John Elliott: Worries about New Zealand Students’ Maths and Reading

There has been plenty in the papers in recent weeks about New Zealand students falling in international rankings for reading and maths.

According to reports we are now near the bottom of OECD rankings.

A flurry of responses has been seen and a number of proposals have been aired to improve the situation.

In reading, much has centred around more or less teaching of phonics. Professors of maths at several New Zealand universities have proposed solutions and some have joined the chorus of complaints at how dire our standards are.

It has been suggested that in some primary schools some teachers just are not teaching maths at all.

Back in the 1970s when I was a young primary school teacher, I was seconded, for two years, to the Auckland Education Board as teacher recruitment officer. My job was mainly to visit every secondary school from Pukekohe to Kaitaia talking to senior students about their future career and encouraging them to consider going teaching.

I then sat on the selection committee which selected primary teaching students for Teacher’s College. Later, I completed my Masters degree with a thesis called ‘Improving Teacher Selection’. Just to complete my education involvement story, I chaired the Parliamentary Education Select Committee for four years in the late 70s. During these years I have had four sons through various Auckland schools.

I have been privileged to know some outstanding teachers, and to have worked with some of them. My boys all had a few very good teachers, but not every year of their school days. And, so, here is the huge elephant in the room. Not one commentator in recent weeks has mentioned teacher quality.

During those recruitment days in the 70s, teaching was just not able to attract its share of the most able school leavers. Parents, relatives, neighbours, even teachers of bright students would all say, “you can do better than that”, if a young person mentioned they might go teaching.

When he introduced me to the Principal of Kings College at morning tea on my visit there, the careers adviser who was hosting me said, “Headmaster, this is Mr Elliott. He’s bloody brave. He’s come to talk to our senior boys about teaching.”

No one stoned me out of their school, but it was clear that few of the most able would consider teaching.

During my master’s thesis, I conducted a small survey outside Auckland University library. I asked students which course they were doing. Not one I questioned was intending to teach. I then presented them with a list of prominent professions, including teaching, and asked them to rank the professions in order of their preference if, status, salary, conditions, and all other considerations were equal for each choice. My reason was to see if teaching would move up the list at all, and if the negative attitude in New Zealand generally towards teaching was amended and teacher status enhanced. To my amazement, teaching jumped to number one choice.

Times have not changed. Teaching still struggles for public approval, and teachers still struggle for community recognition of their important job. Everyone acknowledges that “children are our future”, but doesn’t rate the need for the very best of our school leavers to seek to teach.

There are countries that do a lot better than ours. Finland is one of those. All teachers in Finland are masters graduates, and only about one in ten applicants for teaching is successful, such is the popularity and status of the profession. Teaching is more highly regarded in Finnish society than other prestigious careers like architecture, medicine, dentistry, engineering and science research.

New Zealand teachers work extremely hard, and many, as I have already said, are doing an outstanding job preparing our next generation to cope with life and thrive. But we could do better if we, as a society, valued the education profession more highly, giving it the status in the community it richly deserves. Students’ reading and maths would surely benefit if some of those hotshots we have all known, took to teaching, to supplement an already hard working but under appreciated team.

Next month, I will report on how Ponsonby Intermediate and St Stephens Church are recovering from their devastating fires. (John Elliott)

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