Actions that have improved mathematical sciences in the USA and UK
The performance of students in both the UK and USA now surpasses that of Australian students in the TIMSS study. See Appendix 1.
The following are my perceptions on some of the actions that have helped the USA and UK to improve mathematics, especially in schools. I find the mathematicians in both countries rather circumspect about the gains but in both countries there have been gains. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Australia.
A common feature in both the UK and USA has been that the importance of mathematics has been 'talked up' by senior political figures and there has been acknowledgement of the need to improve national mathematical infrastructure. This rhetoric has been matched by mathematics specific reviews that have tended to influence subsequent action and be backed by real money. Australia has a history of reviewing school science and mathematics education, or science education and assuming it includes mathematics, and this has not served mathematics well.
More specific to the USA
- A notion that access to high-level mathematics (read 'algebra' in USA speak) is a civil rights issue. The work of Robert Moses is well known for example. To quote: The civil rights work in the 1960s culminated in the national response to protect a fundamental right: the right to vote. Our current work seeks a national response to establish a fundamental right: the right of every child to a quality public school education.
More recently The Carnegie Corporation calls for the USA to "...mobilize for excellence in mathematics and science education so that all students — not just a select few, or those fortunate enough to attend certain schools — achieve much higher levels of math and science learning."
- President Bush’s No child left behind initiative was a rather blunt instrument but did put a lot of pressure on all schools to improve mathematics education.
- A national mathematics panel was formed and reported last year. A feature of this panel was its composition—mathematicians, educators, teachers—ending the so called ‘math wars’ to a very great extent.
- In general, most of the US state authorities have been much more active in teacher accreditation and actions to address shortfalls. It is difficult to summarise this, and what incentives may have been offered to mathematics teachers, because of the state-based nature of these initiatives. At one stage California, for example, was paying teachers to attend summer programs. Budget problems have probably stopped this.
- There has been considerable discussion and federally funded projects looking at the mathematics content teachers need for junior, middle and senior years. There have been federally funded Summer Institutes and the very long summer break makes it much easier for US teachers to access extended programs to improve mathematical knowledge and teaching skills.
In summary, initiatives in the US have been diverse and connected to the various states. However, the states have been responding to very strong messages from successive presidents that mathematics was important both to students but also to the well-being of the nation. State initiatives have been complemented by federal initiatives and money.
More specific to the UK
The UK, being geographically so much smaller, is much more cohesive. Teacher education is controlled—curriculum, number of places to tertiary institutions etc.
A national curriculum was introduced in the late 1980s but had little effect on attainment until mathematics careers were talked up and teacher supply improved.
- Promoting mathematics—see, for example, More Maths Grads which was given serious government funding.
- There have been good monetary incentives for teachers. For example, from New incentives for maths and physics teachers:
By Liz Lightfoot, Education Correspondent Last Updated: 1:47AM BST 29 Jun 2004
Maths graduates are to be given yet more money to encourage them to become teachers, under a package of measures to raise standards in the subject.
They will get an extra £2,000 to train and start work as teachers on top of the £10,000 they already would receive for being qualified in one of several shortage areas.
There will be more money for the most highly-skilled maths teachers, who will earn a minimum of £40,000, and the cap will be lifted on their salaries.
See also: Clarke tackles maths crisis with pay rises
Appendix 2 is taken from the Cambridge web and summarises fees and incentives for
- Further initiatives have come following the Sainsbury Review of sciences and innovation. For example, new teachers will be taken from a wider pool of graduates, and offered retraining and financial incentives to teach the science subjects. To quote Children, schools and families secretary Ed Balls:
"To get top science students we need top teachers. We will also introduce accredited physics, chemistry and maths courses to retrain teachers to become specialists in these disciplines, beginning this month. I have agreed to pay supply cover to schools so that teachers can be released from the classroom and to ensure this year's courses are fully subscribed. Every teacher who completes the course will receive a financial incentive of £5,000."
- As a result of the earlier Smith Review, a National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics was established which 'aims to support and encourage mathematics-specific continuing professional development, for all teachers of mathematics across all phases.'
This centre has many similarities with the aims and objectives of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute’s ICE-EM (International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics) but with more stable funding.
- The Smith Review also recommended a national mathematics advisor. Prof. Celia Hoyles was Government Chief Adviser for Mathematics 2004-2007. She then became Director of the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics. The current advisor appears to be Sir Peter Williams of the Williams report.
Note that Prof. Hoyles will be in Australia early next year.
Both the USA and UK have directed resources specifically at mathematics in schools. Australia has made a considerable investment in promoting science but not necessarily equipped students with the mathematical skills and understanding to pursue careers in science and engineering.
A final comment on teacher supply
Australia graduates very large numbers of secondary science teachers who are largely biologists. There is a shortage of chemistry and physics teachers for the senior years.
The shortfall in mathematics is huge. The science teachers above are more than capable of teaching junior science well. However most of them are also expected to teach mathematics.
Thus there is a need to retrain some science teachers in physics and chemistry. However the need to retrain and generally improve the supply of mathematics teachers is probably on a scale ten times greater.
Ms Jan Thomas
25 June 2009
The full text (including appendices) is available via this link