjects in their school especially at higher levels.

Qualifications Authority statistics indicated the percentage of teachers who did not have an NCEA level 1 maths endorsement was similar to that of the general population.

They showed that 81 percent of students attempting level 1 standards in 2014 attempted maths standards. Of that group 79 percent attempted to get 14 or more credits in maths - the number required to receive an endorsement in the subject - and about 75 percent received at least an achieved endorsement in the subject.

Bigger gaps at level 2

Meanwhile, the Institute of Economic Research report said the gaps were even bigger at NCEA level 2.

"Focusing only on those who continued to engage with these subjects at Level 2, the percentages of students who failed at this level to gain an Achieved level endorsement rises for both English and maths, with around 30 percent failing to achieve Level 2 English and over half failing to achieve Level 2 maths."

"Overall, our results suggest the recent cohort of primary teachers arrived at ITE [initial teacher education] with significant knowledge gaps in maths and science. The high rates of disengagement with maths and science may indicate not only a lack of knowledge and skills but a lack of interest in these subjects or a fixed mindset (a belief that it is not possible to master the subject due to inherent shortcomings, i.e. the belief that being bad a maths runs in the family).

"Additionally, the high failure rate, not only when subjects are compulsory but after they become optional, is indicative of many students entering ITE having had negative experiences that may result in anxiety related to teaching maths and science."

The study found some primary teachers performed very well in maths, English or science.

It said nearly a quarter of the study cohort had either merit or excellence endorsements in level 1 English, nearly a one-in-five had endorsements in maths and one in 10 in science at level 1.

"Out of those who continue to engage with English, maths and science, over 10 percent achieved a merit or excellence endorsement in English and/or maths at Level 3. However, very few made an attempt at this level," it said.

The institute conducted the study as part of its self-funded public good programme.

Educators react

Auckland Primary Principals' Association president Kyle Brewerton said he was surprised at the level of non-achievement amongst teachers and it came as a bit of a shock.

But it stood to reason when reading a recent Education Review Office report where a quarter of teachers said they were not confident in their teaching.

In the primary school sector, Brewerton said it depended on what year level a teacher was teaching for if their knowledge of maths mattered.

In junior years where they are teaching more simple maths, it potentially did not, he said, but in higher years where early algebra and calculus may be taught, it did.

But he did question the knowledge of some people being allowed into the teaching profession.

He said if a potential teacher had not passed certain subjects, they should be required by the training providers to do further work to be at a suitable level before starting a teaching degree.

"There is definitely the odd case you need to question why they are there."

Auckland University's dean of education Professor Mark Barrow said people needed to have met University Entrance requirements to get into the teacher education programme.

This required 10 credits at level 1 maths, and there were plans to increase the requirements overtime.

Barrow said the training provider also required potential teachers to get a "decent" grade on a literacy and numeracy test it put before them.

He said primary school teachers do a great job at teaching a general range of subjects but he agreed with the report in that specialist teachers in subjects like maths should be invested in in primary schools.

They would be able to support other teachers who did not have the same strengths in certain subjects.

"Its investment we need to turn this problem around," Barrow said.

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