Thursday, April 01, 2010

Repeating Myself

[This is a re-post/cross-post from another blog of mine.]

Who in their right mind would be a high school Maths teacher? I must be nuts.

I’m tempted to stop right there – what more needs to be said? But I’ll elaborate a little, just so the screen isn’t so empty (poignant though that might be).

You see, nobody really cares about what it is that I do as a Maths teacher. They think they do, but because they have no real understanding of what Mathematics is or why you would study it, they are quite wrong.

What’s prompted me to say this? Mainly the obscene politicising of education in this country. Education has always been a political football to some extent, but the stupidity has reached new lows under the Rudd government.

You see, what the politicians what, and what they’ve persuaded parent that they should want, and to some extent what school principals want, is not for students to learn about Mathematics. They want them to learn about arithmetic and numeracy.

Now, I’m sure that for most politicians, many parents and quite a few principals, the distinction between Mathematics and numeracy is lost on them. And therein lies the problem - decisions about education are being made by people who do not understand the distinction. I’m sure that much the same issue lies in other subject areas.

How can I state the above so confidently? Simply by considering the obvious: an Education Minister who would implement a website that compares schools based on the results of once-a-year tests, given to four of the thirteen year levels, in the areas of literacy and numeracy and virtually nothing else, and who defends such a move by claiming that parents want transparency, clearly knows nothing about education.

Is this to say that the NAPLAN tests don’t have a purpose? Of course not, but to use such data to encapsulate the “performance” of an entire school in a set of 20 numbers is absurd.

Politicians like to be seen to be doing something, and Education is an arena where it’s easy for them to rearrange the furniture and claim to have made progress. It’s long been so. But the Rudd government has taken matters to another level. They have firmly shifted the emphasis away from the notion of providing a comprehensive education to a scenario where the focus year-by-year will be on the NAPLAN results, particularly once funding becomes closely tied to those results. Principals and education departments will be under pressure to secure funding, which means teachers will be under pressure to secure results that will deliver that funding, which means the focus will be to teach to the test. And because the NAPLAN tests are about literacy and numeracy and little else, the curriculum will narrow over time, as principals and education departments in the main are not going to pour time and money into areas that won’t affect funding.

Now doesn’t that all work in the favour of my particular subject, Mathematics? No, not really. The problem is that the focus is on numeracy, not Mathematics. The pollies want the kiddies to be able to do their sums well – being able to do trigonometry, quadratic equations and matrix operations is irrelevant to them.

And it’s becoming just as irrelevant to the students themselves. More than ever, I am being confronted with students who not only come out with the age-old “when will I ever need this?”, but who are quite sure that if they ever actually do need it, they will be able to get what they need from the Web, whether through tutorials, discussion forums, online courses or some other way.

Add to that parents who struggled with Maths at school and who are subsequently dismissive of it, is it any wonder I feel that my vocation is becoming a bit pointless?

So I repeat: nobody really cares about what it is that I do as a Maths teacher. They care about students having arithmetic skills. They care about the NAPLAN results because they think it means something. They love the government’s “back to basics” mantra, because it means “back to something I think I can understand”.

But don’t ask for more than that.