Friday, 12 June 2015

The STEM sucking sound

A potted history - or at least one that needs testing to see if it's right:

The government messes up teaching of maths at primary, making things harder at secondary. Then, pushes to increase NCEA Level 2 completion rates lead kids away from harder subjects and into more basket-weaving unit standards: basically, a form of stat-juking. So fewer numerate grads show up at university doors.

Next, Minister Joyce wants to push Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Maths. So Universities get way more money for degree completions in STEM subjects than for degree completions in other disciplines that require numeracy: economics, for example, but also education (for maths teachers). This has staffing and course offering consequences at the Universities, which kill off less lucrative lines.

And now we have this.
Both the survey and figures from teacher training organisations show a serious shortage of teachers in maths and science. The head of one teaching programme has written to the Secretary of Education with her concerns. "I think we are heading towards a shortage of teachers," Dr Ngaire Hoben, the director of Secondary Teacher Education at Auckland University, told the Herald yesterday.
"There is no financial inducement to go teaching, yet there are plenty of jobs. It is a very serious issue."
In her letter, Dr Hoben pointed out the very low numbers of applicants to teach maths and physics, and suggested scholarships to attract more of those students to teaching.
Auckland University graduated just four physics teachers in 2014, and 39 maths teachers. AUT had no maths or physics teachers, with other universities also reporting low numbers in comparison with physical education (PE) or social science graduates.
Teach First NZ, a programme that aims to recruit high-flyers to teaching, said universities often wanted to keep maths or science graduates to do research, rather than encourage them to teach. Numbers completing those degrees were low to begin with.
Principals who responded to the PPTA survey, which involved 172 schools, agreed.
"Maths is hopeless," said one, noting they had PE graduates teaching maths - a finding consistent with the survey which said more teachers were being asked to go outside their specialties to make up for shortages.
Rangitoto College principal David Hodge said he hired a physics teacher from overseas, and then had to have an argument with Immigration to secure entry for him.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "You get 80 applications for one job [in PE] and then for science almost none."
Not all that surprising, if my potted history is right.

Things that need testing:

  • Has the proportion of numerate graduates actually declined? Testable out of NCEA data where you define a numeracy standard as having achieved well enough out of a set of maths courses.
  • Has the mix of numerate students across disciplines shifted in line with the hypothesis above? Also testable in the IDI by linking NCEA data with University data on majors.
  • Has the proportion of numerate graduating teachers dropped in the way we'd then expect? Also testable in the IDI.
My priors are the potted history above. I'll update when we get into the data lab. 

1 comment:

  1. I think a big part of the problem is the lack of subject-based incentive pay for teachers. If you have a PE degree then $50k/year to teach high school PE is probably quite attractive. If you have a degree with a strong maths component then $50k/year (or even $70k/year) isn't a lot of money, because your other choices are doctor, lawyer, engineer, CS, finance.

    I don't think there is a politically acceptable way to fix this problem.

    Rather than asking if the proportion of numerate graduates has declined I would be asking if the job opportunities for numerate graduates have changed disproportionately to the job opportunities for non-numerate graduates. If the answer is yes then no amount of emphasis on numeracy is going to help fix a maths and science teacher shortage.